Why We Shouldn’t Call Our Athletes “Cheaters” When They Get DQ’ed

When American swimmer Cody Miller was called for multiple dolphin kicks on the breaststroke leg of the American mixed medley relay at the Pan American Games last week, a wave of frustration erupted in cries of “cheater” for the Olympic medalist, especially given that this is not the first time that he has been called for the same infraction.

When reading those calls, I too became frustrated: not because of the DQ, but because of how obtuse the word “cheater” felt. It just didn’t make sense to me. If Lebron James fouls his opponents 6 times in a game, he is disqualified from further competition in that game, but I don’t think we’d label him a “cheater.”

Of course, it would be sanctimonious of me, given the position I sit in and the work I do, to say that elite athletes should be free from criticism. People don’t passionately follow sports only for the highs, they follow sports for the emotional roller coaster of the highs and the lows. The Cubs’ World Series win was the sweetest because of the 108 years of disappointment that came before. More-and-more athletes are understanding this and accepting it. While I still hear from some athletes (and their coaches and parents) who believe that they should be beyond reproach, most that I speak to ‘get it,’ and know that it comes with the territory if they want the sport to be commercially successful. Ultimately, while the negative reviews echo the longest, they are still a very small minority relative to the positive accolades and adulation that our elite swimmers receive.

So, I’m not here to tell anybody that they can’t be critical of athletes, or that what athletes do when they’re disqualified isn’t “cheating.” I don’t think that would do well to convince anyone anyway. Instead, I’ll share some thoughts that I posted on a thread about Miller’s DQ on a popular Facebook group for swim coaches, with some edits for clarity and venue. I hope that this alternative approach to ‘why we shouldn’t call Cody Miller a cheater’ will be more persuasive.

It’s this trend toward ‘labels’ and away from ‘stories’ and ‘facts.’ So and so is a “doper,” so and so is a “cheater,” so and so is “bad,” so and so is “a great guy,” so and so is a “hero.”

We’re all in such a hurry to sum up the totality of an individual in one word, one asterisk, one label, that we lose the nuance and complexity of humanity. Humans are complex, and we love that complexity – we see this in all of our favorite television shows like Game of Thrones, where characters oscillate between sympathetic and dastardly.

I just don’t know why we have to rush to put these one-word labels on people. I mean, I guess I know why people do it, because it’s easier to rally the masses behind one angry word than to try and describe to them a story. There’s so much information available these days, it takes a lot of work to really unpack full narratives, and intellectually can be easier to just pounce upon a word.

But I just think it’s counterproductive and takes a lot of the interest out of the story, out of the sport. To me, this is what it boils down to. You can think Cody Miller is a “cheater,” you can think Sun Yang is a “cheater,” you can think that Cameron van der Burgh is a “cheater,” you can think Michael Phelps is a “champion” or the “GOAT,” but to me, that thought, that exclamation that analysis really isn’t that interesting. In fact, it’s a rather boring narrative. If we’re going to stick our fingers in our ears boil all of our athletes down to 1 word, then nobody is going to care anymore. Everyone’s going to get bored.

Look at this from a different perspective, as a coach of just…regular… swimmers. If your athlete has a bad season, are they a “failure”? If they had a good season, are they a “success”? Or is the athlete who had a bad season a teenager who maybe was going through some stuff at home, missed too many practices, didn’t work hard enough when they were there, which resulted in bad times, and now has a decision to make about what their goals are in the sport and whether they’re willing to do the things they need to do to achieve those goals? Is your swimmer who won just “a success”? Or are they a swimmer who worked hard all season, combined that with great physical gifts, worked hard at practices, stayed late a few times to perfect that new start, took a risk on tweaking their turn 3 weeks before the big meet, fixed their head position, and that resulted in a huge time drop and a big medal at the big meet?

If we all focus more on the story and less on the label and we’ll all be less frustrated in general. We’ll all be less divisive, and less divided. We all have our story, an encyclopedia of experiences that make who we are, we all have skeletons and we all have moments to celebrate. Let’s be, and let our athletes be, all of those moments, not just one of them.

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Marklewis
2 years ago

The issue with the dolphin kicks and breaststroke is that it’s assumed that doing them will result in a faster swim. There are very specific rules about what is allowed.

