Rooting for Ryan Braun and What It Means to be a Fan

Brewers fans have a complicated relationship with Ryan Braun. The team has been stationed in Milwaukee since 1970, but they’ve really only been good for an extended period of time twice: the Robin Yount/Paul Molitor years and the Braun/Fielder teams of recent memory. And given that Molitor and Yount last played together during the 1992 season, multiple generations of Brewers fans don’t remember a good team other than the ones anchored by Braun.

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By Baseball-Reference’s WAR, Braun is the third-best player in Brewers history, behind Molitor and Yount. This claim is probably uncontroversial; individuals may have fonder memories of different players, but Braun — even through just his age 31 season — has already accumulated more WARP than his closest competitors for the bronze medal in Brewers history, Cecil Cooper and Teddy Higuera. Additionally, his 2009-2012 peak was capped by the 2011 MVP that solidified his place as one of the best players in the league.

Of course, though, that run was marred by the drug test and the fiasco that followed it. When he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs after the 2011 season, Braun threw all of his previous heroics into question. However, other famous players have been busted for steroids and had their popularity survive; after all, David Ortiz remains a cult hero despite being named in the Mitchell Report. No one cares that Jason Giambi or Andy Pettitte used performance-enhancing drugs anymore. But Braun denied the charge, won his appeal, and continued to play until ultimately serving a suspension in 2013. 

Braun’s public relations problems don’t really center around his positive test; instead, they focus on the year and a half in which he continually claimed that he had done nothing wrong. He forced many Brewers fans to support their superstar, as they really had no other choice. When he spoke on the spring training field and proclaimed his innocence, Brewers fans almost had to believe him. As the organization’s best player and the anchor of the franchise for the foreseeable future, optimistic fans had to believe in Braun — without him, the team seemed to have little hope. He even got a public statement of support from one of Wisconsin’s most beloved figures, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

This entire charade fell apart in the middle of 2013.  After Braun was linked to the Biogenesis scandal, he accepted a 65-game suspension, thereby — at least tacitly — admitting his guilt. Rodgers said publicly that he was “disappointed in the way it all went down,” and that feeling was generally mirrored (and, in many cases, amplified) in Milwaukee. Fans generally rally around their own players, even in the face of steroid allegations, as we saw when Giants fans rallied around Barry Bonds despite all of the public details about his steroid use. This pattern repeated itself in Milwaukee; as this story from before the 2012 season suggests, Braun remained a popular figure even after his positive test in 2011. 

But the public disappointment in Braun after his suspension was palpable. Jeff Passan of Yahoo! wrote an angry column in which he lambasted Braun. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an article by Gary D’Amato detailing the pain that Braun caused. This was a sentiment undoubtedly shared across the sporting world; baseball’s MVP had deceived his fans, only to be revealed as a liar a year later.

This debate continues today, although in a different fashion. Braun is no longer the superstar who will carry a team to the playoffs, but he is still under contract for $20 million per year until at least 2020. With his declining bat and lack of defensive value, he simply isn’t a very attractive trade candidate. He could very well be moved — a contender with a large budget that needs a right-handed outfielder might not care about his contract — but such a deal is unlikely. This means that Brewers fans will continue to see him in their favorite team’s jersey for years to come and continue to struggle with this problem.

Far be it from me to tell anyone how to be a fan. Everyone supports their team differently. Some long for the good old days in which players stayed on one team for their whole career. Others root for the team as a connection to their city and are perfectly comfortable rooting for the name on the front of the jersey while acknowledging the immense amount of player turnover. Most people probably fall somewhere in the middle.

All Brewers fans, though, must come to grips with the fact that one of the best players on their favorite team cheated and lied.  Some people undoubtedly don’t care, while others care so deeply about this injustice that they have been unable to root for Braun since his suspension. Again, as above, most people fall somewhere in the middle. These fans continue to support their team, and they root for Braun to drive in the go-ahead run when he comes to the plate in the ninth inning of a tie game. But they will not blindly defend Braun; they will be aware of these difficulties and struggle with them internally.

Ultimately, this is an issue for every person to deal with individually. But the experience of rooting for Ryan Braun forces people to think about what it means to be a fan. You must make choices about your opinions and priorities. How you support Braun is not a reflection on your personality or your values. Sports themselves are escapist; people who refuse to allow these (relatively minor) off-the-field issues to affect their enjoyment of the on-field product are not any more in denial than those who obsess over these transgressions are guilty of overreacting. Instead, both sets of people have made a choice about the place that sports occupy in their lives. One choice is not better than the other; they both — and everything in between — simply are.

Rooting for or against Ryan Braun does not indicate one’s views on the world. It is merely a partial reflection of one’s views of sport and the culture that surrounds it. And being able to support Ryan Braun on your favorite team does not make you any more or less devoted to your team. It simply forces you to confront how you support that team.

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