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Athletes’ character is measured on a sliding scale

It’s a simple question that only you can answer. How much does character matter when cheering for your favorite teams?

There is no right or wrong response here. You can establish your own criteria and set limits that determine athletes stepping over your line. You need not explain your rationale. Nobody is passing judgment on you. This isn’t a test of your morals. Really, it doesn’t get much easier.

In a perfect world, it wouldn’t need to be asked.

Sports would be about game summaries and box scores, about competition between athletes we could use as examples for our children. Our teams would have model citizens like Tim Duncan and Wayne Gretzky, good guys like Derek Jeter and Jeremy Lin and Roger Federer.

This is not a perfect world, of course. Our sports-crazed nation has become accustomed to reading police blotters and stories about prison terms and steroids and cheating. The bad-behavior epidemic forced our leagues to draw up code-of-conduct policies that clarify punishments for societal misdeeds.

Years ago, they didn’t exist.

Why? Because they weren’t necessary. This is not to say sports heroes from previous generations were choir boys. Ty Cobb was a racist, for example, and Babe Ruth was a boozer and womanizer. Athletes from every decade broke the law long before O.J. Simpson fell off the rails.

Once was a time when Reggie Jackson was considered a bad apple. His crime: first-degree egomania. He was a jerk who didn’t treat people with respect. And for that he was among the most vilified athletes of his time. Today, he would be just another professional athlete.

Fans are so numbed by athletes’ transgressions over the past 25 years that many simply have come to disregard character and concentrate on performance. It helps explain a generational gap separating fans who cared about players as people and a younger group concerned only with wins and losses.

It’s hardly just fans.

Owners, general managers and coaches also have looked the other way. The Patriots for years embraced troubled stars. They won the Super Bowl with LeGarrette Blount, who has brawled with opponents and teammates. Aaron Hernandez had problems long before he was charged with murder, but he wasn’t released until he was taken away in handcuffs.

Jameis Winston was accused of sexual assault, was questioned about a BB gun battle, was cited for stealing crab legs, was suspected of stealing pop from Burger King, and was suspended for standing on a table and screaming vulgarities at Florida State. But he’s loaded with talent and has a fun-loving personality.

Marcus Mariota has the tools needed to become a successful NFL quarterback, plus a spotless record. He was a strong leader who had an impeccable reputation during his career at Oregon. But there was a sense after the NFL Combine that Winston would be the top pick in the draft.

Ray Rice knocked out his then-fiancée, now his wife, in an elevator. Adrian Peterson punished his 4-year-old son by hitting him with a stick. The Bills are committed to establishing a running game under Rex Ryan, which raises this question: Would you embrace Rice or Peterson on your team?

Both are good running backs. Neither had a history of legal problems before running into trouble last season. Could you reconcile their actions if they played for your team? Every team has players who screwed up. In some cases, they screwed up big time. So what’s the difference?

Marshawn Lynch was run out of Buffalo because he had so many problems, legal and otherwise, off the field. He’s hailed as a hero in Seattle after helping the Seahawks win one Super Bowl and come within a whisker of winning another. He has a contract extension waiting for his signature.

Many fans who once wrestled with their emotions have surrendered to the idea that the quality of the person means nothing compared to the quality of the player. I’m not saying whether it’s right or wrong. I’m saying that it’s true.

We’re a nation of second chances, but at what point do you draw the line? How long do fans embrace players they don’t respect and allow athletic ability to trump human decency? In good conscience, how do you balance bad people and good players? When do you stop looking the other way?

Richie Incognito wasn’t given a second chance when the Bills signed him. That came in college. The Bills gave him a sixth chance. Or maybe it was a seventh. Honestly, I lost count after he rubbed a golf club against a woman’s private parts, and spilled water on her head, during a charity tournament.

Bills ownership and management made peace with his sordid history, and fans quickly fell in line. Incognito fills a hole. You could argue that he’s more likely to carry himself like a Boy Scout with the Bills because they gave him an opportunity. He makes them better, so who cares?

Marcell Dareus has been given numerous chances after he was arrested following a street-racing incident shortly after he was picked up for possession of synthetic marijuana. He’s also the best defensive tackle in the league, so bet the ranch on him signing a contract extension for big money.

And there’s Alex Rodriguez, a con man who is making a half-baked attempt to repair his image. He apologized to the Yankees and released a hand-written apology to their fans. He didn’t explain exactly why he apologized and still hasn’t come clean about his involvement with steroids.

Yankees fans have a familiar predicament. It was easy to cheer for them last season when they had Jeter while Rodriguez was suspended. But now Jeter is gone and A-Rod is back, leaving them with this question: Can they still cheer for the Yankees? Of course they can.


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