Why Do Fans Defend Disgraced Athletes?

The impending conclusion of Chicago Cubs INF Addison Russell’s suspension for conduct in violation of the MLB domestic violence policy has prompted new discussion about whether he should be welcomed back to the Cubs roster. While it has been reported that Russell will remain with AAA Iowa for the time being for baseball-related reasons, there are many fans who defend and support Russell’s return for reasons that have very little to do with whether it makes baseball sense and everything to do with the patriarchal nature of North American society and the tribalism of sports fandom.

Fans appalled by Russell’s abhorrent behavior have expressed puzzlement at the vehemence of his defenders. My reflections about why sports fans defend disgraced stars like Russell and Tyreek Hill of the Kansas City Chiefs follow. These are based on my understanding of feminist theory and the sociology of sport as a person who has not completed a formal program of study in either subject. This is not a post about debunking common defenses of Russell’s return to the Cubs. Rather, it is a discussion about why I believe people defend him.

Common Defenses

Defenses of Russell posted to social media by Cubs fans and baseball fans in general generally tend to fit into the categories “Women are Gold-Digging Liars” and “Everyone Deserves a Second Chance.” You can find examples of these on Twitter in the responses to just about any tweet about Russell’s suspension by Cubs beat writers, and even in some tweets from the beat writers themselves. The most popular defenses in each category appear at the top, while the others are in no particular order of frequency.

Women are Gold-Digging Liars

  • We don’t know what happened
  • There are two sides to every story and the truth is in the middle
  • Russell’s ex-wife is lying because he wouldn’t reconcile with her

Everyone Deserves a Second Chance

  • How will he make a living/support his children if he can’t play baseball?
  • Good people will pray for Russell to become a better man
  • He’s “done his time”
  • The Cubs say they want to take responsibility so we should trust their process
  • We should welcome Russell back as long as there are no new allegations
  • If he doesn’t get to come back, he’ll be more angry and abusive

The next section of this post will deal with my thoughts about why people specifically use the “everyone deserves a second chance” defense concerning Russell’s ability to earn a living. In my experience, most Russell supporters tend to be men, so I will discuss why men may relate to Russell’s situation.

The Breadwinner and Toxic Masculinity

Toxic masculinity is a term that describes stereotypes about how men should live and behave that are damaging both to men and the other people in their lives, mainly because men who fail to live up to these stereotypes can engage in destructive and insecure behaviors in order to reassert the status “lost” by their failure. One such stereotype is the idea that men should be the main breadwinners of their families, one of the “three P’s” of manhood (providing, protecting and procreating). A man who isn’t a breadwinner is considered to be less of a man and will express his insecurity about his status in a variety of harmful ways, such as increased propensity to domestic violence and adultery, and any circumstance that endangers a man’s ability to be a provider is a threat to his manhood.

Addison Russell, as a champion athlete who is part of a high-profile franchise, who also earns millions of dollars to play professional sports, is a high-status individual. If the ability of such a high-status individual to earn a living can be endangered by personal conduct generating negative public opinion, then this is a threat to manhood in general, and therefore to men – “if it can happen to him, it can happen to me!” We see the same issue with Me Too allegations that have brought down high-profile Hollywood figures like Matt Lauer and Harvey Weinstein. Men who defend these personalities feel threatened – “I can’t be alone with women anymore because I don’t want to be accused like they were.” However, I believe that sports fans tend to defend their favorite stars much more vigorously then they have defended Hollywood personalities, even formerly popular ones like Lauer, because of the unique nature of sports fandom.

The Tribal Nature of Fandom

When we choose to become serious fans of a sports team, we are self-selecting into a social group and strongly identify with this group and its members. When the team wins, “we won.” A team championship is treated as a group achievement, even though fans have no impact on the outcome of games beyond the effect of crowd noise. In spite of the fact that there are no ties of blood or friendship between a team’s fans and the athletes (unless you’re a fellow celebrity), fans will vehemently defend the honor of the athletes against attacks by journalists, opposing fans and other players because we take the attacks personally. When allegations of a criminal nature are leveled against a player on a team we support, we react similarly to how we might react if a family member were accused of such a crime – denial, disbelief, deflection. This is why fans are willing to go to extreme lengths to defend a disgraced athlete when the athlete is a member of their team.

Conclusion

As I stated previously, I am no expert on psychology, sociology or gender studies and this post is just an expansion on thoughts I have recently shared on Twitter. I would be very interested to read the results of any pertinent studies or surveys by experts. If you are aware of any, please feel free to share them with me on Twitter @farnorthsider or submit a comment below.

If you have enjoyed this post, please consider supporting an organization that helps domestic violence survivors, such as the Red Door Family Shelter of Toronto or another organization in your community.