If done on purpose, breaking the rules to gain an advantage on your fellow competitors is the definition of “cheating.” If not done on purpose, then it can be viewed as a “mistake.”

Wondering
Reply to  Marklewis
2 years ago

And he’s been doing it for years. Not like he slipped up and made a solitary mistake. It is how he practices and intentionally performs his technique

Ecoach
Reply to  Wondering
2 years ago

Anyone who swam NCAA’S in the late 70’s early 80’s used a dolphin kick in breaststroke. Definitely illegal but nobody was caught just like going 35 in 30 no punishment then you just keep on doing it. Not justifying just saying Cody isn’t alone. He may be alone in being singled out for it the way he has been however.

Matt McDonald
Reply to  Ecoach
2 years ago

Swam in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Never used the dolphin kick on the start or turns. Now, let’s talk about anticipation of the start when you got one false start….

Reply to  Marklewis
2 years ago

Counterpoint, which I think is another variation on Braden’s LeBron argument: some NFL cornerbacks play very physical coverage on wide receivers. They know they’ll occasionally take some penalties, but also know that NFL officials allow some level of incidental contact and minor pushing. The Seattle Seahawks and their ‘Legion of Boom’ was pretty much built on playing in that gray area, and the principle that the advantage gained is worth the occasional penalty. No one considers them “cheaters.” NBA players routinely get a little leeway with an extra half step or so under the basket without a traveling call. Do we call them “cheaters” for taking advantage of how referees consistently call games? If an MLB catcher frames a pitch,… Read more »

Nate
Reply to  Jared Anderson
2 years ago

There IS grey area though, the exact same kind as in the NFL. Certain contact to a receiver is illegal, but is done because it isn’t caught. The grey area isn’t a legit debatable area based around technique, more an area where refs don’t have the ability to see and call a penalty consistently. That is EXACTLY the same as the dolphin kick rule, where many do it, but few are called. Whether that is right or wrong, you can judge for yourself.

Michael Schwartz
Reply to  Nate
2 years ago

In your analysis, everything is legal as long as you don’t get caught. I have no doubt (though no evidence) that there are NFL players who are doping in one form or another. Is this a “grey area” in your book because not all of them are caught? The fact that not all eyes can be everywhere to observe all possible infractions at all seconds of every race, match, game, or competition does not take away from what is considered cheating based on the rules of that particular event. If a rule says “don’t do X” and you opt to do “X” to obtain an advantage over your opponent then by definition you are cheating. Whether you are caught or… Read more »

Nate
Reply to  Michael Schwartz
2 years ago

There is no analysis here though… It is about labeling, and how we are being inconsistent with this label. The parallel was one that I didn’t draw (football, seahawks) but we can’t use “grey area” as a defense for one rule being broken but ignore it on the other.

In your speeding analogy, sure, those people ARE speeding. The relevant question is if we all label them criminals. I personally wouldn’t, but again, you’re allowed to feel differently.

Reply to  Jared Anderson
2 years ago

> there is no grey area when it comes to dolphin kicks because that is categorically stated in the rules for breaststroke about their use.

That speaks exactly to my point. NFL rules categorically outlaw contact by a CB more than five yards downfield. NBA rules categorically outlaw traveling, or taking extra steps without dribbling. But there are gray areas in the enforcement of these rules, often limited by what referees are able to see at full speed and how often they’re willing to call violations. I’m not saying any of those actions are legal by any means. But the way enforcement is set up encourages and incentivizes athletes to compete on the edge of legality, and I don’t believe… Read more »

Swammer from Wakanda
Reply to  Jared Anderson
2 years ago

The rule of a dolphin kick is there must not be any downward movement of the legs resulting in propultion. This means an upward movement of the legs does not count as a dolphin kick therefore no rule broken. This is not always interpreted by every official the same way because some view that upkick as an illegal kick while others do not.

Marklewis
Reply to  Swammer from Wakanda
2 years ago

That’s an important point because the officials must correctly know what the rules are if they are going to DQ someone and nullify the results of their race.

