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Rooting for Complicated Heroes: It’s Complicated

By Jack Bowen

Rooting for Complicated Heroes: It’s Complicated

jack-bowen At some point during each sports season, we hear of a star athlete behaving nefariously off the playing field.  These incidents lead to sports pundits decrying the punitive measures of respective leagues and examining various other interesting, relevant social issues.  The scrutinized athlete du jour is US Women’s Soccer goalkeeper, Hope Solo.  Currently playing in her third World Cup, she was recently arrested on two counts of domestic violence for purportedly beating her half-sister and nephew.  In the case of Solo, the primary interest has been how the media portrays female athletes in such situations compared to their male counterparts, with concerns of a double-standard levied by many.

But one question rarely, if ever, addressed relates to us, the viewers and supporters of such athletes.  Being a fan of Solo’s goalkeeping and the US Team in general, I’ve had countless conversations over the past week regarding just this topic.  In what way are those who support and cheer for such athletes ethically accountable?

It seems as though there’s no real consensus.  Actually, the majority of those I’ve discussed with seem to think it okay to support the athlete qua athlete: when you root for a team, you’re rooting for their performance as athletes and as a team, not for their behavior off the field.  Yet this doesn’t seem to sit well: How can we put our emotional support behind someone who behaves in a manner we vehemently disagree with?

Bowen’s sons, ages 4 and 2, sporting their Steph Curry t-shirts supporting Curry, on and off the court.

Bowen’s sons, ages 4 and 2, sporting their Steph Curry t-shirts supporting Curry, on and off the court.

As a big fan of Solo-The-Goalie, I agree with most pundits that she’s the best in the world as she plays with such confidence and a bit of that goalie-flare I enjoy. My friend Bryan consoles me via text message regarding the potential concern of her off-field behavior, “She’s part of a team trying to achieve a goal you support. Rooting for her to do well isn’t condoning other things she’s done. You’re not saying domestic violence is ok. You’re saying ‘Go USA.’” He concludes, reminding me that her questionable behavior has nothing to do with the sport she plays and finishes with the caveat, “Nobody’s perfect.”

I appreciate using sport as a platform for grace and forgiveness, as I explicitly wrote about this when the Seattle Seahawks’ Richard Sherman behaved poorly and I suggested we empathize with him and show him grace (If Grace Is Amazing, Let’s Show Some On Super Bowl Sunday). But Sherman’s actions were within the sporting context, not outside it. It’s from here where it gets a bit more complicated.

It does seem that, at some point, we would rescind our support. As I pushed my friend Bryan he eventually caved at an extreme: “I would cheer against Hitler if he were our goalie.” I understand the aversion to invoking such extremes, as Solo’s behavior was nowhere near that of Hitler’s. But the point is made: at some point in the spectrum of illicit behavior, we would withdraw our support of an athlete. The question being: Is this an ethical imperative—that we should withdraw it—or a psychological truism—that we just prefer not to cheer for such people?

One of my own athletes, Niko, honed in on just this psychological response to poor character. He reminded me that when last year’s video evidence of Ray Rice surfaced showing him knocking out his fiancée, people stopped wearing replicas of his jersey around town. Niko suggested this as more of a personal preference in not wanting to be associated with such behavior, and not an ethical decision.

But there is a moral component to the jersey-wearing. First, in purchasing a jersey, you literally support that athlete: more so than when you sit on your couch and clap your hands for them. Not only do they benefit financially, but your wearing their jersey serves as a sort of public advertisement for them. This cuts the other way too. When my wife and I purchased Posey jerseys and Curry t-shirts for our young sons, we explicitly bought into the persona of these players—we don’t just value their skill at hitting and bouncing balls, but, more so, we value how they do it and what they publicly stand for.

The issue can also be more greatly simplified if we remove the national pride and the team-aspect. What if the athlete in question plays an individual sport and doesn’t represent your country? A boxer, golfer, or tennis player who physically beats a family member seems a much easier case. If one continues to support such an athlete then, truly, the argument must be defensible on grounds that we can rightly support the athlete qua athlete. Maybe it’s an aesthetic position: that we appreciate the aesthetics of the athlete’s performance and can separate this from their behavior off-field.

This approach is likely the case outside of the sporting arena. It’s highly probable that some of the musical stars whose music we enjoy also behave poorly when not performing, yet that doesn’t prevent us from enjoying their music. Purchasing a Justin Bieber album and dancing to it doesn’t necessarily condone Bieber’s behavior outside the recording studio.

It seems, then, that the virtues of world-class athletes should serve as a saving grace. One thing we appreciate about athletes, even if only implicitly, are the virtues they extol achieving their athletic excellence. By their being the best in the world at something, they have demonstrated such virtues as determination, fortitude, courage, and many others. Hope Solo cannot have become the best goalie in the world without exhibiting much of the character that Aristotle revered as necessary for living a virtuous life.

Though it may be the case that we have become so caught up in the prevalence of the sporting culture that we can’t see the forest from the trees. Certainly, it seems, we maintain some semblance of a hierarchy of virtues. We hold of greater value virtues such as compassion, respect, and refraining-from-beating-children-when-frustrated as greater than showing fortitude while training to make oneself a better athlete. To flip the tables, murder and stealing candy are both categorized as unethical, but one is clearly worse than the other. It is here that those condemning support of such athletes have some clout.

Given the various nuances, this is likely why my wordsmith of a friend, Thomas, responded to my pro-Hope Solo tweet by referring to her as a “complicated hero”—she’s a great athlete, she did some bad things, but, also, does quite a bit of philanthropy as well. Because, at the foundation of sports fanaticism are emotions—that’s just what fanaticism is. Yet we clearly need reason and logic to keep these emotions in check. I will continue to support and celebrate the US Women’s Soccer Team and, in doing so, support their goalkeeper. I may not tweet about her quite as much as I did the men’s goalie, Tim Howard, last summer, and maybe that’s my concession in this whole process of rooting for complicated heroes and, really, of being human.


Jack graduated from Stanford with Honors in Human Biology and earned a masters in philosophy with an emphasis in Sport Ethics graduating summa cum laude from California State University, Long Beach. He has published four books, including “If You Can Read This: The Philosophy of Bumper Stickers” (Random House, 2010), a philosophical novel, “The Dream Weaver” (Penguin, 2008) and a college-level philosophy textbook.  His most recent book, Ethics and Leadership in Sport, comes out in July, 2017. While at Stanford Jack was a 2-time water polo All-American and NCAA MVP and was the alternate goalie on the 2006 Olympic Team. He has coached water polo at Menlo School for the past 17 years, winning the league championship 15 years and the section championship 5 times. In 2011 he was named by the Positive Coaching Alliance as a National Award Winner and now serves as the chair of the National Coaches Council for PCA. He teaches philosophy at Menlo School and serves as their College Athletics Councilor.

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