On August 20, Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller was suspended for the first six games of the 2013 NFL season for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. Miller is considered one of the best players on a Broncos team with serious Super Bowl aspirations, and he finished third among defensive players in sacks (18.5) and forced fumbles (6) last season. While Broncos fans (and players, and front office members) are certainly unhappy at the thought of playing almost 40% of the regular season without their starting linebacker, their reaction to the actual reason behind Miller's suspension has been one of near-complete apathy. If these people are angry that Von Miller is a cheater, and/or a steroid user, and/or a liar, they are largely keeping it to themselves.
Miller represents one of many NFL players of varying skill levels who have been banned for violating the league’s substance abuse policy (among whom are former San Diego Chargers outside linebacker Shawne “Lights Out” Merriman and former Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers). Though the individual cases of these players vary greatly, the lack of outrage or even disappointment among fans as a result of their suspensions is uniform. Ask almost any fan, player, coach, or even NFL owner whether or not they believe many NFL players use steroids, and (I believe) they will overwhelmingly say yes. Ask them if they believe steroid use by those players is wrong or unfair, and they will, I believe, say yes to this as well. And yet when suspensions do occur, even among very high-profile players, no one seems to care on any sort of moral level. The media, as well, does not obsess over such stories. Fans don’t come to the stadium with signs saying “cheater,” or anything else along those lines.
In Major League Baseball, the story is somewhat different. MLB players suspended for steroid use are met with reactions ranging from apathy to complete vilification — just ask New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez. Many baseball players serve their suspensions in relative obscurity (as an Atlanta Braves fan, I can certainly point out that our utility outfielder Jordan Schafer has not received any ill treatment from fans or media members after he was suspended 50 games for steroid use). In other cases, however, fans are outraged over players who might not have even been suspended or proven to be steroid users, but are simply plagued by a cloud of suspicion that they were (a certain former San Francisco Giant named Barry comes to mind). The ill will towards them does not stop there. Media members for the past decade have refused to vote some of the game’s greatest all-time players into the Hall of Fame simply because they are thought to be former steroid users (or in some cases, proven to be).
Two things interest (and trouble) me about all of this. First, that very good or great NFL players caught using steroids are treated much more favorably then very good or great MLB players caught doing the same thing. Second, that bad or mediocre MLB players suspended for steroid use are treated much more like those NFL players then their more talented baseball brethren. While there can be many relevant explanations, one thing seems quite clear: Anyone saying that the reason fans are so angry with Rodriguez, or Barry Bonds, or Roger Clemens is that steroid users are “cheating the system,” or “making the game unfair,” or simply acting in a “morally reprehensible way,” is simply wrong. Clearly, most baseball fans don’t care one bit that players are cheating (or they would be angry every time someone was suspended). And clearly, most sports fans don’t care that players are making a game unfair, or football players would be treated in the same way as baseball players when suspended for steroid use.
To put it more bluntly, it seems that sports fans (and baseball fans in particular) are models of hypocrisy when it comes to athletes who take steroids. Using banned substances does not bother them because it is wrong, it bothers them because it infringes on how they are able to absorb, remember, and take pride in a player, a team, or even a sport. They only claim it bothers them because it is wrong, so that they themselves look better.
I’ll make my claim a bit more specific: Fans of football care almost exclusively about wins and Super Bowl titles (and fantasy points of course, but fantasy points are still awarded for players who have been suspended for steroid use), while fans of baseball are also fans of numbers and statistics, batting averages, and home run totals. Practically the only time baseball fans are angry with players for using steroids is when that usage effects how they themselves can view or discuss the player's numbers. Texas Rangers outfielder Nelson Cruz was also recently suspended for steroid use on August 5, yet no one seems to care — even though he led his team to the World Series the past two seasons. Why? Because he didn’t break (or threaten to break) any important records. Rodriguez, on the other hand, has performed rather horribly in his postseason career with the Yankees, and faces a vitriolic reaction from fans — because his numbers (specifically his home run total) do threaten important records.
I certainly do not mean to argue that poor old Alex Rodriguez, or Roger Clemens deserve better. I also don’t mean to urge everyone to be extremely angry with Von Miller, or Bartolo Colon, or even Hedo Turkoglu. I am simply saying that the next time you hear some self-satisfied fan talking about how glad he is that baseball is “cleaning up their game” or how mad he is at Rodriguez for “cheating,” you should view him or her not as a staunch supporter of fairness, but rather as someone whose emotions are tugged at only when some aspect of his or her comfort, or his world order (in this case, how he or she absorbs baseball and other sports) is directly threatened.