Swimcerely
Reply to  Swammer from Wakanda
2 years ago

I’d talked to officials about their judgement calls for sculling ever so slightly in breast, and the upward dolphin. Both in their words not being a dq as the action wasn’t ‘propulsive.’ My retort re the sculling : Y’all have clearly never cheated on a board less kick set.

I think the right answer is either to cede that 2 kicks is OK, and change the rule. Or inforce the rule. If the latter, we’ll need under water cameras as I can confirm there’s zero chance you can call that fairly across all lanes.

Maverick
Reply to  Jared Anderson
2 years ago

I am not sure why we are comparing this to other sports. What Cody Miller has been DQ’d for and is known for… is dolphin kicks. He’s been doing it for years and years… Which means he consciously trains for it for years and years. While knowing its against the rules. That is the definition of cheating.

I would not be upset if this was his first or heck even second time. But he is on the international stage representing the USA which very few have the opportunity to do so. Wear it with honor. He continues to disregard the rules.

100% Agree with Peaty Potato below.

Brent Creager
Reply to  Jared Anderson
2 years ago

Lots of pitchers in baseball doctor balls to get it to perform a certain way. Some get caught some don’t, is a pitcher that doctors the ball regularly considered a cheater.

Many hitters use corked bats to get an advantage, when they get caught are they labeled cheaters?

Some cyclists/triathletes have been caught using small motors in their bikes to gain a competitive advantage

There are lots of grey areas to be sure, but this is not a grey area. It is 100% against the rule to double dolphin kick, to doctor the ball, to use corked bats, to play football with a less inflated ball, etc…

So while I do believe because of that and because Miller has been… Read more »

Maverick
Reply to  Brent Creager
2 years ago

Brent, If he had been called for it in his Bronze performance… which he should have been. He would not be a bronze medalist. and if he had DQ’d the relay in prelims with it he wouldn’t have either.

Think of it like if he’s consciously cheating… and does it in prelims of a relay, he costs many others the opportunity to medal which sometimes is their ONLY OPPORTUNITY to be an olympic medalist.

Take Tyler McGill for example if someone had done this and robbed him of his Olympic medal hopes.

Spectatorn
Reply to  Jared Anderson
2 years ago

I guess it is also not so much of grey area but the frequency of that being called out by referees. I assume it is very difficult for a referee to see from a relatively horizontal angle above water to see the multiple dolphin kicks (unless the feet break surface), and video review is not yet a thing in swimming. Thus it is rarely called and most swimmers or coaches just “see” it as taking advantage of grey area.

If I am following this argument, then the coach and swimmer should understand the consequence and be ready for it. I am not a football or other major league /ball game follower, but i assume if a player take a… Read more »

Awsi Dooger
Reply to  Jared Anderson
2 years ago

I’m late to this thread but the Seahawks coverage technique during their glory years was exactly the comparison I was going to make, after reading the OP. It is the ideal comparison to Cody Miller, IMO: Just keep doing it under the knowledge that it helps quite a bit, compared to how often you’ll actually be called for it.

The only difference is that being called for it in a swimming race carries far greater consequences and memories than the typical one play during a football game.

Sccoach
2 years ago

I do think it’s silly when people get all worked up in the comment section over something like this.

But he is doing something against the rules in order to get an edge… which is cheating. So unless he genuinely can’t not do 2 dolphin kicks during his pulldown, he is cheating. I can’t argue with people who call him a cheater.

Swimmer
Reply to  Sccoach
2 years ago

I don’t think it’s really intentional. I think it just looks a bit like a Kick after the pull in the pullout

N80
Reply to  Sccoach
2 years ago

I mean, if Lebron intentionally fouls someone to get an advantage, I wouldn’t call that cheating. Not sure what I’d call it

Gator
Reply to  N80
2 years ago

I call it cheating

Opinion
Reply to  N80
2 years ago

It’s cheating. Fro your own example, how can you not see that? If someone breaks a rule in a sport to gain an advantage that’s cheating😂

PK Doesn't Like His Long Name
Reply to  N80
2 years ago

The reason you’re not sure what to call it is because it’s extremely difficult in basketball to intentionally foul someone in a way that results in you, the fouler, gaining an advantage. There are instances where it is to your advantage to foul (ie, to extend the game) but the penalties are very obvious (the other team gets foul shots and you’re less likely to be allowed to continue within the game).

