Criminal Charges, Cheering, And The Female Sports Fan

In addition to the misery of the debt ceiling showdown, this week brought the unfortunate news that I, as a Patriots fan, am apparently supposed to root for Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth. Ochocinco’s really mostly a harmless diva, and I can live with him, especially if the team lets Aaron Hernandez keep jersey number 85. But Albert Haynesworth is an unprofessional brat — and worse, his trial for misdemeanor sexual assault charges starts on Tuesday. For those unfamiliar with the details behind the case, Haynesworth stands accused of asking a waitress if he could put his credit card in her blouse when he settled his check, and interpreting her consent to that as permission to fondle her breasts. When interviewed by the police, he told a detective that “I know what this is about, she is just upset that I have a white girlfriend. I couldn’t tell you the last time I dated a black girl. She was trying to get with me.” Charming.

Obviously Haynesworth is innocent until proven guilty. And because I believe in reintegrating people into society after they serve the penalties meted out to them by the justice system, Haynesworth will have every right in the world to keep playing football if he’s convicted and serves out whatever fine or community service he’s sentenced to, just as Michael Vick has every right in the world to continue to earn a living as a quarterback now that he’s served his jail sentence. But there’s a lot of ground between not blocking someone from getting a job or a place to live after they’re found guilty in a court of law, and cheering for them on a national stage, between the neutrality of acceptance and the affirmation of respect.

And I don’t want to cheer for Albert Haynesworth. I didn’t want to cheer for Julio Lugo, either, during his time with the Red Sox, even though his wife recanted her original version of events in a 2003 domestic violence case and he was acquitted. Haynesworth didn’t grope me in public, Lugo didn’t beat me up while trying to throw me out of our mutual house, and I am obviously not the Texas cheerleader who was kicked off her squad for refusing to cheer for the player who raped her and plead out to lesser charges, lost her case in court, and was ordered to pay her school district’s legal fees. But I can’t ignore these things just because they didn’t happen to me. The cognitive dissonance is just too jarring.

Teams take character into consideration to a limited extent in considering who they hire, because at the end of the day, being the kind of jerk who blames assault charges on black women being upset that he dates white women has nothing to do with how hard you hit quarterbacks. But tickets and television rights to games are only part of what sports franchises sell. They want us to buy all manner of merchandise, to wear these men’s names across our backs. Their profit depends on our level of identification and emotional involvement with the team as an entity and the players as individuals. There’s a reason almost every single athlete in the country has some sort of charitable foundation, and it’s not entirely out of the goodness of their hearts. I’d really love to see a day where assaulting a woman, be she wife or cocktail waitress, will be as commercially damaging to a team and to a player’s individual brand as, say, declaring that you hate the Jimmy Fund and all those kids with cancer can shove it. But until we get there, female fans are going to be stuck with uncomfortable decisions about when to rise with the crowd, and when a great play can only be greeted with the sound of one and a half hands clapping.