There's a long list of famous athletes who have, to varying degrees of severity, left adoring fans disappointed, angry and conflicted. Used to be that an athlete's flaws were laid bare on the field, but shrouded in mystery off of it. Today we know athletes better than we ever have, and the more we learn about the men and women who inspire, excite and thrill us, the riskier it feels to put our faith in them.
Ronda Rousey is the latest example. Her defeat at the hands of Holly Holm on Saturday night came at a time when her once seemingly impenetrable public facade had already been showing signs of cracks. First, reports that the same woman who had publicly smeared Floyd Mayweather for his history of domestic violence was dating a man who had been accused of domestic violence. Then, criticism for an excerpt in Rousey's autobiography in which she admits to a violent incident with an ex-boyfriend.
Until very recently, rooting for Rousey had felt easy and uncomplicated. By virtue of her dominance in the Octagon she changed the game, not just for female MMA fighters, but all female athletes. Her vulnerability moved us, as she shared the story of her father's suicide and her rise from homelessness to fame. She empowered strong, accomplished women, urging them not to be a "do-nothing b----," the kind of woman she says "just tries to be pretty and be taken care of by someone else." And perhaps most notably, she made it cool for men and women alike to watch, argue over and analyze a female athlete with even more interest and passion than her male counterparts.
Throughout her rise to fame, Rousey managed to maintain her incredible popularity despite a few slip-ups, most notably transphobic comments she made about fellow fighter Fallon Fox a couple of years ago. Many, like me, chalked those up to naivete and ignorance about transgender people. Rousey had done so much to pave the way for female athletes and was such a powerful feminist figure that I couldn't imagine her trying to shut the door on other marginalized athletes. Maybe I gave her too much credit. Or maybe I just really wanted to keep my idea of her unsullied so I could enjoy her extraordinary run.
Heading into Saturday night's fight, I felt, for the first time, conflicted in my support of Rousey.
Last month, fellow MMA fighter Travis Browne revealed to the public that he and Rousey were together. Rousey confirmed the news but was reluctant to speak publicly about the relationship with Browne, who had been accused of domestic violence by his estranged wife. Browne was temporarily suspended by the UFC in June after Jenna Renee Webb accused him of assaulting her and posted multiple photos of her bruised body on Instagram. The UFC hired an investigator to look into the claims and Browne was reinstated in August after the investigation found "inconclusive evidence" to support the accusations.
As is often the case with celebrities, once Rousey came under fire for her complicated romance, people began to seek out other flaws. An excerpt from her book suddenly became big news, even though "My Fight/Your Fight" had been released months earlier. In the book, she details beating up an ex-boyfriend (she calls him "Snappy McCreepers") who took nude photos of her without her permission.
She wrote of waiting for him to come home, "getting angrier and angrier," cracking her knuckles and clenching her teeth. When he arrived, she said she confronted him about the photos she'd found and slapped him across the face so hard her hand hurt. She said she tried to leave but he was blocking the door so she "punched him in the face with a straight right, then a left hook." When he still wouldn't move, she slapped him again, then "grabbed him by the neck of his hoodie, kneed him in the face, and tossed him aside on the kitchen floor." The incident ended, she said, at her car, when he tried to prevent her from driving away and she "pulled him by the neck of the hoodie again, dragged him out onto the sidewalk, and left him writhing there" as she drove away.
Just a couple of days before Saturday's fight, Rousey spoke about the altercation, saying she had acted in self-defense.
"Legally if somebody blocks your exit it's considered kidnapping," she said at media day in Melbourne. "So if someone is blocking you into an apartment and won't let you leave, you're entitled to defend yourself and find a way out. If you're trying to get into your car and leave and they're grabbing your steering wheel, and saying you can't leave, technically you're being kidnapped and you can defend yourself in any way that is necessary."
"I don't have to make every single one of my actions idiot-proof," she said, when asked if her actions could be compared to those of Mayweather. "If an idiot can't understand it, it's not my problem."
Rousey's concern over being trapped inside or prevented from leaving is warranted, but respect for the safety of another person applies to both genders, and is especially important if you're a trained, professional fighter. If you switched the roles and she'd come home to an angry boyfriend, pleading with him to stay and hear her out, you'd be hard-pressed to find people who would forgive a man for punching a woman, kneeing her in the face and dragging her onto the sidewalk.
Is it too much to ask that neither men nor women punch, kick and slap their partners? Is it naive to think that Rousey should have left the house and called him to end the relationship, instead of waiting to confront him? Is it impractical to expect athletes like MMA fighters and NFL players, who specialize in violence, to be able to turn off a switch when they get home and handle things with words, instead of fists?
Perhaps legendary coach John Wooden was right when he said, "Sports don't build character. They reveal it." We may know, deep down, that the athletes we love aren't role models, but the unique relationship between the fan and the athlete muddies things. When an athlete puts on the uniform of a favorite team, he or she represents the fan and the city.
There's a connection there for fans that feels almost patriotic in nature. There's a reason people say "we won" when their team is victorious, even though their personal contribution to the victory amounted to watching on TV. Because of that connection a lifetime of loyalty can get complicated very quickly. Cowboys fans are forced to hope Greg Hardy plays well, Vikings fans depend on the good play of Adrian Peterson, and now fans of women's MMA are left rooting for the woman who made the sport.
I've not lost all interest in Rousey, nor will I stop rooting for her entirely. In fact, I'm fascinated to see how both she and fans of MMA react and respond to her first loss. But I am disappointed by her. You can add her to the long list of athletes who have disappointed me. As fans, we're asking for the bare minimum from these men and women, and the fact that some people will scoff at those measly expectations shows how much we're willing to put up with in the name of a few more wins.
The horrors of humanity are so much bigger than sports -- the attacks on Lebanon and Paris were the most recent reminder of the evil that exists in our species. But there's no cap on just how often and how much we can be disappointed and appalled by what humans are capable of. Rousey's flaws may not match up to those of some other athletes gone bad, but she is another example of a hero who has come up short. And as a sports fan, it's hard these days not to wonder which of our idols will let us down next.