How much does the (alleged) bad behavior of athletes matter to you?
The news that Ravens beat writer Jamison Hensley broke yesterday, that the team was evaluating whether or not they'd be interested in Broncos wide receiver Brandon Marshall, got me thinking about something I've wanted to ask die-hard fans for awhile:
At what point do you care about an athlete's off-the-field behavior?
Obviously, we all care at some point, no matter how talented said athlete is. Unless your priorities are completely out of whack, you're not going to support someone who beats their spouse or attempts to murder people in the offseason. But sports allegiances often force us into that weird gray area where, even though we might not want said professional athlete dating our sister or babysitting our kids, we're still OK with rooting for them as long as they suit up for the home team and get the job done.
I've been a Lakers fan all my life, a fact that many of my friends feel is my greatest flaw as an individual. Magic Johnson was my guy growing up, the first professional athlete who filled me with awe and wonder, and because I grew up in Western Montana where the closest city with a professional franchise was a 9-hour drive to Seattle, the Lakers became my team.
This of course meant, many years later, being put in the uncomfortable position of rooting on Kobe Bryant while he was scheduled to go on trial for sexual assault.
Now, whatever you think about Kobe Bryant -- that he's a ball hog (debatable), that he ran Shaq out of town (false), that he once quit on his team when they were whining he shot too much (true, but I'm not sure I blame him), that he's a phony (I'll concede this one) -- he wasn't convicted of rape. Just like Ray Lewis wasn't convicted of murder, and Brandon Marshall hasn't been convicted of assaulting his girlfriend. (He goes on trial this summer.) But something happened in each case that makes everyone a little uncomfortable, and individually, we all have to decide at what point we're no longer OK with rooting on someone who acted outside society's standards and laws.
I'm curious, though: Where is the line for you?
I'm not sure there is a definitive line for me. Maybe all we have to go on is the classic comment by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart about pornography: "I know it when I see it." A person's ability to catch a football or throw a baseball has absolutely no connection to whether or not they're a decent human being, but we do tend to convince ourselves that our franchise "won't tolerate certain behavior" and that it holds itself to a higher standard that other teams.
I think it's rare that you meet someone who simply doesn't care at all. The only thing they want is for their team to score more runs or points than the opposing team, and if they have to do it by fielding a team of criminals and jerks, so be it. Most of us care, at least a little bit. We want to feel some connection to the people out there on the field or the court, some commonality. We'll forgive a lot, but not everything. At some point, bad behavior makes it impossible to enjoy the entertainment that person provides.
This approach isn't even limited to sports. For example, I love Ryan Adams, the musician. I think "Come Pick Me Up" is one of the best break-up songs ever written, and "Jacksonville Skyline" is one of the most poetic and honest pieces of music ever penned about growing up in a small town. But I also understand that Ryan Adams is kind of a flake. He spent the first half of his career snorting insane amounts of drugs and calling up rock critics to curse them out over bad reviews. Before he got sober, he would mumble his way through shows some nights, not giving a damn if anyone cared that he was phoning in a bad performance. It isn't necessarily criminal behavior, and I could still enjoy his older stuff without getting caught up with what's going on with him in the present, but for so many people, his bad behavior -- which included flipping out a person who heckled him at a concert when he refused to play Bryan Adams' "Summer of '69" -- makes it impossible to enjoy his art.
The easy answers, and ones that I think are a bit of a cop out from a fan's perspective when it comes to sports, are:
1. Everyone innocent until proven guilty!
2. Doesn't he deserve a second chance?
I never heard non-Laker fans apply these two standards to Kobe Bryant, mostly because Kobe Bryant just doesn't seem like a very likeable person, and even though I believe he's still the best basketball player on the planet, his entire personality seems a little contrived. (His Hannibal Lecter Face in Game 1 of the NBA Finals was one of the most ridiculously forced acts I've ever seen a professional athlete engage in and I wondered how long he spent practicing it in the rear view mirror of his Ferrari on his way to Staples Center.) But fans of whatever team decides to take a chance on Plaxico Burress will trot out these two aphorisms as justification for why it's OK to cheer for Burress. And some Ravens fans will do the same if, on the off chance, the team trades for Marshall.
That doesn't make you a bad person. I'm the one, after all, who continued to pull for Kobe Bryant and rationalize it 30 different ways in my mind. But where the line is (Leonard Little? Mike Vick? Pete Rose?), I'm not sure.