Every time something like the A-Rod mess goes down there is a parade of outrage. From fans, from columnists, from talk radio hosts. You know what I’m talking about. Here’s a great, nearly-incoherent example from Scott Miller of CBS Sports.com. You’re going to have to bring your A-game if you want to out-outrage Miller. He calls A-Rod sub-human. For starters. Unless he’s merely putting on faux outrage for the page views, Miller is truly upset here and that anger is coming from someplace deep down inside. For what it’s worth, he has never struck me as someone who fakes things for page views.
I used to sit back for hours and mock this kind of sentiment but I’m not all that inclined to do that as much as I used to. Instead I’m more interested in trying to understand it. Because really, I have a tremendously difficult time understanding where such ire and vitriol at some nearly total stranger of an athlete comes from.
Here’s where I am right now: It’s not a matter of new school vs. old school. It’s not a matter of smart vs. not-so-smart. It’s simply a matter of there being two kinds of sports fans: those who hold players to a higher moral standard than people in general, and those who don’t. That’s it.
If you think of ballplayers as heroes or examples or believe that they are somehow obligated to be better than every other schlub on the planet — or if you were taught to think that as a child and still hold on to some of that whether you realize it or not — you’re outraged. If, on the other hand, you didn’t — if you saw them from even the youngest age as just people who are good at something weird and interesting and immensely entertaining — you can’t be outraged. Outrage makes no sense.
I certainly fall in that latter camp. I liked sports just as much as the next kid growing up and certainly love baseball now, but never in my life did I think of athletes as heroes or role models. Maybe that’s because I wasn’t handed baseball by my father or some other person I did look up to. It was introduced to me in a couple of places and I grabbed hold, but sports were not and are not any part of the lingua franca of my relationship with my parents or elders. At least not in such a way where anyone whose opinion I valued ever said to me, in effect, “look at that star athlete, my what a fine example he is.” In turn, to the extent my kids have gotten into sports I’ve never said such things to them, either literally or implicitly via the way I talk about or interact with athletes.
I realize I may be in the minority in this respect. Very recently I had a fairly spirited dispute with another baseball writer about these issues and — after we threw barbs at each other for a bit — we dug into the matter more. It seems he comes at things from a slightly different place. He has children who are really getting into baseball now. They have thrown themselves into it with abandon, to the point where they do get legitimately upset when things go bad for players they like and uplifted when things go well. It’s probably a fantastic ride for them and I would guess that my counterpart’s bonding over sports with his children is on a totally different level than mine is. But, at the same time, it does require some veneration of the athlete to make it work, doesn’t it? And, in turn, if the athlete does not live up to the ideal, it almost necessitates some negative emotional response. The sort of which we see in these outraged sentiments from fans, the media, whoever. I’ve seen if from my counterpart recently, and it almost certainly has to come from some sense that these ballplayers are disappointing him or his children or both.
For my part, I can’t muster any of that. I don’t think A-Rod is subhuman simply because he lied and cheated. Indeed, that makes me think of him as quite human indeed, as human beings tend to act like that an awful lot. He’s only subhuman if you thought of him as something greater before. Likewise, I can’t muster what is, in effect, “think of the children” rhetoric because neither me as a child nor my children now see these athletes as anyone special that need give us special consideration. We love what they do when they are performing, but we don’t think of them as anyone who owes us special moral or ethical duties. That’s what parents and teachers and honest-to-goodness role models are for. Athletes are no different than actors or astronauts in this regard. People who do amazing things but whom we shouldn’t expect to be better people merely because of their station.
Does that mean that I don’t have opinions when an athlete falls short of some ideal? Of course not. It’s simply a matter of proportion. I can say, quite comfortably, when one of them does something bad that they have behaved poorly. Lied. Cheated. Broken the law. What have you. But I’m no more likely to get sent into an emotional tizzy over it than I am if I learned that some actor got busted for drugs or some singer slept around. I don’t approve, but I also let it go pretty quickly. I have my own moral and ethical life to worry about and that’s hard enough. Please just act/sing/play for my enjoyment, entertainer. I may critique your performance if you do it poorly, but the act is all I require of you personally. It’s different if one’s directly affected by the poor behavior in question — other players and teammates have a right to be truly angry if their personal trust or their livelihood was jeopardized by the A-Rods of the world — but I’ve not been harmed by them unless I let them harm me by giving them too much trust to begin with.
You may say that this is a sad viewpoint. That I’m a cynic. Some sort of disappointed, disaffected or jilted former idealist. I assure you I’m not. The thought of treating athletes as special people worthy and deserving of my trust and thus capable of breaking it has simply never been part of my life and never will be. Others, like Scott Miller and my correspondent of a couple of days ago come at it differently. Good for them, good for me.
With this framework in mind you can probably divide up all of the people who offer opinions on this stuff into those two camps pretty easily, actually. I can’t think of any other differences in understanding that better account for it.