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What it Takes to Be on Top: The Prisoner’s Dilemma of Athletics

http://www.forbes.com/sites/sportsmoney/2011/06/26/cheating-in-college-athletics-and-the-prisoners-dilemma/

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303936704576400052122863390.html-referenced in first piece

Every Saturday during the fall millions of avid football fans turn on their televisions to watch their favorite college athletes go head to head. Unfortunately, recently the biggest news surrounding college athletics is not only about the team rivalries or the nail-biting fourth-quarter comebacks, but also about the cheating scandals that have rocked many big sport schools. According to the NCAA only 14% of schools with major athletic departments have not been found guilty of some sort of violation in the past 60 years.  This problem of cheating is rampant amongst professional athletes as well, with an estimated 50% of Major League Baseball players having used performance-enhancing drugs in at least one period in their career. Over the past few years many star athletes such as Marion Jones and Barry Bonds have admitted to doing steroids, and even more , such as Lance Armstrong, have been accused.

The problem surrounding cheating in athletics can be explained by the principle of the prisoner’s dilemma, where two individuals (or teams of individuals),  acting in their own best interest, are drawn to make a decision that does not necessarily result in the best outcome for either party. This particular articles discusses athletes at the college-and professional- level who are rewarded with scholarship, money, endorsement deals, and fame, but under one condition: they continue to perform at (and above) the highest level of competition. The same goes for the stars’ coaches, trainers, and even teammates. The pressure this has produced combined with the naturally competitive personalities of star athletes has led to a widespread epidemic of performance-enhancing drug use and other methods of cheating. Due to this phenomenon many athletes are in a position where if they do not cheat as well they run the risk of being at a competitive disadvantage. Let’s say athlete A is deciding whether or not to cheat. If athlete B, the star quarterback on A’s rival team, is cheating, then A will be at a disadvantage if he does not do the same. If athlete B is not cheating then by cheating A will be giving himself an advantage, possibly gaining a higher draft pick or a better endorsement deal than B. It is impossible for A to know what choice B makes, but he can see that regardless of B’s decision, cheating will put him in the best position.

The big question is how school regulators can eliminate this prisoner’s dilemma. The article argues that the way the college athletic system is set up, with such high incentives to cheat, athletes are driven to cheat in order to stay in the game. The article suggests one possible solution is to instate widespread crackdowns in the hope that this will discourage athletes from cheating. If player A knew without a doubt that he was going to be caught if he chose to cheat then cheating would no longer be the dominant strategy for him. Another solution the article suggests is to create a system that will incentivize the college athletes to graduate by not allowing them access to royalty fees until they successfully finish their college careers. If player A knew he was going to be rewarded for getting through college without getting caught for cheating it would raise his payoff for not cheating and potentially change his decision. Whatever the solution, it needs to be implemented soon because, as the article concludes, “the guiding principles of the Prisoner’s Dilemma dictate that missteps and misdeeds will abound” in the world of college sports.

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