One of my favorite moments in recent sports memory didn’t involve any actual playing of a sport at all. The playing was, in fact, the worst part. It was March 3, 2014, when Jason Collins, who nearly a year before had announced on the cover of Sports Illustrated that he was a gay man, played his first home game for the Brooklyn Nets. Collins had spent most of that season looking for a job before the Nets, in need of a backup center, signed him to a ten-day contract. After a four-game road trip in which Collins played a total of 32 minutes, the Nets, in front of a sold-out crowd, announced he was entering the game with just a few minutes left and the Nets winning by 17. Barclays Center erupted in a standing ovation as Collins, wearing No. 98 to honor Matthew Shepherd, took the court. Collins was truly courageous, an openly gay player in one of the four major professional North American sports, and his intestinal fortitude cannot be overstated: After all, more than four years later, there still hasn’t been another one.
The thing about the moment, though, is that once Collins entered the game … nobody paid him any more attention. Jason Collins was, always was, an extremely dull basketball player; like his twin brother, Jarron, he was just a tall, lumbering guy who picked up a bunch of fouls, grabbed a stray rebound here or there, and mostly just stood in the lane and got in people’s way. Jason Collins was a heroic figure, but he was a pretty damned boring basketball player. You might pay to honor Jason Collins’s strength, but you sure wouldn’t do it to watch him dribble. You know who you might pay for? You might pay to watch dribbling from Jason Kidd, the Nets coach at the time, a man who pleaded guilty to domestic abuse in 2011 and was accused by his wife, six years later, of breaking her rib and smashing her head into the console of his car. Kidd was one of the most purely exciting players to watch in NBA history; he was inducted into the Hall of Fame just last year. You really should have seen him on the fast break.
Every sports fan, at some point in his or her life, has to answer a fundamental question: Why am I doing this? Why am I, a grown adult with autonomy of movement and total freedom to choose what occupies my mind and soul, spending a large percentage of my leisure time watching a group of millionaires whom I’ve never met and have nearly nothing in common with — in a building built from public funds that should have gone to schools and parks, owned by a shadow billionaire corporation that is using all the money I’m giving it as a real-estate land grab it’ll flip as soon as it’s politically expedient to do so — play a children’s game? Why am I doing this? Being a sports fan means signing up for shady capitalist practices, engaging in ugly tribalism, and very often, cheering for many human beings who stand for the opposite of what you believe in every possible way. You might not always be acutely aware that you’re doing these things, but you are. To successfully remain a sports fan, I’d argue a certain emotional alchemy is required. You have to separate you from them, or you’ll go mad.
I’ve been thinking a lot about all of this in the wake of the Chicago Cubs trading for second baseman Daniel Murphy. Back in 2014, Major League Baseball hired gay former player Billy Bean as Ambassador for Inclusion — an awkward title for an actual important job. Most players and executives greeted Bean, who had been drummed out of the game for his sexuality 20 years ago, with open arms. Murphy was not one of them. “I disagree with his lifestyle. I do disagree with the fact he is homosexual,” Murphy said after meeting with Bean before the 2015 season. “That doesn’t mean I can’t still invest in him and get to know him. I don’t think the fact someone is homosexual should completely shut the door on investing in them in a relational aspect. Maybe as a Christian … we haven’t been articulate enough in describing what our actual stance is on homosexuality. We love the people. We disagree with the lifestyle.” (Bean, for his part, responded to Murphy with warmth and empathy, saying, “It took me 32 years to fully accept my sexual orientation, so it would be hypocritical of me to not be patient with others. Inclusion means everyone, plain and simple.”)
Murphy’s comments have been in the public record for a while, and while you hear grumblings on Twitter occasionally when Murphy is batting, they haven’t been foregrounded for years. I don’t remember many Mets fans mentioning them, for instance, when he led them to the World Series later that same year. (If anything, Mets fans have groused that they let him get away to the rival Washington Nationals.)
What changed, and why the comments have returned to the public consciousness, is that he was traded to the Cubs, who, nearly two years since their historic run to their first World Series title in 108 years, remain one of baseball’s feel-good stories. People want to like the Cubs, and Murphy’s views have gotten in the way of that. Writer Parker Molloy, a lifelong Cubs fan, wrote a moving piece saying that she was done with the Cubs for the season because of the Murphy trade, and while she demurred that her decision was “a tiny and insignificant personal protest,” it has resonated among many Cubs fans and observers. The furor has grown to the point that Laura Ricketts, one of the Cubs board members and the only gay owner of a major professional North American sports team, felt the urge to respond to it on Twitter.
