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A Brief Reminder That You Don't Really Know These People

Some thoughts on the culture of sports fandom in light of the Ray Rice news.

Rob Carr

The further away we get from the initial impact of seeing the video of Ray Rice actually hitting his then-fiance in the face, the more convoluted the entire story gets.

It's one of those stories where everyone you know has an opinion on the matter. In fact, it's a story so big that everyone you know has an opinion on the other opinions. And the more opinions I hear, the less I want to hear any.

Based on what I've read and heard, roughly 87% of people in America are experts in personal injury law and assault crimes. I've heard the phrase "I'm not condoning what he did at all, however..." more times than I care to admit. I've seen and heard so many people find new and unique ways to justify Rice's actions while trying not to come off as a misogynist or woman-hater, or so they think.

Opinions themselves are news. When something happens, there's a whole slew of websites that immediately start culling tweets to put together a "Here's a Bunch of People Who Are Racist/Misogynistic/Homophobic" post. Others compile "Here's What Famous People Had To Say" posts. The initial story is often not as important as what a random collection of people are saying about that thing on the Internet.

Out of curiosity, I decided to take a look around the world of Syracuse athletes, former and current, to see what they might have to say on the matter. While a large percentage didn't seem to have any opinion, or were at least smart enough not to say anything, I did come across a handful of folks who seemed to be, if not condoning, "understanding" why Ray Rice did what he did. Or at least implying that. One even made sure to say he hoped Rice could overcome this but made no mention of the person Rice knocked unconscious, as if Rice was the victim here.

It was all a really good reminder that while I root for all of these guys as Syracuse Orange athletes, I don't actually know them. They don't know me. Chances are we wouldn't have that much to talk about if we met at a bar other than Syracuse sports and if I actually did talk to them, I might not like anything they'd have to say. And vice versa.

Jerry Seinfeld was right. We really are just rooting for laundry. And maybe that's a good reality check to keep in mind sometimes. In a world where your favorite NFL player growing up could one day be revealed to be a serial rapist and the assistant coach on your favorite football team could one day be revealed to be a child rapist, how much should you truly invest in the human being wearing the jersey? Guys like Rae Carruth, Aaron Hernandez, O.J. Simpson and now Ray Rice (and those are just the ones whose crimes have come to light) remind us that any player on your favorite team's roster could be the kind of person you wouldn't be caught dead associated with, let alone wanting to root for on a Sunday.

Nate Mink has a great piece up at The Asylum today about Marvin Harrison, the greatest receiver in SU history who also happens to be an enigma with a very questionable albatross hanging around his neck in the form of a shooting he may or may not have been involved in. As a Syracuse fan, I have an instant desire to cheer for him if and when he returns. But as an objective sports fan, I'm terrified of Harrison. I'm terrified that he's actually an attempted murderer that got away with it.

In Nate's article you can see SU folks like DOC Gross trying to look past the allegations but it reeks of burying one's head in the sand. What if we invite him back with a jersey retiring ceremony, hell, even a statue, and then it turns out he actually was involved in the shootings? Or what if he's involved in something else that's worse?

After everything we've seen from the rest of the sports world, and here at home with the Bernie Fine allegations, how does anyone ever get the benefit of the doubt anymore? How do you know? How can you be so sure?

You can't. Because you don't actually, truly know this person. You're just guessing. More likely, you're hoping.

Sports are weird. I've personally been going through a bit of a crisis of conscious about being a sports fan recently. It occurred to me not long ago that we really are just rooting for corporations at this point. Even at the college level. College athletics are 100% a business, regardless of their history and academic affiliation. They are a business, no matter the semantic argument you make about amatuerism. We treat them like a business. Athletic directors and conference commissioners hold press conferences to talk about their teams and leagues almost exclusively in terms of business. It's a business.

And we, as sports fans, are told to climb aboard the train and invest our time, energy, money (certainly money) and emotions into this business. We're told that we are essential. That we are vital cogs in the machine that leads us to victory. That we are good people trusting in other good people to put together a team of good people that we can root for proudly.

But that's not true, is it? We've got enough examples to prove that's not true. People are people. It's not that there are good guys and bad guys, they're just...people. Sometimes those people do things we disagree with and sometimes they do things we vehemently despise.

Maybe that's why I get so weirded out by things like the Cuse Twitter Army. What an abstract weirdness it is to try and recruit strangers to join your school. Random people bound by one interest recruiting random people they don't know based on one attribute with a goal of doing one specific thing irregardless of anything else. I suppose that's how we hire employees and elect politicians, too. And yet we're always so shocked when that person reveals themselves to be more than (or less than) we assumed they were.

I don't know where this train ends or how long it keeps chugging along. Maybe it's a good thing that we demystify our athletes. We should probably learn the lessons that Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods and Pete Rose have tried to teach us. That they are not "better than us." They're just talented in a specific way most of us aren't. Perhaps they're not as talented as us in other areas.

Cheer for them. Root for them. But don't deify them.

Cause they're just people.