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In Bay Area, Barry Bonds remains a giant

Hometown fans are often more tolerant of an athlete whose alleged behavior on or off the field has drawn the ire of others.

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But many say the controversy is irrelevant.

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"Steroids aren't going to give him the hand-eye coordination to hit the ball," says Addie Martin of San Francisco. She admits that if he played for a different team, she'd view the case with more of a crooked eye. "Fans are fickle; we like our hometown boys."

In New England, Patriots fans took a similar stance on the arrival of Randy Moss, one of football's bad boys.

Did Moss suddenly become a good Samaritan after being traded from the Oakland Raiders? No, it's much more basic than that: The Patriots acquired him as a receiver for quarterback Tom Brady.

"The thinking is 'he's our guy,' " Mr. Deford says. "This is true all over the world, not just in America. It happens with European soccer players all the time. And look at New York. Jason Giambi admitted taking steroids in testimony, but Yankee fans don't care."

Sociologists say fans loathe and love players on an emotional level rather than employing a rational – or moral – basis.

These snap judgments explain, in part, why Kobe Bryant reigns as the NBA player with the top-selling jersey, despite acknowledging an adulterous liaison in Colorado that led to sexual assault charges. (They were dropped in 2004, and Bryant issued an apology to his accuser.)

"Sports figures are given the benefit of the doubt because they provide us with pleasure," argues Jay Coakley, a sports sociologist. "And that trumps all sorts of things. If a person brings us some type of excitement, then we're not real anxious to take that person out of the game."

Whether the issues involve serious, criminal offenses, a sense of fair play, or matters of style, fans tend to invoke – and dismiss – various transgressions on a whim. They also fall prone to ranking real and perceived offenses on an equal basis.

Thus, when Terrell Owens – then a member of the San Francisco 49ers – very publicly stomped on a Dallas Cowboys logo, he elicited howls of outrage in Big D and beyond. Now, as a member of the Cowboys, he garners hometown cheers.

Media outlets may spotlight player arrests and embarrassments, but the fans have the real vote – with their wallets.

This spring, USA Today's sports page featured dozens of mug shots depicting NFL players in trouble with the law. The new commissioner has meted out harsh suspensions, but the NFL was never in jeopardy with fans.

Much the same can be said for other leagues. Baseball, tarnished by the lingering steroids scandal over the past decade, nonetheless posts record revenue and attendance, year after year.

In the sports world, everything's relative in an Al Davis kind of way: Just win, baby. Fans turn to sports for escapism and entertainment, making it easy to ignore feet of clay in favor of feet at play.

"They lose sight of the athletes as human beings, as people who have responsibilities," says Dave Czesniuk of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Boston's Northeastern University. "People should expect more integrity and honesty."

That is unlikely to change.

"It's just part of the human condition," Deford says. "It's a good escape, and everybody understands there are more important things than ballgames. Sports are important to the culture, but they're for the moment. It's here and gone."