Confession: The world of sports in the early months of this year has me reflecting on that great line from Doc Holliday in the movie Tombstone. Remember the scene? After Doc has killed the famous outlaw Johnny Ringo, he returns his U.S. Marshall badge to his friend Wyatt Earp; as Doc (an outlaw himself) doesn’t want to be branded as a man who is known for doing the right thing. Wyatt looks at him wondering what to make of it all, and Doc coolly responds: “My hypocrisy goes only so far.”
To be sure, the world in general, and the sports world specifically, constantly give us reason to consider our own hypocrisy. In regards to our fandom, everything, it seems, boils down to these questions: For whom do we cheer? Why do we cheer for them? If there is someone for whom we do not cheer, are there ever any ethical reasons behind it? And (here’s where hypocrisy can really sneak up on us) in our loyalties, when do we apply those ethical standards, when do we look the other way, and when do we choose to forgive and forget?
We have to admit: If we are fans of sports on any level, we sometimes choose to support and sometimes choose to shun, and we are not always consistent about it. I’m certainly not! True, undoubtedly we can all get on the same page about some things. Three years ago when video footage was released of Ray Rice dragging his girlfriend out of an elevator after having assaulted her, he was done in the eyes of the fans. Even though he was reinstated and technically allowed by the NFL to play, neither his team the Ravens nor any other team wanted to endure the firestorm that would inevitably come from handing him a football. It was almost as though letting him play would seem to be an endorsement of his actions, despite the fact he very publicly and profusely apologized for all he did wrong.
With other athletes and other “sins,” however, the line seems less black and white and a lot more gray. Already this year Tiger Woods has made headlines by returning to the PGA Tour after an extended hiatus taken to recover from back surgery. So many golf fans (myself included!) find themselves elated at the thought that Tiger could recapture his former magic. But that begs the question: For those of us who are fans of Tiger (and he is decidedly on my Mount Rushmore of favorite athletes of all time) and also hope some ethical standards exist in the world, how do we hold both our fandom and his very openly-publicized mistreatment of his ex-wife together at the same time?
It is not just Tiger Woods, though, is it? This year Major League Baseball has already announced its inductees for the 2018 Hall of Fame class, and though they have yet to receive the necessary 75 percent of votes it takes to officially be elected, controversial stars Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens hover around 57 percent and continue to remain in the conversation. Specifically, the controversy has swirled around each of these men for his alleged use of steroids, and debates rage about their legitimacy in the Hall. What will have the last word: their skill, or their personal ethics? These are certainly difficult questions for me to answer, as in my 30 years of watching baseball, Barry Bonds is the absolute best player I have ever watched play the game, period. I would contend if he had 300 less home runs than he currently has, his numbers would still merit his election. Did cheating help him that much? Does he deserve to be elected, or at minimum does he deserve to be thought of as a beloved former player rather than a reviled one? Would it help their chances if he and Clemens weren’t so rude to the media for so many years?
These are the questions with which I and other sports fans wrestle. For whom should we cheer, and what would disqualify someone from adulation and recognition of great accomplishments? The Russell Wilsons and Tim Tebows of the world make it easy in some cases, but they seem to be the exception more than the rule. More often, the lines are gray, and we have to figure it out for ourselves. Michael Vick’s dog fighting ring wrote him off in the eyes of many, but for me personally, his apologies and conduct afterward won me back. I love Michael Jordan and always will (also on my Mount Rushmore), but for whatever reason, his gambling never turned me off like perhaps it should. We make these decisions all the time. Pete Rose. Michael Irvin. Anna Kournikova. John Daly. Marion Jones. Alex Rodriguez. Michael Phelps. Charles Barkley. The list is too long to cite, but in each and every case, could we at least just have the courage to admit: Our ethical standards are not as strict as we often profess them to be. Depending on our personal feelings, agenda, or team loyalties, some things we let slide and some things we choose not to ignore. Yes, it is true, my sports hypocrisy only goes so far. The only problem is, I still haven’t figured out just how far that is yet.