Murphy has never backtracked from his comments, though he says he still has a good relationship with Bean (something Bean has yet to confirm, by the way) and that he hopes no one will stop rooting for the Cubs because of him, a shrug that seemed to misunderstand the volume of the anger with him. (His agent Seth Levinson’s claim that questions about Murphy’s views were “mob justice,” that the media were “hate mongers,” and that “I am deeply uncertain whether speaking to anyone in the media will ever FAIRLY serve a good man’s best interests,” well, that wasn’t much help either.) So that’s the question, isn’t it? Will they stop rooting for the Cubs because he’s a homophobe and his agent is terrible at being a public representative of his client? Should they? Or, more to the point, should they feel bad if they don’t? It is worth pointing out that the Cubs have not lost a game since trading for Murphy, who is hitting over .400 with two homers in his six games with the team. Should a Cubs fan feel guilty for being happy about that?
The fundamental question at hand, it seems, is: Can you be an ethical sports fan? An analogy can be made to the food industry, where the notion of being aware of the moral ramifications of what and where you eat has been the industry’s driving force over the last half-decade. It is easy to no longer consume the work of Louis C.K., or Woody Allen, or Kevin Spacey; you can just go watch somebody else’s movies. But in sports, there are a limited number of teams, teams that have, for many people, been a singular through line of their entire life. (I was a Cardinals fan before I knew how to do basic multiplication tables.) And these teams have a variety of different players with a variety of different views and backgrounds, brought together by a combination of front-office expediency and random chance.
If you are going to cheer for a sports team, you are going to end up cheering for someone with views you don’t agree with. (And don’t get me started about the owners.) Cubs fans should be used to this by now: In 2016, the year of their breakthrough, they did root for Jake Arrieta, who cheered President Trump’s election the day after saying “Time for Hollywood to pony up and head for the border #illhelpyoupack #beatit,” and Aroldis Chapman, a man suspended by MLB for domestic violence. (I have several Cubs-fan friends who were relieved that the final out of that 2016 championship was pitched by Mike Montgomery rather than Chapman, though who knows, maybe Mike Montgomery thinks some horrible things, too. There’s a legitimate argument to be made that one should be careful to conflate past offense to active current prejudices; one involves past offenses, the other current ones. But the mental gymnastics required to cheer for such players are similar. I’m used to this as a Cardinals fan as well. Lance Berkman, who spoke out against a Houston equal-rights ordinance, saying he did not want “troubled men to enter women’s bathrooms, showers, and locker rooms,” is one of the main reasons my team won the 2011 World Series, which was the greatest sports thrill I will ever experience. It’s very annoying.
But I don’t know: Am I not supposed to enjoy that World Series because of it? Are Cubs fans supposed to actively cheer for one of their players to strike out because he’s a homophobe? These decisions are, of course, up to any individual person, but it is worth noting that if you are waiting to have a team of athletes who are ethically identical to you as a fan in every way that is important to you, you are going to be waiting a very long time.
One respects Molloy’s heartfelt belief that she can’t cheer for the Cubs until Daniel Murphy is gone — and the optimism that a movement could someday sweep sports and remove the financial incentives for a team like the Cubs to hire a homophobe just because he hits so many homers — but, not to be the bearer of bad tidings here, when (if) Murphy leaves, there will certainty be another Daniel Murphy. Maybe it will be beliefs like Murphy’s (if not so overtly spoken), maybe it will be off-field issues, maybe it will just be a big ole MAGA hat in his locker. But if one cannot make peace with one’s favorite team employing some unsavory human beings, one is going to have a difficult time watching sports at all.
Which is fine! Ethical eating is an option for people who eat because, of course, we all have to eat; we’re just picking how. No one is physically required to be a sports fan. But if one is going to be a sports fan, I’m not sure one really can be truly ethical and still be truly invested. The deal we make with ourselves when we watch sports is that we will give outsize proportion to their importance, we will allow them to affect our emotions in dramatic ways even though no one involved has any personal connection to us at all, and we will, wittingly or no, finance activities and products and philosophies that are bad for the world as a whole.
Being a sports fan is itself a compromise of ethics, in mostly small ways, but real ways nevertheless. How much you are willing to tolerate is the decision every sports fan has to make. Cubs fans might not like having Daniel Murphy on their team any more than I might not like having Lance Berkman on my team. But they like the Cubs, for whatever reasons they might like the Cubs: They grew up with the Cubs, they were inspired by their championship two years ago, they got drunk at the Cubby Bear once. If they are willing to give that up because there is a player on their team with loathsome views or an ugly personal history, or an owner (say) that gave a million dollars to elect Donald Trump, I sincerely salute their commitment to ethical sports fandom, a commitment that will require them never to watch sports again. I am not strong enough to make those little deals with myself to keep watching. I don’t know many who are. More people would rather watch Jason Kidd than Jason Collins. For better or mostly worse, that’s what being a sports fan is.
Will Leitch’s Games column runs weekly. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.