Rooting for Athletes With Off-the-Field Problems Without Being Hypocritical

This weekend, we went to see The Other Guys, starring Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg.  I’m not spoiling anything to tell you that in the movie a policeman shoots Yankees’ shortstop Derek Jeter after mistaking Jeter for a hooligan.  In one scene, someone yells at the policeman, “You should’ve shot A-Rod.”  That line got a laugh.

I definitely laughed, but I also found myself feeling a bit sorry for Alex Rodriguez.  Here is a guy who just became the 7th person of over 16,000 major league baseball players to hit 600 career home runs.  However, he was reminded the next day that he was a fraud and a cheater, because he used illegal steroids from 2001 to 2003 as a member of the Texas Rangers.  A-Rod admitted the steroid use in February 2009, but that was after he denied using to Katie Couric on 60 Minutes in December 2007.

The Local Reaction to A-Rod's 600th HR

I know the person in the film who yelled that is fictional.  I know it was intended to be a joke and was coincidentally shown the week A-Rod hit #600.  But I also wondered what that fictional person would have said last fall, when Rodriguez hit .356 in the post-season with 6 home runs and 18 RBI to help the Yankees with the World Series.  No doubt Yankee fans who despise Rodriguez’s drug use were excited by his October play, because their beloved Yankees won.

Rodriguez is not the only athlete with an imperfect past.  Philadelphia Eagle quarterback Michael Vick rejoined the league in 2009 after serving jail time for running a dog fighting ring.  Gilbert Arenas of the NBA’s Washington Wizards is about to return to the team after being suspended for most of last season due to a gun-pointing incident in the Wizards’ locker room.  Marion Jones is attempting a comeback in basketball with the WNBA’s Tulsa Shock after serving jail time for lying to investigators and having her track & field medals revoked at the 2000 Sydney Olympics revoked.

If you want to dislike or boo any of these players that’s your right.  I respect that. But I think there are some simple guidelines you need to follow to be fair to them.

I believe a fan is allowed to separate on-the-field activities from off-the-field activities.  You can dislike someone as a person, but cheer for them as an athlete.  You can say with a straight face that the punishment given to Arenas was too light and then cheer when he hits a winning three-pointer for the Wizards.  But, in my opinion, you can’t boo Arenas on the court because of his suspension and then cheer when he hits the winning three pointer.  You can boo a poor play or decision, but you can’t boo him for off-the-court issues and then cheer for his play.  Doesn’t work for me.  It’s hypocritical.

There are parallels here with a corporate work environment.  Imagine if you have an opportunity to hire a talented finance executive, but you learn in the interview process that he served time for auto theft.  If you decide not to hire him because of that, that is your right.  However, once you decide to hire him, his past is irrelevant to his current performance.  It’s over.  Seems fair, right?  You are making a decision to hire him for his finance skills and not for his past.

It’s also hypocritical to say a player should be banned or kicked out of the league and then cheer when they move to your team.  Why do you think no owners are speaking out about the meaning of A-Rod’s 600th home run, when writers and sportscasters are saying it doesn’t count?  Because they know that, if they say anything negative about A-Rod, that he’ll never play for them, and these owners would take A-Rod on their team in a heartbeat.

We should not accept the hypocrisy of fans who vilify a player and boo him on the field for his troubles and then suddenly cheer when that player benefits the team.  Follow the guidelines and be fair.  You can’t have it both ways.

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