Should football players cheat to get ahead?

Mr John P. Mills

Posted: August 1, 2014

As we head towards the new football season, many professional footballers, especially English ones, will be faced with a dilemma: to dive or not to dive?

Below is a posting from John P. Mills who, in the aftermath of England’s World Cup debacle, ruminated on whether English players should stop staying on their feet and start falling over.

Here are John’s thoughts on the matter.

Gamesmanship: Should England Resort to it? In the aftermath of England’s capitulation to Luis Suarez and chums, I noticed a number of individuals suggesting that England were “too nice” and that the players should have tried harder to get Uruguay’s captain, Diego Godin, sent off for his challenge on Daniel Sturridge. This prompted the following question: Does integrity matter in sport? The short answer is yes; it matters a lot, but perhaps not for the most obvious of reasons.

Whether some athletes like it or not, representing England, at any level, comes with a great deal of responsibility. Such responsibility doesn’t just require the players to give their best to win, but also to do so in the ‘right’ way, however, few really know why. According to Bandura’s (1986, 1997) Social Cognitive Theory, symbolic modelling can influence the moral judgments of others by portraying what is acceptable and suitable moral action. In other words, the behaviour of role models can influence how others view moral issues. Obviously the personal values of individuals are not solely based on the actions of sports people (Bandura, 1991), however, such actions can be an influence, especially if the role model is idolised.

Once individuals begin cognitively restructure what they consider appropriate behaviour, a slippery slope of decision making can result in gradual increases in unethical conduct (Bandura, 2002). Such actions usually take on the form of one or more of the following six moral disengagement processes: (1) advantageous comparisons (e.g., “well at least our actions weren’t as bad as what our opponents would do”), (2) justifications that attribute blame to victims (e.g., “they were asking for it”), (3) diffusion of responsibility (e.g., we wouldn’t have to coerce the ref if they made better decisions”), (4) dehumanising victims (e.g., ”our opponents are animals”), (5) choosing not to recognise the extent of harm (e.g., “it is only a game”), (6) and using sanitising language or euphemisms (e.g., ”taking a dive” in other words ”cheating”). Any of these strategies help the individual to lessen the perceived impact of their actions in order to protect their moral self-concept.

Perhaps the England team is destined to play the role of dignified loser, but we as a nation need to be careful what we wish for. Do we want a team of hand-balling (Uruguay vs. Ghana 2010 World Cup), diving (too many to list), ear-chewing/shoulder biting (Liverpool vs. Chelsea 2013; Ajax vs. PSV 2010) cheats? Yes, cheating may win a game, but no team of talentless individuals has ever won the World Cup, simply by cheating their way through the whole tournament. Unfortunately, the ability of the players and/or management was not quite right at this tournament, but I for one will back the players for playing the game in the ‘right’ way.

About John P. Mills

John P. Mills is Ph.D. Fellow in Leadership and Performance Psychology Durham University, School of Applied Social Sciences. John tweets via @JohnP_Mills