WASHINGTON — What would sports be without comebacks? I don’t just mean on the field, whether it be the 2004 Red Sox eclipsing a 3-0 ALCS series deficit or Billy Mills roaring back and bursting through the finish line in the 1964 Olympics. The story of the shamed, once discarded, thought-to-be washed-out athlete returning to glory permeates American culture, from Josh Hamilton to Roy Hobbs and Rocky.
We hold ourselves up as a nation of second chances, of comeback stories, of redemption. But across sports, we seem to be less inclined than ever to forgive athletes for their off-the-field sins these days.
On its surface, that seems like progress, the rejection of apotheosis, like Charles Barkley encouraged 20 years ago. But there’s room to be cynical of our widespread outrage here as well. Athletes who have violated our trust are nonetheless human beings, if lousy role models. To refuse to forgive them is to treat them as less than such.
I bring this up for a reason. If you’re anything like me, when video surfaced Monday of Florida State quarterback De’Andre Johnson punching a woman in the face at a Tallahassee bar, it was hard not to think of Ray Rice.
After all, Rice’s was the first case of assault caught clearly on videotape, for all to see, indisputable visual proof of violence against a woman. The black-and-white footage from within that casino elevator will always be the file footage in our minds for stories of athlete domestic violence in America.
That’s the same Ray Rice that has yet to secure a contract for the upcoming NFL season. Even after watching a two-game suspension balloon into an indefinite one at the whim of a clueless commissioner. Rice has served his time (and has been reinstated), after being released by the only team for which he’s ever played. At 28, he’s still in the prime of his career, four years removed from a season in which he led the NFL in yards from scrimmage.
And yet, the phone doesn’t ring.
Similarly, the Minnesota Vikings’ phone did not ring all offseason with calls from other teams regarding fellow running back Adrian Peterson, possibly the greatest to ever play the game at his position. Peterson missed all but one game of last season after a felony child abuse indictment, which remains enough of a public relations scare to keep potential suitors away. While his organization has stood by him (they don’t have much choice — he’s still owed $43 million over the next three seasons) and Vikings fans may as well, we have yet to see the reception he’ll get around the league.
For a possible preview, we won’t have to look far. Alex Rodriguez has returned this year from his season-long suspension for his involvement with Biogenesis, much to the dismay of his own team, the New York Yankees. After first refusing to forfeit the $6 million “marketing bonus” they were contractually obligated to pay him for his 660th home run, the Yankees settled on an agreement where they would pay a portion of it to charity in his name. All A-Rod has done in the meantime is mash 16 home runs with a .284/.390/.513 slash line, ranking in the top three on the team in nearly every offensive category and helping New York to a surprising AL East division lead.
He is reviled and berated by fans at every stop on the road, although thanks to his success on the field, Yankees fans have welcomed him back.
But he won’t be headed back to the All-Star Game.
Rodriguez wasn’t voted in by the fans to be a starter or his fellow players as a reserve. Kansas City Royals skipper Ned Yost, who will manage the American League and who was in charge of picking the five players eligible for the Final Vote, claims that he gave great consideration to Rodriguez before ultimately leaving his name off.
Never mind that A-Rod, the 14-time All-Star, has more home runs than four of the five players on the list. Brian Dozier, who has hit one more dinger, has an OPS of .849, just behind Brett Gardner’s .854, tops on the list. A-Rod’s is .904.
Of course, Yost’s claims rest in fairly sound logic. He says he wants versatility in a roster for a game that — against all good logic — still determines home field advantage for the World Series. But you can be sure that if MLB didn’t have anything to do with nudging Yost to leave Rodriguez off the list, they are very happy that he did so.
Even with more time served than any other active player (on a suspension that, like Rice’s, was arbitrarily more harsh than the collectively bargained levels), Rodriguez remains an unsympathetic figure to fans and players alike outside of New York.
Just last weekend, Carli Lloyd’s star turn saved FOX and the media at large covering the Women’s World Cup the potentially excruciating tightrope walk of celebrating the American defense — anchored by goalie Hope Solo — as the lead storyline. When the U.S. Women’s National Team Twitter account cleverly suggested that Lloyd (who wears #10) should be the next face of the $10 bill, they stumbled by including Solo (#1) in the mix. Everyone I know with whom I spoke about the tweet had the same reaction — laughter and solidarity for the first part, followed by uncomfortable silence.
Thankfully, the Women’s World Cup did not become marketed as Solo’s redemption tour, but it was interesting how much she was overlooked outside of that tweet by those covering the action.
Solo’s incident has been provoked a different reaction than Rice’s, partly because gender roles were reversed. But another factor is present, one which not enough people have recognized in the criticism of U.S. Soccer’s handling of their embattled goalkeeper. The relative in question in her domestic assault isn’t one with whom she cohabitates, or who relies on her for food and shelter. There’s a marked difference between her situation and Rice’s, a disparity in gravity which muddies the water far more than the simple issue of gender.
People say that they don’t want to see Ray Rice play again because they’ve seen what he did to his wife. The same goes for Peterson, after the images of his son were revealed. But the vitriol abates a bit when the only visual proof of Rodriguez’s crime are legal documents, when a one-sided 911 call and police report are all we know of Solo’s transgressions.
Do we really believe these men and women don’t deserve to play the sport they’ve trained their whole lives to play? Or are we simply uncomfortable being complicit in supporting them when we’ve seen the damage they’ve done, proof that removes any doubt?
Would we still be so angry if they weren’t making so much money doing the thing many of us dreamed of doing as kids?
Whatever the reason, if you find yourself rejecting the idea of an athlete’s return to the game, ask yourself why. If the league punishments need to be more severe still to deter this kind of behavior, then demand that. Until then, it’s your choice to boo or cheer, provided that — in Rice’s case — anyone gives him another chance.