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Baseball, Assholes and the Constitution

What John Rocker does not deserve is the unilateral cancellation of his constitutional free speech protections by a private commercial organization, Major League Baseball.

Joe Lockard

Wednesday, February 2 2000, 10:28 AM

Atlanta Braves relief pitcher John Rocker is an asshole. There's just no denying it, and Rocker himself is in the middle of that sad discovery. The jeering Mets fans got it right on this one.

When Rocker next sets foot in the Braves locker room, he'll have to face his teammates with apologies for his insulting comments in Sports Illustrated. When Rocker sets foot on the playing field, he'll face the contempt of baseball's public. If the team management trades their pitcher to the local dirtball league for two cents, that would be justice. Local community groups in Atlanta have called for Rocker's release and listening to their voices might be worthwhile.

Rocker deserves every one of the problems he has created for himself with his loud, ignorant mouth.

What Rocker does not deserve is the unilateral cancellation of his constitutional free speech protections by a private commercial organization, Major League Baseball. For those who do not follow the sports pages, MLB has fined Rocker $20,000 and suspended him until May 1 for comments that insulted immigrants, blacks, Asians and gays. The players' association will take the case to arbitration, arguing that Rocker is being punished for free speech off the baseball field.

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig made his decision under the "best interests of baseball" clause, which allows him industrial powers of which other monopolists can only dream. Listen to Selig's sermon: "Major league baseball takes seriously its role as an American institution and the important social responsibility that goes with it. We will not dodge our responsibility. Mr. Rocker should understand that his remarks offended practically every element of society and brought dishonor to himself, the Atlanta Braves and major league baseball. The terrible example set by Mr. Rocker is not what our great game is about and, in fact, is a profound breach of the social compact we hold in such high regard."

It seems that the "best interests of baseball" do not include respect for constitutional protections. There is a school of opinion holding that by forcing the players' union to file a grievance over the suspension, Selig is simply guarding MLB's public interests. When the penalty assessed against Rocker is thrown out, Selig will be able to say 'We tried.'

In the meantime, listening to baseball's commissioner saying, in effect, 'I'm shocked, simply shocked' at the presence of such prejudiced opinions in baseball dugouts is simply farcical. Baseball's virtue is thin stuff: when was the last time MLB punished a player for wifebeating or similar off-field crimes?

Selig's commercial interest lies in protecting MLB's clean, slick and healthy image, an image worth hundreds of millions of dollars. John Rocker's verbal spitballs fouled that image and Selig has set a price on public embarrassment from a league player. References to "important social responsibility" and "social compact" are purest corporate defensiveness and PR self-promotion. Attorneys prepare the only compacts that matter in professional baseball. The righteousness here stinks. MLB's real corporate message is 'We don't want any twenty-first century Ty Cobbs, white trash Georgia crackers who don't fit today's image and diverse market.' Overt prejudices make for marketing problems. If Major League Baseball were truly concerned about stereotypes, the Atlanta Braves would have had another name years ago.

Possibly Rocker's worst offense was that he does not know how to speak like Bud Selig. In the presence of a national sports magazine reporter, Rocker was too dumb to stifle the social views and expressions he learned in his hometown of Macon. Yet is there anyone so naïve as to believe that Rocker's racism is not common throughout American society, irrespective of origin or class? Rocker is being punished not for his views, but rather for not knowing when to shut up.

Racism and prejudice are not incurable, and education is the best cure available. Having the views of John Rocker and similar thinkers open for discussion advances anti-racist education, and the First Amendment makes certain that despicable expression can be put on the table for dissection.

Ballpark fans will be exercising those same free speech rights if and when Rocker leaves the bullpen for the mound this coming season — Mets fans especially. The freedom to boo is sacred.

Joe Lockard is a member of the Bad Subjects Collective.

Copyright © 2000 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.