Now here’s a real cheating scandal: forget the NFL. The big-money, truly audacious cheaters are overseas

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Though he never became the sex symbol he was supposed to, Australian actor Patti Hogan did teach us a very important lesson about cultural perspective, most notably in a scene from the first Crocodile Dundee movie. Approached by a New York mugger wielding a switchblade,’ Michael J. Dundee produces a huge Bowie knife, famously instructing, “That’s not a knife. That’s a knife.”

The world of professional sports had its own Dundee moment late last week. On the same day the NFL fined the New England Patriots and head coach Bill Belichick US$750,000 (plus an early draft pick) for a spying incident, FIA, the governing body for Formula One racing, dealt McLaren an impressive $100-million penalty (plus disqualification from the team championship) for its bit of athletic espionage against Ferrari.

Sporting comparisons are hard to come by. In the NBA, the Minnesota Timberwolves were once fined $3.5 million (and several draft picks) for violating league salary cap rules, while Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was once penalized half a million for questioning the competence of league referees. But $100 million? Nothing remotely close. For what it’s worth, only 23 of the 122 teams in the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball have payrolls that total more than $100 million.


Still, McLaren chairman Ron Dennis seemed unmoved. “If you read our accounts, we turn over roughly $450 million to $500 million a year, and we are debt-free, so obviously we are a very strong company with phenomenal growth.” The British press similarly sniffed. “McLaren’s $100m fine will sound a lot to the outside world, but Dennis will not be asking for time to pay,” wrote the Guardian’s Richard Williams. “McLaren are among the sport’s biggest earners and biggest spenders, and the fine will make no difference to their activities.”

There is a difference, then, between a fine and a fine. And a lesson in cultural perspective is perhaps necessary. In 2000, shortstop Alex Rodriguez signed a 10-year, $252-million contract with the Texas Rangers that is widely considered the most lucrative in sports history. But, on a per-year basis, he earns considerably less than Kimi Raik konen, the highest paid driver in F1, who makes somewhere between $32 and $51 million per year with Ferrari, depending on the estimate. And Raikkonen is but the second-highest-paid racer in F1 history, the legendary Michael Schumacher having reportedly earned $62.4 million at his peak.

According to the estimates of Formula Money, an authority on F1 finances, McLaren’s budget for the current year is $445.4 million, the highest of any team. The McLaren Group, the team’s parent company, is part owned by DaimlerChrysler and the Bahrain Mumtalakat Holding Company (an extension of the Kingdom of Bahrain) and sponsored by Vodafone (one of the world’s largest telecommunications companies). “Even if it loses $100 million off next year’s budget, this will only put it on a par with rivals such as Honda and BMW” says Formula Money co-author Caroline Reid.


On a practical level too, the NFL scandal is amateur by comparison. Where the Patriots are accused of sending a relatively inexperienced 26-year-old staffer to tape the hand signals of opposing coaches, McLaren managed to acquire a thumping 780-page dossier from a disgruntled Ferrari employee. The information from the manual concerned such matters as weight distribution, braking and a mysterious gas Ferrari used to inflate their tires.

What’s more, the European version of Spygate has spun off a separate scandal–this one involving McLaren teammates and rivals Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton. Alonso, currently sitting second in the overall standings, is alleged to have threatened to go public with what he knew of the dossier if McLaren didn’t make him their No. 1 driver ahead of Hamilton, F1’s top racer so far this year. At Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix, Hamilton (who finished fourth) accused Alonso (who finished third) of trying to settle the matter by sideswiping him at 190 km/h. “It’s been a tough week, and for sure a lot tougher week for me than for Fernando because … I won’t say any more,” Hamilton said, adding, “I feel more attached to the team, I guess, and I care a bit more.”

With that Hamilton set the stage for a furious end to the F1 season. And, once again, reminded North American sports fans not to overestimate their own scandals.