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For sports fans, outrage proves selective

Indignation bubbled out of the caller to a Phillies pregame radio show earlier this month. Just a few days after the Manny Ramirez bombshell, the angry fan was demanding that the Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder be expelled from baseball, that the sport adopt a zero-tolerance policy for performance-enhancing substances.

Bonds and the friendly Giants fans watched a pop-up as the slugger closed in on Babe Ruth's career home-run record in 2006.
Bonds and the friendly Giants fans watched a pop-up as the slugger closed in on Babe Ruth's career home-run record in 2006.Read moreBEN MARGOT / Associated Press

Indignation bubbled out of the caller to a Phillies pregame radio show earlier this month.

Just a few days after the Manny Ramirez bombshell, the angry fan was demanding that the Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder be expelled from baseball, that the sport adopt a zero-tolerance policy for performance-enhancing substances.

"A lifetime ban!" he roared at host Jim Jackson and Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. "That's what will end this stuff. There's no place in baseball for it."

Then, with no segue and apparently no awareness of the ethical contradiction, he turned the conversation to the Phillies.

"You know, I'm counting the days until we get J.C. [Romero] back," he said, referencing the Phils reliever who, like Ramirez, had been suspended for 50 games after testing positive for a banned substance. "Our bullpen could use him."

That caller might not have realized it, but he was exhibiting the characteristics of an increasingly common phenomenon in sports and beyond: the ability to tailor moral outrage to fit our likes and dislikes.

Whether it's coming from baseball fans, political zealots, or the mothers of criminals, whether it's a defense of Bill Clinton's peccadilloes or Barry Bonds' pecs, this ability to justify questionable behavior by those we support - psychologists call it "cognitive dissonance" - is on display everywhere in 2009, perhaps nowhere more illogically than in sports.

"The phenomenon is hard to fight," said Jack Marshall, a Harvard-trained ethicist and president of ProEthics Ltd., in Arlington, Va. "You even hear mothers whose sons are accused of murder saying, 'She had it coming.' "

"You forgive your family," said Penn ethicist Art Caplan, "and these players are our extended family."

Look at how San Francisco continues to embrace Bonds long after revelations about the bloated slugger's Balco connections transformed him into a pariah elsewhere.

Look at how differently Lance Armstrong is viewed in Europe, where he repeatedly has been tainted by doping accusations, and in his native America, where most are convinced that the cancer-surviving cyclist is being jealously slandered.

Look at the New York Yankees, whose savvy fans don't care if the Steinbrenners buy championships as long as they continue to win them.

Look at Jose Canseco or Rickey Henderson, each the epitome of baseball arrogance. They were despised at Fenway Park - until they put on Red Sox uniforms.

"When they became Red Sox, the attitudes about them changed, in many cases overnight," said Marshall, one of several ethicists interviewed for this article. "Canseco was no less loathsome with the Red Sox, but suddenly, with the home team, he was regarded as not so bad.

"It's no different than in entertainment," he said. "People who love Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby know one was associated with mobsters and the other apparently beat his children. But they say, 'What do I care? I still love their music.' . . . If it's good for us, we're willing to forgive a lot."

That seems to be the case even in normally cynical Philadelphia.

When Phils pitcher Brett Myers was accused of hitting his wife in 2007, his reception at Citizens Bank Park was surprisingly muted, a far cry from the one reserved for J.D. Drew, whose only crime was not wanting to play here. (Myers' wife declined to press charges.)

Now Romero, due to return Wednesday in San Diego after being suspended for testing positive for androstenedione, figures to be cheered wildly the first time he takes the mound at Citizens Bank Park.

His case, of course, is complicated by his contention that the store-bought supplement he took did not list the banned substance as an ingredient. (However, a phone call to Major League Baseball's hotline would have confirmed the banned substance, and Romero subsequently sued the manufacturer and distributor.)

So is he guilty? Innocent? Naive?

Your verdict probably depends on your allegiance.

"It's all about familiarity," Caplan said. "Because of the intense local interest in the Phillies, a lot of fans know J.C. Romero better than their neighbors. Meanwhile, athletes from elsewhere are seen as one-dimensional cartoon characters, abstractions.

