I’ve alluded in the past to the parallels in media and fan perception of both Alex Rodriguez and Rich Rodriguez. While their shared surname is quite likely a coincidence, they certainly can relate to each other when it comes to stereotypes. Alex Rodriguez has been one of baseball’s villains ever since he signed a $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers nine years ago. Before that, he was universally recognized as a great baseball player and only a great baseball player. He was one of the rising stars in the sport and was well-liked by fans across baseball. It wasn’t until he wrote his name on that contract—something every single breathing human being would’ve done—that he became “selfish”, “greedy”, and “a cancer.” Similarly, Rich Rodriguez was well-recognized as one of the best coaches in college football. He had rebuilt West Virginia into a powerhouse capable of beating any program in the country. He was affectionately coined, “The Godfather of the spread” and was universally considered a revolutionary mind in college football. It wasn’t until he left West Virginia to coach at the University of Michigan—something that virtually every coach in college football history would’ve done—that he became “greedy”, “overrated”, and “morally compromised.”
In both instances, nothing changed. Alex Rodriguez was the same person after he took the pen and signed his name to his contract as he was before it. Rich Rodriguez was the same person standing on the sidelines of a 3-9 Michigan-team last year as he was when he was standing on the sidelines of the 2006 Sugar Bowl leading West Virginia to victory over Georgia. Neither man changed; it was the way they were perceived that changed. There are few things in this world that sports fans love to do more than ridicule and criticize. The average sports fan doesn’t care about reality. Sports fans don’t care about “truth.” All they need is a slight change in “perception” to turn 180 degrees on a sports figure. By all accounts, Alex Rodriguez is a nice guy. He might be “quirky” but that’s just code for “normal.” Everybody is quirky. I repeat: EVERYBODY is quirky. Whether an athlete is portrayed in a positive or negative light has nothing to do with their intricacies because all humans have those. It has to do with whether or not there is an obvious superficial reason to dislike that athlete. Sports fans are so superficial that it’s amazing more don’t double as beauty pageant judges. Albert Pujols is one of the most popular players in baseball. He isn’t any “nicer” than Alex Rodriguez and he isn’t any “better” than Rodriguez. What he has is really what he doesn’t have. The difference between the two in perception is that while Pujols makes a ton of money, he doesn’t make the most money. That distinction goes to Alex Rodriguez. On the surface that might seem like a minor difference but that is the whole difference. Before Rodriguez signed that contract, the only thing that mattered to people was that he was a hell of a baseball player. If people wanted to criticize him then for any number of things, then they certainly could’ve. Everyone is criticizable. Once he signed his contract, every possible annoyance or hiccup was beaten to death by every radio show and water cooler in America. It became cool to hate Alex Rodriguez.
Rich Rodriguez has travelled a similar plight. If you were given an assignment three years ago—when Rodriguez was still coaching at West Virginia—to write a movie script in which the whole premise was that Rodriguez gets criticized as much as humanly possible, you would not have even come close to what he has gone through in reality. No Hollywood script could compete with what Rodriguez has actually had to go through. I don’t ever remember hearing a word about him being a “redneck” when he was at Clemson or Tulane or West Virginia. I never heard a word about his football program at West Virginia lacking “family values.” Nobody ever complained about forcing his players to break NCAA rules. In fact, Rodriguez had—and still does—come across as being a genuinely nice and honest person. Yet, many Michigan fans and college football fans in general think he’s a “slimeball.” If he’s a slimeball, he’s the nicest, most humble slimeball who has ever lived. To these people, the fact that he isn’t a dirtbag doesn’t matter. They get their jollies off of aimlessly criticizing and ridiculing. It’s the perception of Rodriguez that they care about, not actually who he is or what he stands for. “These people,” unfortunately make up the vast majority of sports fans. If you want to find them, seek out the comment sections of ESPN or newspaper articles. These are the people who ESPN seems to market their programming towards.
This isn’t just a phenomenon involving people with the last name Rodriguez. This sort of character lynching happens to many high-profile sports figures. It happens just as often, if not more, in politics and in the entertainment industry as well. These false perceptions aren’t life sentences. What I mean by that is there is a way out of dirtbag oblivion. It can all change back to the way it used to be just like it never happened. It might not be as easy as it was to fall into it in the first place, but the right event or accomplishment can erase it all. No amount of logic or reasoning will do it, though. It has to be as superficial as the original change in perception.
It’s not a coincidence that the Yankees won the World Series last night and I’m writing about this today. Anything that has ever been written negatively about Alex Rodriguez disappeared last night by simply having better teammates than he has ever had before. It had nothing to do with him. He is the same player and person that he has always been. It's just that now he will be thought of as a great baseball player and not a “greedy weirdo.” Instead of having his accomplishments minimized, he’ll be celebrated in same vein as the great redemption stories of the past. Never mind that there was no actual redemption. Alex Rodriguez has won the World Series with better teammates and, apparently, that makes him a better person.
The moral of the story is that winning cures everything. Bad people become good people when they win. Jerks become characters when they win. All of this, of course, means that faux redemption for Rich Rodriguez is only a victory over Ohio State away. That’s not likely to happen this season but if it did, you would see him embraced by the same fence-straddlers who’ve tried to run him out of town. If Rodriguez turns the Michigan football program into the elite power that he was hired to do and that many fans thought he would, then he’ll no longer be a “redneck, destroyer of traditions.” He’ll be the second coming of Bo Schembechler. People will want to buy him drinks and sing his praises. There will be no apologies or mea culpas. They'll just pretend it never happened. Until then, I suppose he can take comfort in seeing Alex Rodriguez immaculately redeemed.