Chapman, Manning and the Things We Choose to Care About in Sports

Peyton-Manning-HelmetSports fandom is a core part of my identity. It is a central component of my family, my history and my culture. I spend an embarrassing amount of time and energy analyzing the plights of my Broncos, Dodgers and Trojans. The use of “my” is not an error — I take ownership of the teams I love. I say things like “we played really well last week.” I rise with pride with my teams’ success and I take my teams’ shortcomings to heart.

So when Major League Baseball announced that Aroldis Chapman will serve a 30-game suspension stemming from his October 2015 domestic violence dispute, it put questions about Chapman’s upcoming season to rest, but it didn’t resolve the conflict between my sports fandom and my morals.

Chapman is the most dominant closing pitcher in baseball. He throws faster than anyone in the world, and he has been clocked at 105.1 MPH in a game. So, when my beloved Los Angeles Dodgers seemingly completed a trade for Chapman this off-season, I was ecstatic, and my dreams were filled with future World Series wins.

A few hours later, it was revealed that Chapman allegedly choked his girlfriend and shot his gun eight times last October. Chapman denies choking her and he was not charged with a crime, but he admits shooting his gun into the wall when she wasn’t in the room.

I am not proud of my initial reaction. I found myself looking to justify how I could continue to be excited that Chapman was going to be a Dodger. I told myself that he hasn’t been convicted of anything, and he admits shooting the gun at the wall — not at his girlfriend — and there isn’t any video proof, so who knows what happened? There is something to be said for not rushing to judgment, but I felt awful for thinking of my ability to root for Aroldis instead of thinking of the well-being of his girlfriend.

My elation about the trade turned into despondence. How could I root for this man to succeed? Is it possible to root for your team while not supporting the off-the-field transgressions of the players? This is something fans struggle with all of the time.

I never had to figure out if I could root for Chapman, though. The Dodgers pulled out of the trade, and he instead went to the Yankees, who apparently cared less about his domestic dispute than the Dodgers did.

At the USC Norman Lear Center, we study the impact of entertainment and I am fascinated by what consumers decide to care about in terms of letting their entertainment preferences be determined by their individual moral codes. Whether it is criminal activity, political stances, steroid use or anti-group pejoratives, the list of off-field controversies is vast and complex, and we all apply different weights to different situations to make decisions about what we are and are not going to care about.

So how do sports fans reconcile their fandom with their morality? By arbitrarily deciding what they will choose to care about and where they will draw the line. There are many complex factors that enter into these decisions – team affiliation, race, ability, severity of transgression, video evidence, etc.

In many cases, the results of what we choose to care about are self-serving, inconsistent and convenient. We are appalled by a transgression when it serves our worldview or our team-affinity, but we grow quiet or defensive when the transgression doesn’t fit into our existing narrative.  This is how Baltimore Ravens fans can justify wearing Ray Rice’s jersey days after a video of him assaulting his fiancé surfaced, and it is why opposing fans call Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger a rapist every chance they get since he was suspended for two dismissed sexual assault allegations.

I have thought about these issues since I was a closeted gay kid who had to decide whether Allen Iverson’s overtly anti-gay stances impacted his place as my favorite basketball player. Since then, I think about these conflicts between on-field performance and off-field viewpoints or legal problems all of the time. I love the Lakers – should Kobe Bryant’s settled sexual assault case impact my rooting for him? Floyd Mayweather condemned Manny Pacquiao’s anti-gay comments, so yay!, but Floyd has also been arrested for at least seven different domestic disputes, so boo!.

The list of examples is sizable – if you care about crime the most, there have been 815 arrests of NFL players alone since 2000. If you determine whom you support based on political ideology, there is no shortage of athletes sharing their views. Just this week, former great pitcher and current ESPN commentator Curt Schilling said that Hillary Clinton “should be buried under a jail somewhere.” Perhaps performance-enhancing drugs is where you draw the line? Pitching great Pedro Martinez claims that 60% of MLB players in his day were using PEDs.

Questions about these conflicts intensified for me upon becoming a father.  It is one thing for me to be able to separate on- and off-field issues, but as I try to teach my children about respect, integrity and consent, I am much more cognizant about which athletes they see me cheering for. Which is why there is a case that is so daunting and so personal that I haven’t even been able to process my feelings about it yet.

Peyton Manning.

Love for the Denver Broncos flows through my veins – so last month, I put on my Manning jersey and I took a special trip to Disneyland to show my Super Bowl appreciation at Peyton Manning’s one-man parade.  Like my entire home state of Colorado and most of the nation, I adore Peyton Manning.  I have admired his ability, his class and his integrity. This admiration was not without challenge – there is the unresolved Human Growth Hormone issue, which I brushed off as unequivocally false. There is his corporate soullessness (e.g., shilling for Budweiser & Papa Johns right after the Super Bowl), which I don’t agree with, but even so, he has also been one of the most philanthropic and community-oriented athletes in history. He and I have very different world views – he donated to Jeb Bush’s campaign, and I am pretty sure if we sat down to have a political discussion, we wouldn’t agree on much – but if I let political ideology be a disqualifier, I would only have a handful of athletes to support.

A week into my Super Bowl victory high, Shaun King from the New York Daily News wrote a piece that had Peyton Manning’s name and the words “sexual assault” in the headline.

It took me a while to read it – I guess I craved a few more moments before I had to face the allegation that my favorite athlete may not be at all what I thought he was. Usually, I would attack the source – but in this case, Shaun King is one of my favorite social justice voices, so that was out. Then I turned to rationalization – Peyton innocently mooned someone over 20-years-ago. That’s it, right?

But for the victim, it wasn’t just an innocent mooning – it set in motion a chain of events that ruined her career and her life.   Again, it is devastating that my lens was focused on absolving him instead of empathizing with her. I just didn’t want it to be true – I still don’t want it to be true.  That’s the problem – that’s why Manning’s accuser worried about a cover up when she first came forward, and it’s why rape culture is so pervasive in college athletic programs: because people like me want so desperately to believe in the innocence of the athletes.

Since being included in the University of Tennessee’s Title IX lawsuit, Peyton hasn’t commented on the situation. I’m not sure he will. He will inevitably retire soon, and I won’t have to decide if I can root for him on the field in the future. But I know that I can’t think of our Super Bowl win without pivoting to thinking about this case. Not sure if that feeling will go away.

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