Sunday, July 28, 2013

If New York Can Forgive Weiner and Spitzer, Why Not A-Rod?

New York City may not be the center of the universe, but it's been the center of a lot of news lately in the baseball and political spheres. Three huge figures in the city are in the midst of trying to rehabilitate their careers: former congressman Anthony Weiner and former governor Eliot Spitzer are running for office for the first time since they each resigned due to sexual indiscretions, and Yankees third baseman Alex Rodríguez is trying to return to the major leagues for the first time since the bombshell Biogenesis investigation implicated him in the latest MLB steroids scandal.

Yet they're getting very different receptions in the Big Apple. While Weiner and Spitzer are regarded as frontrunners for mayor and city comptroller respectively, A-Rod remains public enemy number one. To be sure, Weiner and Spitzer have their detractors—Weiner especially, after last week's revelations of previously unknown additional sexting. But the overall narrative surrounding them has been redemptive, even positive. Both of them have depicted themselves as deeply flawed men who are nevertheless trying to face the world again, make good to the voters they let down, and rebuild their lives. For the most part, the media (except, as always, New York tabloids) has accepted this narrative (again, at least until this past week's events with Weiner). Most importantly, though, polls have shown that voters have accepted it. Two polls last week gave Spitzer the lead in the comptroller race, and Weiner was surging ahead, capturing 26% of the vote in a crowded field, before last week's information came to light. Heck, even after the world knew that he fell off the fidelity wagon a second time, a poll found Weiner hanging onto second place—and therefore a slot in the runoff.

This couldn't be more different than A-Rod's situation; everyone—from fans to the media to even his employer, the New York Yankees—is in agreement about disowning the former superstar. Since he was linked to the PED-supplying clinic Biogenesis, reaction has ranged from mere vitriol to calls for him to be banned for life. The Yankees have allegedly explored ways to dump him from the team entirely, and they're not exactly trying to hide their disgust with him. Yet akin to Weiner and Spitzer, everything A-Rod has done since his "scandal" has pointed toward one thing: a desire to get back to playing Major League Baseball to help a team that desperately needs him. His deeds to this end include tweeting about his progressing rehab, seeking out a doctor to ascertain if he is healthy enough to play, and turning down a plea bargain from MLB that probably would have ruined his 2013 but given him a clean slate for the rest of his career. Yet A-Rod has been unanimously lambasted for all three of these actions. It's at the point where A-Rod, who hasn't played an inning for the Yankees this year, is singlehandedly responsible for ruining their season.

This discrepancy is baffling to me. Weiner, Spitzer, and A-Rod all had very real failings. In fact, most people would probably consider Weiner's and Spitzer's sins to be greater than A-Rod's. So why is A-Rod the most villainous of the three? Why are his actions to redeem himself not seen that way, while Weiner's and Spitzer's (which could easily be more cynically spun as attempts to grab back a hold of power) are welcomed? What is so especially heinous about A-Rod?

You can say that we respond differently, more emotionally, to sports than to politics. Baseball players like Alex Rodríguez are seen as heroes. Politicians don't engender the same adoration; in fact, they're boring and often not exactly beloved in the first place. So it makes sense that people would feel more personally betrayed when a hero cheats than when a politician does it; to a certain extent, it's expected when a politician is a letdown. That's a plausible explanation—but it's not a justification. A love for sports can blind people into thinking they're important, but it is, as many a Little Leaguer must be told, only a game. Cheating at a game is not a cause for moral outrage; breaking one's marriage vows and, potentially, destroying one's family are certainly much greater offenses. This perspective should at least cancel out the greater distance a ballplayer must travel than a politician to complete his fall from grace.

You can say that, while New York may hate A-Rod, it's not like they're in love with Weiner and Spitzer either. Even if the city elects them to the jobs they want, it might simply be because they were the best options in two underwhelming fields. Indeed, the most recent NBC 4 New York/Wall Street Journal/Marist Poll found that 55% of New York City Democrats had an unfavorable opinion of Anthony Weiner—which means the city's registered voters probably think even worse of him. But remember—this poll was conducted after the new revelations about Weiner's other sexting. Before last week, Marist found that 52% of New York City Democrats were favorably disposed toward Weiner, and 59% said he deserved a second chance. Even more were willing to forgive Spitzer; 67% said he deserved a second chance, and 62% said his past transgressions wouldn't affect their vote.

My point here is not to say that Weiner and Spitzer don't necessarily deserve second chances, or that New Yorkers who think they do are wrong, foolish, or amoral. Instead, my point is to ask—what percentage of New York voters do you think would say that Alex Rodríguez deserves another chance? While I wait for my friend Tom Jensen over at Public Policy Polling to ask the question for real, I've got to guess for now that the answer is "not many." Yet what these polls prove is that there is a vein of forgiveness among New Yorkers that A-Rod is just not tapping into. Even if voters don't like Anthony Weiner today—and even if they are still somewhat divided over Eliot Spitzer—many more of them were at least at one point willing to have open minds about them. That's already a departure from attitudes about A-Rod.

What I will say is that New Yorkers owe A-Rod a little consistency. It's second-chance season in the city that never sleeps, and it's unfair for Gotham to apply it selectively. If New York wants to be rigid and unmerciful, that's fine—it certainly has the reputation of the world's toughest city in which to get by. But then it must turn away Weiner, Spitzer, and Rodríguez all with the same dismissive wave of the hand. For now, put Biogenesis in perspective and let A-Rod walk the long and difficult comeback trail on his own. Unlike Weiner and Spitzer, you're stuck with him for four more years regardless.