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.
This town still hearts Barry Bonds. Outside the San Francisco city limits, the slugger's quest to surpass the record for career homeruns – currently held by Hank Aaron – is viewed with skepticism, if not derision. But here, the steroid allegations, the surly reputation – all that noise can be muted with the crack of a bat.
Just ask Gary Faselli. For the past two years, he has spent most Giants home games in the 55 degree water of San Francisco Bay, sitting in a kayak waiting for the slugger to whack one into the drink. "I think he's great. I don't think any of this talk that's going around really has much to do with where he's at now," says Mr. Faselli. He fended off a kayak scrum to scoop up Bonds's 738th home-run ball in April.
Residents of any city outside the Bay Area might shake their heads at this kind of devotion to Bonds. However, as so often happens in sports, hometown fans are often more tolerant or forgiving of athletes whose alleged behavior on or off the field has drawn the ire of others.
The steroid allegations against Bonds haven't led to official sanctions, meaning #25 can still count on the timeless, ahem, bonds formed between hometown fans and star athletes.
"People are not objective about their own players," says Ed Hirt, a psychology professor at Indiana University who often studies sports issues. "They excuse behavior or minimize it depending on the circumstances."
The circumstances can usually be boiled down to this: Can he help us win? If so, almost anything can be forgiven – short, perhaps, of an escape run in a white Ford Bronco.
"I always thought San Francisco was a pretty sophisticated city," says veteran Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford. "I guess this proves they're just like anyone else."
Some Bay Area fans concede as much.
"Sophistication and fandom are mutually exclusive," says Ray Ratto, a sports columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. "It's something you do for fun, and when you go to a ballpark or a football game, you don't give it the golf clap."
Support for Bonds, he says, is a matter of concentric circles: The farther away from the ballpark, the less he is liked.
Inside the stadium, he's the star. Wearing a Bonds jersey, Trevor Tauzer from Davis, Calif., likened fellow fans to the die-hard Republicans who still defend the Iraq war decision because of their loyalty to the president; with Bonds it's loyalty to the team. "There's been all sorts of rumors and speculations and leaks to the press, but from my standpoint, if he doesn't belong on the field for these reasons the league should have him taken off," he says. "Until that time, I'll stand behind him as a Giants fan."
The San Francisco Chronicle has reported that Bonds told a grand jury he never knowingly took steroids. But Bonds has generally remained mum on doping allegations.
"I'm a fan of his," says Greg Bradford of Sacramento, but "if he didn't do it, he should just say it straight out."
Others Californians are less equivocal.
"I'm a fan of him as an athlete, but I'm not a fan of his behavior with the steroid controversy," says Paul Rosenberry of El Dorado Hills, Calif. "He probably has not represented the sport as well as he could have. He had a chance to be the greatest athlete in baseball history."
But many say the controversy is irrelevant.
"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."