When Football Isn’t About Football: The Morality of Fandom

By Michael Baker

Melinda Henneberger is making waves with a very compelling Washington Post piece about why she will not be cheering for her alma mater, the University of Notre Dame, when it competes for the NCAA Football title next month.

Henneberger, like many others who have followed the story, believes that two unnamed Notre Dame football players are guilty of violent sex offenses.  In one case, alleged sexual assault victim Lizzy Seeberg committed suicide after raising accusations to authorities and the school, who are accused of responding to her reports with a so-called investigation that was lukewarm at best.  In the other case, the alleged victim chose not to pursue her accusations after receiving what’s described as a “hailstorm of texts” from ND football players pressuring her not to press rape charges against their teammate. The evidence and allegations are pretty damning, and paint a picture of school that cares far more about the reputation of its football program than the welfare of students (as if it really mattered, Seeberg was not a student at Notre Dame, but was attending its “sister school,” St. Mary’s College, which is located right next to ND and hugely supports the University’s athletics).

The allegations that Henneberger discusses will probably never be prosecuted criminally, so we’ll likely never know for sure what happened in these particular cases.  But what Henneberger’s reaction highlights is the very clear line that many fans seem unwilling to acknowledge – the line between sports and real life.  (And yes, of course any alleged cover-up by Notre Dame has nothing to do with football as a game; it’s all about the ND football program as an overwhelmingly profitable business.  And of course this is not a problem that’s unique to Notre Dame; the University is just a big fish that typifies the problem.  But for sports fans in general, the financial side of things and ND in particular matter a lot less.  What matters is the question of whether anyone who believes allegations like this about players can support their team with a completely clear conscience.)

Is there a moral aspect to your enjoyment of certain entertainment or, more specifically, your support for certain entertainers?  (Sorry to break this to both athletes and sports fans alike, but spectator sports are entertainment and athletes are entertainers).

There are plenty of examples beyond the Notre Dame controversy.  Michael Vick immediately comes to mind.  As talented as he is, I will never cheer for Michael Vick.  It’s not even an option for me, I just can’t do it.  Thinking about the reality of his crimes literally makes me angry.  “He’s done his time, and he’s an amazing quarterback,” is the general sentiment among NFL fans who are willing to sweep Vick’s years of cruelty to animals under the rug because they really just want to enjoy the game.  I get that, but it’s just not that easy for me.  Sure he’s done his time, but that just means he gets to re-enter society, it doesn’t mean we should all treat him as some kind of uplifting success story; a janitor with the same criminal record would have trouble finding work.  Vick may be among the greatest quarterbacks ever, but so what?  What it really boils down to is that he’s really good at running and throwing a ball; he was also pretty good at killing and abusing helpless dogs to make a profit for several years, but he’s done his time so let’s not talk about that.

This is obviously not limited to the wide world of sports.  Chris Brown immediately comes to mind.  Is he talented?  Did he do terribly violent things to another human being?  Do people still like him?  Am I out of touch with popular music?  The answer to all of those questions is probably yes.

Bing Crosby used to beat the living crap out of his kids, but I doubt I’ll be able to finish my Christmas shopping this year without hearing old Bing’s rendition of “White Christmas” (or worse yet, that weird Bing Crosby/David Bowie “Little Drummer Boy” duet).  No one thinks twice about that.  Maybe the classics are impervious to this kind of analysis, while a young pop sensation like Brown doesn’t get a pass.  Or maybe Crosby just gets a pass because he’s dead; I can live with that.

Of course, I’m not so holy.  One of my favorite movies of all time is Chinatown.  Another is Annie Hall.  The former was directed by [almost certain] child rapist Roman Polansky.  The latter was directed by and stars [potential] pedophile and [undeniable] creep Woody Allen.  Is it wrong for me to enjoy those films as much as I do?  Can you support the art without supporting the artist?  Maybe.  For what it’s worth, if I met Roman Polansky in person I’d be a lot more likely to call the Feds than I would be to shake his hand.  Of course, athletes are a little different because they don’t create entertainment, they are the entertainment.  Does that really matter, or is it just my own personal version of “He’s done his time, and he’s a great quarterback”?

The only iron-clad example of an American entertainer who has been absolutely unable to maintain any level of respectability after committing serious crimes is (wait for it…) OJ Simpson.  So the only logical conclusion that I can draw is that you have to literally kill people for the general public to completely turn its back on you.  Then again, I still like the first two Naked Gun movies.

Maybe it all comes down to escapism.  Whether your idea of entertainment is a football game, some shitty R&B music, or a brilliant film, you’d prefer to consume it without having to scrutinize the human beings behind it.  The world can be unpleasant enough without considering that the people who help make it a little more enjoyable can themselves be capable of some pretty ugly things.  Maybe that’s legitimate in small enough doses.  Still, like Henneberger, I won’t be cheering for old Notre Dame.