Don’t Cheat Where You Care

I wasn’t expecting to land on The Sixth Grade Times while looking for a source of a quote by Jim Thorpe. Surely an article by a 12-year-old couldn’t offer the information I needed. Or could it? The 300-word piece rounded up the usual information you first find about Thorpe: He was a Native American, raised in nature, astonishingly good in a variety of sports. He also won two Olympic gold medals for the US in 1912, taking the pentathlon and decathlon titles, the only athlete to ever do so.

Infamously, the International Olympic Committee stripped Thorpe of his medals one year later, citing violations of the rules of amateurism for taking expense money while playing minor league baseball. That started a 110-year-controversy which only ended in 2022, when Thorpe was finally reinstated as the sole winner of both events. His medals had already been returned in 1983, 30 years after his death.

While all of this was interesting, Niah Horn, the student behind the article, also couldn’t offer a source for the line in question. There was, however, something even more fascinating about his piece. It started surprisingly eloquently, given Niah’s age. He opened with a clever question. His sentences flowed well. He also used terms like “grief-stricken” — and that’s when I became suspicious.

In the second half of Niah’s piece, his wits seemed to leave him. What started like a piece in the New York Times now turned into, well, an article written by a 12-year-old. He made spelling errors, used clunky phrasing, and started every sentence with “he.” Niah even seemed to forget what he had written before, mentioning that Thorpe was “also an Olympian athlete” in his last sentence — even though he had just told us about his Olympic accomplishments.

In short, Niah Horn only wrote half of his article. My first thoughts went to ChatGPT, but that wasn’t around in December 2021, the date of the newspaper, so perhaps Mr. or Mrs. Horn lent a hand, or Niah simply employed the good old copy and paste. It always makes me sad when someone tries to pass off someone else’s work as their own, especially in writing. Then again, looking at Niah, standing in front of his locker, holding a football and wearing some old-school headgear, I could hardly blame him.

Perhaps Nia, like Jim, is more of a sports guy than a man of culture — and he just needed to get through his assignment for the school newspaper. It made me think about the times I tried to get away with the minimum in high school. I never cheated, but in arts and crafts, I always went with the simplest design possible. Let’s just say my brain works better than my hands.

It’s easy to oppose cheating in all walks of life, but the truth is we all cheat somewhere. Life is big and demanding and stressful at times. Every now and then, we just don’t have the nerve. I constantly fill in administrative forms with whatever information I have rather than all the information I need. Then I hit send and hope for the best. Often enough, it works. I check the box and move on with my day.

Maybe the important part, I realized, is not to never cheat but to not cheat where it matters — and that arena will be a different one for each of us. There’s no reason for me to be sad about Niah’s low writing standards if Niah doesn’t care about writing. It’s only one of many necessary but not interesting tasks on his list. Like me filling in administrative forms, he just wants to check the box and move on with his day, and even to someone who cares a great deal about writing, like me, that is okay.

What I am hoping, however, is that if sports really are Niah’s great calling, be it throwing the football he holds in his hand or any other athletic activity, he won’t cut any corners while playing. When we cheat where we care, our victories feel empty. If music means so much to you, you can’t skip to the crescendo. It won’t just not be satisfying. You’ll actively hurt your own feelings. You’ll let yourself down by not walking upright. There’s no prize for carrying your groceries instead of having them delivered, but the pride of climbing a mountain, winning an Olympic medal, or composing a symphony can only be earned.

It’s a hard balance to strike: Don’t let lesser passions get in the way, but don’t cheat where you care. Sometimes, we’ll miss the line between the two. Still, it is never too late to return to equilibrium. It took the IOC 70 years to admit it had made a less-than-honest mistake and another 40 to finally, fully fix it. I’m sure there are others. But as long as there’s one person on the committee who remembers that sports is the one field where Olympia can’t afford anything but honor and integrity, they’ll always find their way back — just like Jim Thorpe, who, after more than 100 years in historic record–limbo, finally returned to his rightful place as the sole gold medalist for the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympic Games.