Uncommon Bonds: The Decline of the Sports Villain

It was 2006, the last of my junior-high years. Two of my homeroom classmates sat behind me, fresh off their morning “SportsCenter” viewing, going back and forth about Barry Bonds’ latest antics. I don’t remember what Bonds had done, exactly; he had plenty of antics back in those days. Whatever it was, none of the three of us had taken too kindly to it. Sensing an opportunity to have a friendly moment with a couple of guys who looked like they might try to stuff me into a locker sometime soon, I turned around in my desk-chair combo and tried to jump on their bandwagon.

“I hope Barry Bonds dies. That would be awesome!”

The kids stopped talking and looked at me as if I had just said the cruelest, most despicable thing they’d ever heard. Years later, one of them would serve jail time for a knife-related incident.

At the time, my hatred for Barry Bonds burned so brightly that my words were hardly an exaggeration. I hated his smug, whatcha-gonna-do-about-it attitude toward his blatant steroid use. I hated his knowing smirk, his whiny voice, and the cross-shaped earring that hung ironically from his left earlobe. I hated the fact that he had an absurd .609 on-base percentage in 2004, his fourth consecutive season in which that mark was above .500. Most of all, I hated the sheer number of press conferences and “Baseball Tonight” segments that resulted from all of this.

I don’t still hope for Barry Bonds’ death, though he will die eventually. What is more surprising is that I can’t even muster up any of that old hatred for him anymore. Everything I just said about him is still true, but thinking about Bonds doesn’t cause me to do much more than sigh and wistfully browse Baseball Reference. He finally left baseball after the 2007 season, as a 43-year-old whose body was starting to break down, even with all of its pharmaceutical enhancements. He could still hit better than most, but no one wanted Barry Bonds on their team, because he was the biggest villain in all of pro sports.

There were many others before him. As far back as Ty Cobb, who played so long ago that historians aren’t even sure human civilization existed in his day, Seven years later, we’re still waiting for someone else to step into the Darth Vader suit. Many athletes have tried, but all have failed to bring together the right combination of personal attributes and cultural circumstances needed to pull it off.

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Bad, But Not A Monster: It may seem strange that I’m nostalgic for sports villainy at a time when various NFL stars are in the news for their illegal and injurious acts of aggression against other human beings. But these players far exceed the line between “hate” and “love to hate.” We take an interest in the human drama behind their stories, but we mostly just want to see them put to justice and sent out of our lives for good. Bonds was a brazen cheater, but he never directly caused anyone physical harm, so we were more inclined to put up with him. He never broke any laws, save for one conviction on charges of obstruction of justice. Giving a bunch of prosecutors headaches doesn’t exactly engender the same moral outrage as violence against women.

Best of the Best: When an athlete is putting up the muscular numbers that Bonds recorded from 2001 onward, he’ll get plenty of notice no matter what fans think of him. In the NFL, Richard Sherman has some promising villainous characteristics, but as great of a cornerback as he is, he’s nowhere near Bonds’ level of notoriety. He plays defense in a fantasy-centric football culture. Most of his fantasy owners were required to draft Sherman’s Seahawks teammates Bobby Wagner and Greg Scruggs along with him. In other leagues, DeMarcus Cousins, Yasiel Puig, and Bryce Harper don’t seem to care much about what people think of them, but they each have a long way to go to establish themselves at the very top of their respective sports. If those guys do manage to grow into superstars, they’ll be under pressure to portray more benevolent versions of themselves. Their financial success depends on it, because we live in…

…The Era of “Nice”: This is the big one. The Twitter and Facebook machines mean that sports fans have far more access to the details of athletes’ personal lives than ever before. This is neither wholly good nor wholly bad. For those who want to know what Steve Weatherford has for dinner on a typical Wednesday night, it’s wonderful. But the increased access to athletes means that the major sports leagues, especially the NBA, have shifted the focus of their marketing from teams to players. And the hero is always more marketable than the heel. You can find a lot more Superman costumes than Lex Luthor costumes at those weird seasonal Halloween stores in strip malls. Post-Decision LeBron James figured this out the hard way over the past four years, and then did a complete about-face when commercials in which he ran down streets with young children did nothing to rehabilitate his reputation as the league’s bad guy.

Athletes are their own mini-corporations, and their images are meticulously manicured by agents and team officials, whose eyes are all turned toward the bottom line. Children’s hospital photo-ops are disseminated, and apologies are carefully worded to fit 140-character constraints. The surprise is that more people don’t recognize that it’s all bullshit. @RayRice27, an account that’s been dormant since February, painted a picture of a devoted family man.

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Maybe Barry Bonds just happened to play baseball at a time when he was allowed to be who he wanted to be, who he really was. But it’s hard to imagine that he would act any differently if he were still playing today. He was a real shithead, just like countless other athletes after him have revealed themselves to be. It would be nice if more of them would admit it. It goes back to that old question about whether it’s better for good things or interesting things to happen. If nothing else, at least Barry Bonds got that one right.

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