How Professional Athletes Stretch the Rules to Win

Cheating is for chumps. But it takes a certain genius to defeat a foe with hookers and Stickum. Just ask L. T., Lester Hayes, and Junior Johnson.

As the son of bootleggers in depression-era North Carolina, Junior Johnson learned all the tricks to building a humdrum-looking car with the muscle to outrun any police cruiser. He took that knack for subterfuge to the region’s dirt tracks, where every grizzled gearhead lived by the same credo: If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’. Johnson adopted a different view. “If they ain’t got a rule for it,” he says, “how can they say you’re cheatin’?” 

Over the next four decades, the driver and team owner gave the guardians of NASCARan awful lot to dislike about his cars—though rarely for breaking a rule. Nothing (at the time) said you couldn’t get your vehicle up to the required pre-race weight by slipping a solid-lead helmet inside it. Or by filling the frame rails with BBs, then using a string mounted to a little trapdoor to jettison them onto the track during the parade lap. Johnson’s most outrageous creation was dubbed the Yellow Banana: a ’66 Ford Galaxiethat he chopped and reassembled into a wildly aerodynamic missile with upswept rear quarter-panels, a left side three inches lower than the right, and a windshield sloped so far back, it took the whole crew to slide the driver inside.

“Say what you want about that car,” Johnson says, “but it passed inspection.” He laughs. 

“It wouldn’t by today’s rules. Hell, even the rules they had the following week. But those rules are only there because of me.”

Welcome to the vast, gray netherworld of gamesmanship—the storied realm of hustlers, cardsharps, and wily vets; of Red Auerbach and Jimmy Connors; of champs and chumps. Few things in life inspire more vitriol than outright cheating. Say it ain’t so, Lance! Say it ain’t so, McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, Clemens, A-Rod! We hate guys who break the rules (Richard Nixon) but find something oddly admirable, even endearing, about those with a genius for bending them (JFK). We’re not talking about juvenile stunts like yelling “Ha!” at a baseball player about to catch a pop-up (A-Rod). We’re talking about schemes that require ingenuity and artistry. Think of Ty Cobb’s sharpened baseball spikes. Tear-away jerseys. Lawrence Taylor sending a pair of hookers to a rival’s hotel room the night before a big game with instructions to wear the poor guy out. Spies with telescopes holed up in the scoreboard to intercept the opposing catcher’s signs.

At its best, gamesmanship demands a connoisseur’s appreciation for the rule book. Consider star cornerback Lester Hayes’ liberal use of Stickum to snare errant passes. Not illegal! (At least not until the aptly named “Lester Hayes rule” came to be.) Sometimes all that’s required is invoking an obscure regulation at the ideal time—a weird specialty of baseball manager Jack McKeon. Once, to change momentum in a losing game, he got an ump to stop play and force the Mets’ Jason Isringhausen to conform to code by using a Sharpie to black out the white lettering on his glove. “[Manager] Bobby Valentine got hot over that,” McKeon says, chuckling. “Call it mind games if you want, but if I can take advantage of knowing a rule, I’m going to do it.”

To many, gamesmanship is a survival skill, the key to outwitting an adversary, psyching out an opponent, maintaining the upper hand on your home turf. Who wants to leave it to fickle fans to provide that crucial edge? Not Hayden Fry, legendary coach of the Iowa Hawkeyes, who had the visitors’ locker room painted pink in an odd attempt to sap the fight from his team’s rivals. Nor the countless others who have tinkered with base paths, pitcher’s mounds, sight lines, the height of the grass, the speed of the ice, the fire alarms at nearby hotels, and stadium air currents, which have a funny way of keeping a baseball aloft or grounding a field goal kick.

In recent years, foes of the San Antonio Spurs have discovered a rattlesnake in a locker, a swarm of flies in the dressing room, and a bat on the loose inside the arena. So is it any wonder that the A/C at the AT&T Center mysteriously crapped out in Game 1 of last June’s NBA Finals? The fact remains that the home team’s locker room was tricked out with powerful cooling fans.

If that sounds like crazy conspiracy talk, check out the handiwork of Bill Veeck. In 1951, as owner of baseball’s St. Louis Browns, he signed 3′7″ Eddie Gaedel to a contract, outfitted him in a jersey sporting the number ⅛, and sent him to the plate to pinch-hit—with a strike zone the size of a belt buckle. Gaedel walked on four pitches and was replaced by a pinch runner. The next day, the league voided his contract and declared that, henceforth, no such deal may go into effect until it’s reviewed by the league office.

Veeck went right on searching for loopholes. As an owner of a minor league team in Milwaukee, he installed an outfield fence that could be raised or lowered to counter the competition’s lineup. When he bought the Cleveland Indians, he went even further, rigging the fences so they could be moved in or out by 15 feet. Veeck’s secret weapon was “the Michelangelo of groundskeepers.” Before each game, Emil Bossard sculpted the pitching mound to favor Cleveland’s starter. He’d angle the pitch of the foul line to benefit the Indians. “But where Bossard’s wizardry really shone through,” Veeck wrote, “was in the way he tailored our diamond to the individual needs of our infielders. We did not have one infield at Cleveland; we had an infield segmented into four sections.”

As for the Spurs, their faulty A/C—sorry about those leg cramps, LeBron!—comes up short on originality. In Game 5 of the 1984 NBA Finals, the heat at the old Boston Garden soared toward 100 degrees. Lakers Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was forced to the bench to suck on an oxygen mask while the Celtics cruised to a 121–103 victory.

But, hey, maybe this is just coincidence. After all, what are the odds that 30 years later, another team with a long run of being crafty and successful would consider pulling the same stunt as the one ascribed in legend to Celtics president Arnold “Red” Auerbach. The cigar-chomping rogue and gamesman extraordinaire logged 16 championships as a coach and team executive. For the record, that’s the most in NBA history.