I mostly disagree with Braden’s point that we wouldn’t call Lebron a cheater if he fouled out within a game-I believe that if Lebron or another high profile player had a foul rate that resulted in them fouling out repeatedly in high leverage spots, well before the game… Read more »

Gordon Wheeler Superfan
Reply to  N80
2 years ago

You are comparing apples to oranges. A large majority of fouls in basketball are from incidental contact or are “drawn fouls” from the offense. Intentional fouls are very rare and only are at the end of the game when your team is losing and when you commit them the opposing team gets to take free throws and you run the risk of fouling out. It is not “cheating” in nearly the same way that breaking the rules to your advantage in a RACING sport is. It is a team sports strategy that you are directly punished for by letting the other team have a free opportunity at points.

Landrew
2 years ago

He cheats – he consistently breaks a rule. Therefore describing him as a cheater is fair. It is also fair to describe him in lots of other ways, he seems like a nice guy doing good things for the sport as a whole but that is beside the point of discussing something like the recent Pan-Ams relay DQ.

Thatcher
2 years ago

I’m glad at least one person read the opinion before commenting. I suppose that 90% will not, and that’s probably why we wind up with these boring labels in the first place.

Swammer
2 years ago

This article should have been submitted on April Fool’s day. Cody cheats and has been doing it for years. I am sure someone has statistics on the volume and impact. Maybe he isn’t a cheater in his life and is upstanding and a good husband etc but he cheats during races. This frustrates me for everyone in his event who follows the rules. It’s too hard and self sacrificing a sport for me to advocate for someone who cheats. So I support rule followers and fair and clean sport. And you Can’t compare what he does to cheat during a race to LeBron fouling another player in a game. Just take that out of your article. That’s insulting for many… Read more »

Thatcher
Reply to  Swammer
2 years ago

😂Nobody over the age of 12 follows the rules in breaststroke. Ask the guys running the underwater video review at Worlds. They’re all cheating in their own special way.

DLSwim
Reply to  Thatcher
2 years ago

This is just not true.

Opinion
Reply to  Swammer
2 years ago

I don’t know why anyone would downvote this. You hit the nail on the head. Everyone is entitled to their opinion but if someone breaks a rule in a sport, they are a cheater PERIOD

DrSwimPhil
2 years ago

While I agree for the most part (and yes, the story is more interesting than the label), the story IS the label. It’s one thing to make a mistake. Going just past 15m off a wall in fly/back/free is a mistake. Whiffing on a 2-hand-touch in an effort to get around quicker is a mistake.

What these breaststrokers are doing (and I think the issue here is the singling out of Cody Miller, when in reality, there’s a much larger subset of swimmers involved) is a blatant disregard for the rules well beyond “pushing the limits”, as they recognize a flaw in the way the stroke is judged on the deck by officials. These aren’t “mistakes”. Dolphin kicking upon entry… Read more »

RUN-DMC
Reply to  DrSwimPhil
2 years ago

Someone going underwater 15.1 meters is most likely a mistake.
Someone going underwater 17 meters is cheating.
Missing an occasional two hand touch is probably a mistake.
Deliberately practicing a technique where one hand is palm up, and the other hand is with fingers pointed out, with one dropped shoulder, is risky and could be considered cheating.
If your second dolphin kick is only three inches deep, is it really a kick? It’s a gray area.
I would call what Cody Miller did ‘cheating’ based on past video evidence.
The fact that most people do it doesn’t change what it is.
Video review, with primary enforcement, will catch the most obvious cases. But there will still be some gray areas.

Gordon Wheeler Superfan
Reply to  RUN-DMC
2 years ago

Who actually tries to cheat by going 17 meters off the wall? With any competent official you would get caught.

Opinion
Reply to  DrSwimPhil
2 years ago

Mistake or not, cheating is cheating. Whether it’s accidental or intentional

Anonymous
Reply to  DrSwimPhil
2 years ago

A swimmer came to our LSC, broke a bunch of records with a butterfly kick after every breaststroke kick. Since then, officials in our LSC caught up with what our kids were doing. That swimmer got busted by public opinion a few weeks ago. I really want to be a fan, but can’t.