"If something happens bad to a Cowboy player, the response in Philadelphia tends to be, 'What can you expect from those thugs in Dallas?' " he said. "But when it's J.C. Romero, it's 'Poor J.C., he just can't read labels.' "

Ramirez's suspension will last a few weeks longer than Romero's. But the Dodgers superstar, who admitted taking a female fertility drug commonly used by those cycling down from steroids, not only will be back in time for July's All-Star Game, he also could be starting in it.

Despite his drug troubles and the national outcry his case generated among sports columnists and talk-show hosts, Ramirez was fourth among all National League outfielders in the most recent fan voting, thanks largely to the loyal support of Angelenos.

While bloggers elsewhere were calling the outfielder "a greedy fake," "a dreadlocked cheater," and worse, the Dodgers' on-line community was virtually tearful in its support.

"We love Manny," said one chat-room participant whose screen name was BleedBlue. "We're going to really miss him and we pray for the day he returns."

Cognitive dissonance is a phenomenon first identified by a New York psychologist - no doubt a Yankees fan - named Leon Festinger.

Festinger, who died in 1989 at 79, found it was nearly impossible to persuade zealots that their convictions were misplaced, no matter how powerful the evidence to the contrary.

He wrote that most saw the slightest challenge to their beliefs as a call to arms.

"Sports fans and all of us are very capable of denial," said Tom Crain, who teaches an ethics course at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. "We are willing to push aside rules that are widely accepted when it's in our self-interest.

"Here in Baltimore, it was pretty clear [Miguel] Tejada was on steroids, but we were willing to make allowances, hoping the story didn't go any further. Internally, we made allowances."

Recently, when Alex Rodriguez, another admitted steroid user, returned to the Yankees' lineup, manager Joe Girardi effectively outlined the rationale behind the fans' blind faith.

"He's an important part of our club," Girardi said when asked how A-Rod might be received, "and, you know, I think for the most part people want him to do well. So I would think that he'd get a pretty good reception."

Rodriguez was welcomed warmly during introductions. And when he homered later, all was forgiven.

Fans' reactions might also depend on the nature of the offense.

In the abstract, it's easy to condemn the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing substances. But when the behavior is examined a little more thoughtfully, the conundrum becomes as tricky to handle as a knuckleball.

If the substances can be controlled and monitored, if using them will almost certainly increase a player's chances of fulfilling a lifelong dream, and if he's going to get bloody rich in the process, than why not?

It's a logical temptation, one with which many can identify.

"We're much more willing to forgive something we understand," Caplan said. "Look at Pete Rose. Gambling is something a lot of us know and do. And there are a lot of people, especially gamblers, who continue to defend him.

"But Michael Vick and dogfighting? That's a little tougher to understand. It's much easier to condemn that kind of behavior."

The classic example of this moral-outrage dilemma took place in San Francisco, where fans remain gaga over Bonds, even after virtually everyone else has demonized baseball's home-run king.

Bonds hasn't played since 2007 but continues to insist he wants to do so. Yet he remains so unpopular and controversial that no team - not even the larger-than-life Yankees - has dared approach him. On his final tour as a Giant, fans around the league reacted vocally and often viciously.

Meanwhile, just last month, when he showed up at a Giants game in San Francisco, he received a video tribute, a standing ovation, and prolonged shouts of "Barry! Barry! Barry!"

"San Francisco is an odd case," Marshall said. "They often buck the trend. In other places, their mayor [Gavin Newsom] would be run out of town on a rail. He had an affair with the wife of his top aide and best friend. The aide eventually quit, divorced and ruined, and the mayor went on with his business."

But no one, not even the Giants, is likely to give Bonds that last hurrah he apparently craves.

"Personally, I'd have bet the Yankees would have signed him," Marshall said. "Whatever team did that, though, would be making a devastating statement about its values and priorities. In effect, they'd be saying, 'Cheating and using performance-enhancing drugs is not as big a negative on our scale as winning is a positive. So if you help us win enough games, cheating is OK. In fact, it will be rewarded."

Perhaps, of course, the very fans who support and condemn these players are the ones at fault. Maybe it's our blind, passionate devotion to our heroes that contributes to the drug problem.

"Ultimately they are part of the same achievement-oriented society we are, in which the use of stimulants has become normal," author Marco Visscher wrote in 2007. "The appropriate response is not moral outrage, but a relaxing of the enormous pressure we put on them: 'Just do your best, son. That's all you can do.' "