Baseball’s most embarrassing super-star, the steroid cheat Alex Rodriguez, in playing for the New York Yankees while appealing his long suspension by Major League baseball. As he is unquestionably a repeat liar and a serial violator of the game’s rules against PED’s (performance enhancing drugs), as he signed a contract, in part generated by the results of his cheating, that will both enrich him by millions and handicap his team competitively while conferring few, if any benefits, as he would qualify, by most objective standards, as the antithesis of a sports hero, the fact that Arod, as he is called, still was cheered by a vocal minority in Yankee Stadium when he made his season debut this week is intriguing. What does this mean? Can it be ethical to cheer Rodriquez now?
These are deceptively complex and difficult questions. The threshold issue is whether cheering or jeering any sports figure, or any public figure at all, is an act with ethical content rather than just a communication of an opinion. Is it conduct, or just “words”? I think, in the context of the Rodriquez situation, a sound argument can be made that it is conduct. Registering group approval or disapproval of prominent conduct by someone of status and influence is a crucial societal function in setting standards, registering disapproval, and prompting shame, regret, apology and reform—none of which, so far at least, seem to register with Arod.
That is pretty clearly what the boos convey, but what about the cheers? If the boos are ethical—they are if the disapproval is proportionate, rational, fair, and just—then are the cheers automatically unethical? Not necessarily. Here are some of the things those cheers could be expressing:
- Civility. Many people, and I am usually among them, feel that booing and jeering at public events are rude and inappropriate public conduct. I wouldn’t boo Arod. I wouldn’t cheer him to express my disapproval of the boos, but I could applaud the motivation of someone who did.
- Loyalty for the home team. Loyalty is often misplaced: it can lead one down some unethical paths, and this may be an example. Some cheers for Rodriguez, however, may have only been designed to support the Yankees in a difficult situation, where they have to pay a player millions, can’t legally treat him as suspended, but will be embarrassed if he’s on the field, wearing the pinstripes.
- Sympathy for the underdog. It’s hard for me to see a cheating baseball tycoon as the underdog, but Alex is being made the target of a concerted effort to scare baseball’s athletes straight, and one could reasonably, if not correctly, conclude that he is a victim.
- Contempt for Major League Baseball’s methods and hypocrisy. Baseball allowed the steroid and PED problem to grow and harm the game by contrived ignorance, and then became vengeful and self-righteous reformers. This doesn’t excuse or mitigate Arod’s very calculated cheating, but many people operate under the ethical delusion that it does.
- Siding with the worker over management. Arod has about as much in common with the working man as I have in common with Kate Upton, but still, there are may Americans who see disapproval of Rodriquez as siding with the devil, in the person of the exploitive, manipulative, unethical corporations and rich families that run Major League Baseball, and indeed all professional sports. In the mind if these people, cheering Arod is just consistency of principle.
- Libertarian values; “It’s a dumb law/stupid rule.” Drugs shouldn’t be illegal, and sports shouldn’t be in the business of telling athletes what drugs to take.
- Support for a former hero in hard times. The argument is that the present doesn’t erase the past. I get it. There are people in my life who I owe a lot to, and virtually nothing they could do now would change that dept. Cheer for what was, and still matters, not for what is.
- Rationalizations: “Nobody’s perfect,” “Let he that is without sin…,” “They got away with it, so should he,” “It’s not like he killed somebody,” etc.
- Arod is better than the pathetic no-hit wonders the Yankees have been forced to play in his absence, so his bat is what is getting cheered, not his conduct. This is a pure, non-ethical considerations-driven response. The Yankees are more likely to win with Rodriguez, and he’s allowed to be in the line-up. “Yay!”
- Who cares about cheating? Or lying? Or lying about cheating? Everybody does it.
I’m sure all of these motivations were represented among the cheers. The problem is that in aggregate, the cheering will naturally be interpreted to mean one thing only: approval of Alex Rodriguez and either forgiveness of his conduct, or endorsement of it. That message is harmful and poses a danger to baseball, sport and society. Contributing to it in any way, for whatever reason, is unethical.