While officiating IMX a couple of years ago, 3 consecutive swimmers in the last 3 heats were throwing in a dolphin kick in br of 4im. All 3 were noted, 2 by more than one official, all happened to be in the same lane and from the same team. The coach complained to the ref. My hope is that they won’t cheat in the future when… Read more »

Sccoach
2 years ago

I do think if everyone is going to use damaging words like “cheater” the coach needs to be called out too. They are the ones teaching these techniques. Way too many coaches teach borderline illegal techniques in breastroke in order to get an edge.

Look at Molly Hannis’ stroke for example. Every stroke is a total dolphin movement. There is no way that’s
how she was taught how to swim or is her natural breastroke. A high level coach had to teach her how to swim like that. I’m sure she was disqualified a bunch of times until her coach convinced officials that it looks like a dolphin movement but isn’t a full dolphin movement.

Not sure where… Read more »

Reply to  Sccoach
2 years ago

For what it’s worth, we asked Hannis and her coach about the criticism of her stroke back in 2016, and they talked about promoting an upward dolphin kick, which is entirely legal under breaststroke rules. You can see the full text of the rule and their explanations of what she does and how it fits that text here: https://swimswam.com/electricity-creativity-molly-hanniss-outside-box-path-rio/

Sccoach
Reply to  Jared Anderson
2 years ago

Thanks for that. I’m not saying it’s illegal, I guess I’m saying it should be illegal because that’s just not
breastroke (in my opinion). Any upward or downward dolphin kick isn’t breastroke

DLSwim
Reply to  Sccoach
2 years ago

SCCOACH, But your opinion does not conform to the rules, and the rules are what matter. This should not be considered cheating because it is not against the rules.

Sccoach
Reply to  DLSwim
2 years ago

I agree. But all the bad breastroke rules are leading to swimmers and coaches getting as close to the line as possible as to what is legal and what isn’t and it’s leading to bad situations like Cody’s. If they are only going to call it one out of every 10 times it might be worth it to keep doing it to some people. It is cheating

And withMolly Hannis, I’m not going to call her a cheater, but I mean her hips rise wayyyyy up and down every stroke, I don’t know how they are able to fit that in the breastroke rules. I’m surprised that once seeing that FINA didn’t respond quicker to that than they did… Read more »

Brent Creager
Reply to  Sccoach
2 years ago

People get as close the line as possible to what is legal in every stroke. The 15m rule for instance, the rule IIRC is that some portion of your head must be at the 15m mark when you surface. So there are lots of people who have maybe their chin at the mark. Pushing the limit? Yes. Illegal? No.

I’ve known people that have done the vertical dolphin breaststroke for years, myself included. It is a definite advantage, but still within the word of the rules.

anonymous
Reply to  Sccoach
2 years ago

I think it is illegal because an upward phase of dolphin kick is half a dolphin kick not the correct motion for the beginning of a breastsroke kick. In fact in slow motion she sometimes does not even get the feet turned outward.

Cheating depends on where you’re born
2 years ago

Where was this article when Cameron did his dolphin kicks? Oh wait…. Cameron is not American. Whenever you mention that race when he won gold, you think dolphin kicks.

Cheating depends on where you’re born
Reply to  Braden Keith
2 years ago

Don’t worry. I should of added a sarcastic note to my comment! I love Cody and Cameron, and nothing could ever take away from there accomplishment. Also, You guys do a great job. I appreciate the response!

Biggy

Exactly what i was thinking.

*Sun Yang tests positive, gets called a drug cheat- “Oh carry on”
*Shayna Jack tests positive, gets called a cheater- “Yeah you’re fine”
*AMERICAN CODY MILLER CHEATS A DOLPHIN KICK- “NO NO NO YOU CANT CALL AMERICANS CHEATERS”

Jred
Reply to  Biggy
2 years ago

All 3 are cheaters.

Anyone who can’t see this is a dope

Terpfan
Reply to  Jred
2 years ago

How in the heck do you know that Jack is a cheater?? You don’t even know her whole story. You have no clue to the amount in her system or how it got in there and yet you’re making a pretty harsh generalized judgement based on minimal information. I think the essence of the article is what’s your definition of a “cheat”. What is your definition?

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder/co-owner of SwimSwam.com. He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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