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Your favorite team has a problematic player. How does a sports fan move forward?

For fans of particular teams, that fandom is often unconditional. The teams win and lose, players and coaches come and go, but we — and fellow fans — continue to root for them.

What happens, though, when our favorite teams bring in players who have done things away from the field that we object to?

It’s a variation on the “love the art, hate the artist” theme, and it’s one some Valley sports fans grappled with somewhat recently when the Phoenix Suns were rumored to be interested in trading for Miles Bridges.

Bridges had been arrested and charged with a felony count of domestic violence. He was then charged with violating a protective order stemming from that incident. The charges have since been dismissed. But many Suns fans took to social media to say they wouldn’t be able to root for the team if it brought in Bridges.

Jake Wojtowicz joined The Show talk about how sports fans can think about what to do when an objectionable player plays for their team. Rochester, New York-based Wojtowicz writes about the philosophy of sports and is co-author of the book “Why it’s OK to be a Sports Fan.”

Full interview

MARK BRODIE: There’ve been a lot of conversations about the difference between liking the art vs. the artist when the artist has done something bad. But do you see a difference between those forms of entertainment and sports fandom, when we learn that an athlete on a team we root for is accused of something?

JAKE WOJTOWICZ: Yeah, I think there’s sort of two big differences. One is that most people don’t root for the artist. You know, we’re not cheering for the authors to do well. We might enjoy their work, but we don’t have a sort of, you know, we’re not cheering them on against someone else.

But generally, it seems that we root for our sports teams. You know, “I want the Bills to win.” And it’s not just that I enjoy watching them. I want them to win.

And also, I think the other thing is that the players represent the fans in some way. And the players on pitch are also representing these people. So when a player does something bad and then you sort of cheer for them, your representative is doing something bad in a way that doesn’t apply if we’re just thinking about — I don’t know — Roman Polanski or an artist who’s done a bad thing.

BRODIE: Yeah. I wonder if there’s also sort of a community aspect to it, because for a lot of sports teams in the U.S., it’s more a geographical association like the Phoenix Suns, the Buffalo Bills, the L.A. Lakers, teams like that. Is there a sense that if we root for a team and somebody on that team is accused of or has done something bad, does it maybe make our community look bad in fans’ eyes?

WOJTOWICZ: I think so, yeah. I think the location thing, the geographical thing is really important. And I think that's true in European soccer as well.

BRODIE: Is it possible to root for a team and continue to root for a team, but maybe not root for a particular player? Like if there’s one player on a football team or a baseball team who has done something or is accused of something untoward, is it possible to sort of, at least in our minds, maybe push that player aside but continue to root for the rest of the players?

WOJTOWICZ: I think so. I think you can do that, but it probably is a bit tenuous. You know, what if they score the game-winning touchdown to get you to the Super Bowl? Seems to be a weird situation.

BRODIE: Does it matter the infraction? If a player is accused, for example, of cheating the game in some way versus someone is accused of sexual assault or some other kind of violent offense. Does that matter to fans, whether or not we’re able to continue to cheer either for them or for the team?

WOJTOWICZ: I think so. A player accused of cheating? It depends on the cheating, right? Like if he or she was cheating to try and win the game, the fans might be behind that. Some teams might have an ethos where the only thing that matters is following the rules and making sure we’re good. And we follow this sort of amateur spirit of playing the game for the game’s sake. Other people want to win the game, and they might care more about just winning, in which case maybe they’re not going to mind so much.

The infraction, if it’s a non-sporting thing, also matters. When it comes to the sporting things, if someone is bribing officials or something, that might be different than if they’re trying to gain an extra yard on the field.

But when it comes to the non-sporting stuff, too, if someone’s cheating on their wife, I mean, that’s bad, but it’s not a crime. Some people do bad things that aren’t crimes, and we also might want to criticize about not have them play for our team. But I think the sort of level of the bad thing, as well as the sort of — the bad thing they do matters.

BRODIE: Right. So how do we as fans try to think about and act on some of these things? Because we kind of alluded to this. There are people who are fans of a team, and some people they don’t even really know why.

Like I’m a third generation Yankees fan. I don’t know that I could stop rooting for them if I wanted to. And there are certainly players on that team who have done things that, you know, have been a little bit questionable or more than a little bit questionable. And yet it’s difficult. It’s more, I think, in some cases than just supporting a team. There’s more to it than that. So what do fans do in those situations?

WOJTOWICZ: That’s really important. Because the one thing that we want to be really clear about is fans don’t just watch sports because they enjoy it. Lots of people, their identity is tied up with it.

You have the misfortune of being a Yankees fan. You didn’t choose to do it, so we’re not going to blame you. But that’s part of who you are. It’s part of your family history being Yankees fans, and you’re part of a community, right? You’re part of this community of Yankees fans.

So I'm an England soccer fan and, and I live in Rochester (New York), so it’s a long way away. But when the World Cup comes on, or when the (UEFA European Football Championship matches) come on, a bunch of English people descend on the same bar and watch it together, and we’re all part of this community of England fans watching it across the world, but also in Rochester. And we make friends through this.

So there’s all this communal stuff and it sort of shapes who we are. So being a fan, it’s not the kind of thing we can just throw away, and it’s not the kind of thing we should just throw away. So we like to compare it to what if a loved one had done something that, or a friend had done something bad?

And if your friend does something that’s mildly bad, you shouldn’t just drop them. You shouldn’t stop being friends with them. If your friend does something that’s really bad, well, maybe you should stop being friends with them, or you should criticize them or try and stop them.

If you have a friend who keeps making racist comments at a party, you might say, “What’s wrong with you? Why are you doing this?” It would be bad to say nothing and to just ignore the fact that your friend is spouting racist things. But you might not just stop being friends with them. You might have been friends with them for 20 years. You’re not necessarily going to drop them from your life. You might eventually, but you’re not going to just immediately drop them.

And we think that’s the same for sports teams. You shouldn’t just drop your team because it’s so important to you. Sometimes you might have to because it might go too far. They might persist with playing a player who’s just like, you cannot abide having them play for your team. But there are lots of things you can do before dropping them.

BRODIE: Does it seem as though teams are maybe a little more cognizant of how fans feel about particular players off-the-field behavior now when they’re looking at signing a player, trading for player or otherwise acquiring a player?

WOJTOWICZ: It seems to me that that’s true. I’m not I’m not a sociologist. I haven’t done studies on this, so I don’t know. But the Mason Greenwood case in England, where he was accused and charged of sexual assault and then charges were dropped. But there were audio and video of things he’d done and said. That meant that fans had pretty good evidence that he’d done something bad, even if that wasn’t a legal conviction there.

The Manchester United fans and lots of prominent supporters were very opposed to him coming back into the team, and it seemed as though the club was trying to bring him back and had to sort of stop because fans and prominent people were sort of opposed to it.

So I think there is a sense in which there is some level of clubs being aware of what fans think, and it matters to some extent. Now cynically, maybe that’s just marketing. Maybe they just think they’re going to take a financial hit if this happens. But you’d hope not. You’d hope they actually care about how their fans feel. It’s nice to think that fans have some power.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record. 

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.