Home > Essays > A West Point Mystery: Why Are Those Caught Cheating on Athletic Teams? Is There “Something about the Culture of Athletics that is at Odds with the Academy’s Mission with Regard to Honor”?

A West Point Mystery: Why Are Those Caught Cheating on Athletic Teams? Is There “Something about the Culture of Athletics that is at Odds with the Academy’s Mission with Regard to Honor”?

April 22, 2021

Last week the NYTimes featured an article by Ed Shanahan described West Point’s decision to abandon its recently adopted policy of offering a second chance to students who were caught cheating on examinations, a decision that pleased a majority of alumni. The decision came on the heels of a major cheating scandal at the school involving 73 students, 51 of whom will be allowed to return and complete their program after repeating a year. The reason for the decision to abandon the second chance? A press release indicated:

….the program had “not met its intended purpose” of increasing the self-reporting of honor code violations and reducing cadets’ tolerance for them. As a result, the statement said, being expelled will now be “a potential punishment for any honor violation.”

…Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams, the academy’s superintendent since July 2018, personally decided the punishment of each of the cadets involved in the scandal, officials said.

“The tenets of honorable living remain immutable, and the outcomes of our leader development system remain the same, to graduate Army officers that live honorably, lead honorably and demonstrate excellence,” General Williams said in a statement. “West Point must be the gold standard for developing Army officers. We demand nothing less than impeccable character from our graduates.”

After reading about the how police officers unite behind their brethren when one of them mistakes a loaded gun for a taser, shoots an unarmed civilian, or needlessly pins suspect in a non-felony offense until they can no longer breathe, it is heartening to see the military standing behind a gold standard that relies on reporting any cheating witnessed by a classmate. It would be good to see the same kind of ethical standard adopted by Police academies, graduate schools of business, and even high schools. Over my career of 45+ years working in and with public schools I’ve read countless articles about the need to prepare students for the world of work and the rigors of college, but far too few articles about the need for students to “...live honorably, lead honorably and demonstrate excellence“.  

Mr. Shanahan’s article, in addition to underscoring West Point’s intention to live up to this standard and describing the history of that college’s honor code also shared an interesting data point on the cheating scandals past and present. The majority of those caught were on athletic teams!

At West Point, all but one of the cadets caught up in the latest scandal were plebes, or in their first year; 52 were athletes who represented 10 different teams, officials said.

Tim Bakken, a professor of law at West Point, said the involvement of so many athletes in a cheating scandal was a recurring theme at the academy and he called for greater scrutiny of the issue and more transparency on the part of the institution’s leaders.

We have to ask the question of whether there is something about the culture of athletics that is at odds with the academy’s mission with regard to honor,” he said, adding that he was in favor of second chances and hoped that “West Point discloses more about what happened here.”

So… is there something about the culture of athletics that is at odds with the academy’s mission with regard to honor? Certainly at the professional level there have been concerns about honor. The student-athletes at West Point were born during the steroid era in baseball and, to a less publicized degree, in other sports. They’ve read about the doping scandals in bike racing. They recently witnessed allegations of sign stealing in the World Series and the subsequent suspension of managers who were involved in that activity. They’ve heard repeated questions about the New England Patriots’ coaching staff’s desire to get an edge by spying on the opposition’s practices and deflating footballs. In athletics, the credo has long been “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”.  This emphasis on winning at all costs is clearly at odds with ““...living honorably, leading honorably and demonstrating excellence“.  

How to fix this, though, is the question. It doesn’t seem possible to operate a school designed to train military leaders at the college level without having sports teams that are capable of competing at the highest levels. If West Point took the same approach to athletics as, say, Evergreen State College, Hampshire, or Antioch would they be able to recruit candidates with the same fitness levels as they do now? If West Point competed at the Division III level would their applicant pool be diminished?

There are Division One coaches and professional managers and coaches who mesh the standards of honor and athletics…. but the rarity of such coaches only underscores the incompatibility of athletics and honor. John Wooden managed to win a series of basketball titles in the 1960s and 1970s. Rip Engle was a winning coach at Penn State without experiencing any of the scandals visited upon his successor. Walt Alston managed the Brooklyn-LA Dodgers for decades without encountering any scandals and winning Manager of the Year six times.  I will let sports fans who also read this blog to create their own list of coaches and managers whose ethics are questionable.

As long as “winning is everything” and “the one with the most toys wins” are the governing ethos of sports and the economy, expect to see cheating persist. When schools embrace honor systems predicated on the need to “...live honorably, lead honorably and demonstrate excellence” we might see a change in our thinking as a culture.

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