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Pete Rose and Allen Iverson raise a big question: Why do we tolerate stars' dishonorable behavior?

If sports fans keep making allowances for their favorite athletes, no one should be surprised that the bad acts and sordid stories keep coming.

Pete Rose, speaking here after it was announced that he would be inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame, won’t have a spot on the Phillies Wall of Fame anytime soon.
Pete Rose, speaking here after it was announced that he would be inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame, won’t have a spot on the Phillies Wall of Fame anytime soon.Read moreGary Landers

This was a Sunday morning in March 2014, and the true believers in the Church of Charlie Hustle had come from far and wide to Royersford to pay homage to a man they still regarded as a hero. For an undisclosed sum of money, Pete Rose had agreed to speak at Christ's Church of the Valley, ostensibly about second chances and redemption, but Rose didn't have the minimal decency or social graces even to feign humility or self-reflection. What the congregants got instead was the Pete Rose everyone should have expected, the Pete Rose he has always been.

Former Reds owner Marge Schott? "She was the only one in the organization who had facial hair," Rose said. Willie Mays? Rose told a story about an overexcited fan who, upon encountering Mays in a men's room, urinated on the great ballplayer's trousers. Betting on baseball? There was little recognition of the corruption inherent in what Rose had done — and no remorse over it. "I bet on my own team to win," he said. "If you want to know the truth, I was wrong, but every manager should do that. You should do everything in your power to try to win the game."

And when he finished speaking, he received a standing ovation.

There was nothing surprising about Rose's behavior that day, just as there was nothing surprising about the allegation, exposed Monday, that Rose had a sexual relationship in the 1970s with an underage female, just as there was nothing surprising about Allen Iverson's recent blow-off of a Big 3 basketball game at the Wells Fargo Center. In fact, on the same day that the Phillies announced that they would not induct Rose into their Wall of Fame on Aug. 12, the Big 3 announced that it was suspending Iverson after he no-showed another game. These sorts of stories arise, like canker sores, often in sports, and they sting to varying degrees, depending on the principals and their actions. The concept that links them is dishonor. The famous athlete or celebrity breaks a promise. He commits a sordid act. He reveals or reaffirms that he is something more than merely flawed, or maybe something less.

(A quick digression: While it's reasonable to suggest that Iverson's skipping these games is relatively trivial and that the Big 3's suspension of him is silly, I'd argue that, in one way, his bait-and-switch at the Wells Fargo Center on July 16 was more egregious than some of his transgressions with the 76ers. If Iverson blew off a Sixers game, a fan who had paid good money for a ticket might still see his or her favorite team win and receive at least some emotional satisfaction. But Iverson was the draw for that Big 3 game in Philadelphia. He was the attraction, the primary reason for attending. It was particularly cynical that he didn't perform in an event that, in its context, derived its entire entertainment value from his participation.)

[Allen Iverson is a no-show for 3-on-3 league's game]

In the case of these two principals, Rose and Iverson, their respective histories and reputations should have served as precedents — caveat emptor  to the nth power. This is Pete Rose. This is Allen Iverson. They have behaved dishonorably in the past, often enough that it's fair to say each had established a pattern of such behavior. So if you're the Phillies or if you're a parent who wanted to give your children a chance to see even an older and diminished Iverson in the flesh, didn't you have to understand, appreciate, and prepare for the possibility that something bad would either happen or come to light?

One would think. Yet thousands bought tickets to that half-baked halfcourt game anyway, confident (or at least hopeful) that Iverson would put on another show. And for all the backlash that the Phillies either received or anticipated in the wake of Monday's disclosures about Rose, it's worth noting how many people (based on the responses to the initial news story and to Bob Ford's recent column on the matter) were content to look past Rose's alleged depravity. That willful blindness and those innocent-until-proven-guilty cries were especially rich in this situation, given that Rose did not deny his relationship with the woman—his defense was that he believed her to be 16 years old—and that the relationship was revealed through publicly available documents in a lawsuit that Rose himself filed. The only person who wronged Rose here is Rose.

Still, the loyalty that a godded-up athlete inspires can be strong stuff. Some of it is born of sports and civic tribalism: He was my favorite player on my favorite team. He helped my team win a World Series. He played every game like it was his last. So I'm sticking with him, and don't you suggest I do otherwise. Some of it is born of the kind of whataboutism that has become common in our political discourse: Yeah, he may be a bad guy, but what about Ty Cobb? He's in the Hall of Fame. What about the steroid-users? There are probably a few of them in the Hall of Fame. What about Kobe Bryant? Does anyone bring up those accusations anymore?

The rationalizations are always handy, and they always serve their purpose, which is to prevent us from holding up mirrors to ourselves. If we're going to keep asking why our heroes are so dishonorable, we should ask why they feel emboldened and entitled to act that way in the first place. It's only after the ovation dies down and the next ugly story breaks, it seems, that we realize something: When the collection plate comes around or the church service ends, sometimes the best thing to do is to sit on your hands.