By Lyle Kruger

Business ethics researcher and TMU professor Chris MacDonald speaks about the ethics behind and effectiveness of boycotts. (Lyle Kruger/TMU)

Emily Kerr, like many sports fans, came into her fandom late. She always enjoyed watching football, but never truly connected with a specific team. This all changed when she met the love of her life in 2012. “My husband lived in Cleveland as a kid and so [he] was a diehard [Browns] fan from the beginning,” she said. Although he was passionate about the Browns, Kerr’s husband encouraged her to continue exploring teams as she had before and find one that felt like home. Kerr continued to search, but what ultimately led her to stick with the Browns were the people who rooted for them. “What drew me to the Browns honestly had as much to do with the fans as it did the team,” she said. “I had never met more vivacious, loyal and optimistic fans before … and I truly thought the team had incredible heart not only at that time but throughout franchise history as well.” In 2018, Kerr joined a local fan club, the Toronto Browns Backers, and with her husband cheered on the Cleveland Browns with many like-minded, rowdy fans at the Shoxs Billiard Lounge.

Map displaying Shoxs Billiard Lounge, a bar for Browns fans in Toronto

Everything changed for Kerr when the Browns traded three first-round picks for quarterback Deshaun Watson, and promptly signed him to a five-year, US$230 million fully guaranteed contract (the first of its kind). In theory, this type of trade would be an exciting one for fans. Watson was an elite quarterback, winning a national championship in college and making three straight Pro Bowls in the NFL. However, the reason a quarterback of his calibre was readily available for trade is that on March 16, 2021 (almost an exact year before the trade), accusations of Watson’s alleged sexual crimes towards more than 20 massage therapists began to flood the media, ranging from harassment to assault. Twenty-two women filed civil lawsuits against Watson, but on March 11, 2022, a week prior to the trade, a grand jury declined to indict Watson.

Like most football fans, Kerr knew that Watson was a great quarterback who was sitting out due to a contract dispute. Only later did she realise the full extent of the situation. “I believe it was an article I came across a little later – [detailing] the allegations and what that might mean for Deshaun and his career – that presented me with the full details that were available at that time,” she said. Kerr thought the Browns were going to lose the ‘trade battle,’ especially because Watson had declined to go to Cleveland initially. She had even been waving it off when her husband would try to discuss the potential of them trading for Watson. But when it actually happened, Kerr was shocked. “My initial reaction was a little disgusted to be honest … it was a little nauseating, I’m not going to lie,” Kerr said. “…I was under the impression they would look for someone who was not just good at their job but would be consistent, reliable and good on the team as a leader. I don’t see Deshaun as any of that.”

The accusations against Watson are just the latest in a string of similar cases coming to light following the rise of the #meToo movement. “I think it became more shockingly available to us in 2017 when #meToo was really taking off in its most public form, in part because we had spent so long valorizing these figures we saw as auteurs … and our valorizing of them is what gave them the power to do the terrible things they did,” said Constance Grady, a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox. This movement has provoked a complicated question in the world of pop culture: how can we as a society continue to support these people? Can one separate the art (or the sport) from the artist (athlete)?

Vox journalist Constance Grady speaks about her experience writing her article, ‘What do we do when the art we love was created by a monster?’

Perspectives widely differ on this issue. For Kerr, separating the art from the artist is impossible. Who the artist is at their core is important to her, whether that be an athlete, musician, actor, or anyone in the public eye. “Separating the art from the artist can be harmful as it can minimise what the person has done, discredit any victims … and enable society to ‘put up with’ unacceptable behaviour from public figures simply because we like their products or the entertainment they provide,” she said.

For others, it’s not as cut and dry. “You can say what you want, but you’re innocent until proven guilty. No charges, no crime was committed … It’s one of those he said, she said things, and for the right amount of money, everybody’s happy,” said Ian Winsor, a fellow member of the Toronto Browns Backers and die-hard Browns fan since 1987.

Then, there is the perspective of Toronto Browns Backers president Matty Weeks, who sits in that grey area between Winsor and Kerr’s takes. He acknowledges the unacceptable behaviours that many celebrities have exhibited and is non-judgemental about those who choose to boycott those they perceive as immoral. However, he also says that these behaviours don’t necessarily cancel out the artist’s good deeds/work, and can appreciate art created by people whose actions he is opposed to morally. “The list [of artists] is endless, and there is no right or wrong answer…I think the individual has to make that decision for themselves, and what they are able to tolerate. To me, if I worry about what everyone’s past transgressions are, it would be very hard to like anything.”

In 2010, accusations came out that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had raped a woman in a nightclub bathroom. He was suspended by the NFL for six games, but that number was subsequently reduced to four due to his cooperation. “Fans can be tough when what they see as selfish behaviour has consequences for the team. The fans’ memo to Big Ben: Grow up,” wrote Forbes writer Tom Van Riper that same year.

Timeline of events outlined in this article

In early 2014, NFL running back Ray Rice was accused of domestic violence against his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer. Rice was suspended by the NFL for two games, but public backlash was so strong against him that the Ravens released him by September. The difference between the Roethlisberger and Watson cases and the Rice case, is that security camera footage of him punching his girlfriend on an elevator and dragging her unconscious body out of the elevator was released by TMZ. “The accusation was out there, but the public had a hard time reconciling it with this person that they admired, that they liked …  But when the video came out, there was no question that this thing happened. You could see it,” said Sandi Timmins, executive director for the domestic violence center House of Ruth Maryland, in an interview with Childs Walker for the Baltimore Sun.

 “I find this reaction appalling,” said ethics professor Maria-Sibylla Lotter, who currently teaches at Ruhr-Universität Bochum, “Even if it would make sense to consider what an artist does in private as a kind of judgement of his art, a boycott makes no sense, because raising public accusations against people cannot be equated with a judicial verdict,” she said in an interview with Torsten Landsberg on German broadcaster Deutsche Welle in 2019.

Lotter’s opinion is one that Grady faced many times while writing her article. “One of the things that had been very frustrating to me … was how often people would adopt this sneering, pedantic voice and say, ‘You’re just not enough of an adult and sophisticated enough to separate the artist from the art,’” said Grady.

Despite Kerr’s moral issues with Watson, she has chosen to remain a Browns fan. “Everyone has their own reasons for loving a team and some elements weigh more to some than others. In my instance, the players, the history and the fans have a larger effect on my passion for the Browns and are what drew me to them and made me a fan, while for others it could be the association with Cleveland or management that makes them feel their affinity with the Browns. Since the players are one of my draws, having Watson as our quarterback has of course tainted the experience for me somewhat, but he is only one sour player amongst so many great ones.”

While it’s easy to point out the problematic economic implications of supporting a disgraced artist by buying tickets, the relationship that humans have with art has very little to do with money. “It’s almost like being in a relationship with somebody … it’s a part of who you are,” said Ben Schellenberg, an assistant professor in the kinesiology department at the University of Manitoba. “Sometimes your partner is gonna do things that make you angry … but this is a temporary thing. He’ll be a part of the Browns for a few years, and then retire or get traded … just like a relationship is gonna keep going when you do something wrong.” Kerr is one of many with a unique perspective on this issue, but through it all, she has no judgment for others if they want to end their sports fan relationship, “You can dislike a player and dislike a decision made by the team and still be a fan. I personally think that caring at the level to which you may feel disconnected based on a trade such as the one with Watson demonstrates that you are a ‘real fan’ because it shows how much you truly (sic.) care about and are invested in the team.”