Director, Commonwealth Policy Center

As the world gets ready to watch the summer Olympics in Rio, one country’s path to the games has become controversial. Russia faces a possible ban from this year’s Olympics after a World Anti-Doping Agency report found evidence of a state-sponsored performance-enhancing drugs (PED) program. The Agency recommended to the International Olympic Committee that Russia be barred entirely from competition in the games, a move that would be, if followed, historic.

Cheating scandals attract intense public interest, not least because competitive sports have become one of the few remaining sacred institutions of Western culture.  Cheating in sports likewise has become one of the few remaining points of moral agreement in our country; everyone agrees that athletes must not cheat, and that if they do, they must be punished.  Not only that, but many of us expect athletes and coaches to be higher moral exemplars than average people. When Rick Pitino and the UofL basketball team were implicated in a scandal involving prostitutes, nearly every sports fan in Kentucky expressed disappointment and embarrassment.

The idea that our favorite sports are populated by people trying to gain an unfair edge is an intolerable idea to many of us. Desire for fairness is, after all, a species of our human desire for justice. Playing fairly matters because we believe that cheating—and especially getting away with it—is a crime against justice. An unjust system, whether that is a sport, a courtroom, or an economy, is an offense against our consciences.

While it may be tempting to dismiss cheating in sports as a less important moral failure, we shouldn’t look at it that way. Russia’s state-sponsored doping program is more than “gaining an advantage.” It’s a systematic effort to lie—to the Olympics committee, to the other nations, and to their own country. Can a government that wants to deceive so many nations in matters of sports be trusted when it comes to other issues—like human rights abuses or foreign policy? Sports may not be as immediately important as those other issues, but then again, sports isn’t really the issue here: Character is. And character concerns much more than sports.

This is a lesson we should take into our homes, our churches, our schools, and our voting booths. Character matters. If we find someone willing to lie about games, we have almost certainly found someone willing to lie about other things. “Cheaters never prosper,” many of us heard as children. That may not always be immediately true, but one thing is: Cheaters always matter.