Last week, Bryce Harper was out and about in Washington, D.C. As he stopped by the National Zoo and other sites, he was kind enough to talk to and be photographed with fans that approached him. We know this, because some of those fans posted pictures of themselves with Harper on Twitter. Those pictures were met with disdain in some circles and outright anger in others. Why? Because the Washington Nationals’ star outfielder was wearing a Dallas Cowboys hat.
You can judge the heck out of the fans for being silly enough to get upset at Harper’s choice of headwear, even if sports fandom is pretty silly to begin with. Harper is seen as a Washingtonian, so a Dallas hat on his head smacks of disloyalty, which is about the worst feature a player or fan can have.
Harper isn’t really a Washingtonian; at most, he’s a part-time one with a much longer history elsewhere. Harper was born and raised in Las Vegas, which, is not Washington D.C. Harper is only in D.C. because the Nationals drafted him, and the Nationals were only in position to draft him (first overall) because they were terrible in 2009. If they’d been slightly less terrible, he’d be in Baltimore or Pittsburgh, and the uproar in D.C. wouldn’t exist (or it would be focused on something else, because if there’s one thing people love, it’s a good uproar).
If Harper isn’t a Washingtonian, does his employment by the Nationals require him to substitute his pro sports preferences for that of his employer’s city? Tom Brady got grief from Boston-area papers when he wore a Yankees cap a few years back. On the flip-side, although the California-born CC Sabathia often attends Knicks games, he’s made no secret that his favorite NBA teams include the Lakers. For those guys, winning a championship or two likely dulled the effect such “traitorous” actions may have had on their hometown fans. But you don’t have to squint hard to see that it could turn into a problem for a player who still has a lot to prove.
The one thing prized most among sports fans is loyalty. Fans want loyalty from fellow fans, from their teams and from the players on those teams. Fans who switch teams, teams that move cities and players who leave through free agency are pariahs, forever hated or at least mildly disliked. Calling a city home while rooting for one of its rival franchises smacks of not embracing the city. It reminds locals that the player isn’t really one of them, that he has no intention of fully assimilating. Rightly or wrongly, it’s seen as having one foot out the door.
This isn’t a new charge for Harper, either. Shortly after getting drafted by the Nationals, Harper was “caught” openly rooting for the Yankees on Twitter. The Yankees were his team of choice growing up and, one imagines, old habits are difficult to break, even for someone employed by a different and thus competing baseball team.
The irony is that by substituting his own preference of the Cowboys for the will of the local populace, Harper would be committing the biggest sin a fan can commit: giving in to peer pressure and substituting the preference of local fans for his own. He would be a bandwagon jumper, a fair-weather fan. He’d be the kind of fan that more serious fans disparage.
The thing is, there are a lot of Washingtonians who root for the Cowboys. It’s probably the second-most followed team in Washington, maybe third behind the Ravens. Conversely, there are a lot of Washington football fans in Dallas. Some people like to go with the pack, and some are indoctrinated into local sports before they have any concept of “the pack.” Still, there are some who reflexively go against the prevailing winds. Harper wouldn’t be in either group, because he’s not from D.C. or Dallas, but at least he’d have a fair bit of company.
So Harper is a Cowboys fan whom people think should become a Redskins fan, but at the same time, he’d be a bad fan if he switched. He’s kind of stuck. We all love it when players embrace local teams. It ingratiates them to the community, it makes them a part of the society’s fabric. But it shouldn’t be required, and it isn’t fair to hold pro athletes’ preferences for the sports teams of their youth against them. Bryce Harper needs to be free to root for his Cowboys — and, if he so chooses, his Miami Heat or his LA Kings — or whatever teams he wants to root for. There can’t be a rule requiring players to change their allegiances when their profession requires them to switch cities.
It should be fine for Bryce Harper to root for a non-Washington sports team, and it should be fine for him to pick a team as disliked in Washington as the Cowboys. We should ask something of him that no other fans would ask of themselves or of their friends. Athletes should be free to make the same decisions other fans make. We can judge them for their choices, but they shouldn’t be judged unfairly.