BASEBALL CROSSES LINE BY POLICING STUPIDITY

LET’S SEE. You can’t hit the umpires, you can’t bet on your own games, and you definitely can’t play after snorting cocaine. But since when was it against the rules of baseball to be a bigot?

Apparently, as of Monday afternoon — when newly empowered commissioner Bud Selig suspended John Rocker 2 1/2 months and fined him $20,000 for making dumb, prejudiced remarks during a magazine interview.

This was historic. Never before had a player been suspended for his mouth when it didn’t involve smoke or spit.

Meanwhile, as Selig was booting Rocker for saying things, the Atlanta Braves were ordering their players not to talk about the situation.

Congratulations, baseball. In one day, you managed to punch free speech and freedom of the press right in the kisser.

Which only shows you how ridiculous this whole Rocker thing has become. Anyone who thinks his comments about gays, Asian drivers and New Yorkers were appropriate is sick.

Anyone who thinks they are unique is nuts.

And anyone who thinks Selig hasn’t opened a massive can of worms here is sadly mistaken. Because he has. Baseball can’t be the sheriff of Stupidville. It has never been a podium for wisdom and tolerance. And it sure isn’t now. Baseball has enough trouble knowing when to suspend players for drugs, drinking and fighting. Now it thinks it can regulate words?

Big mistake. Selig has raised the bar to dangerous heights. From this moment on, any baseball player who says anything bigoted, insulting or demeaning — whether on the field or off, during the season or not — can be suspended for months.

Selig’s gonna be awful busy planting microphones in all those flower pots.

Who cares about individual rights?

Now, let me say that Selig, an earnest man, has his heart in the right place. He wants people to admire his sport. He says, “Major League Baseball takes seriously its role as an American institution.”

But there are other American institutions, including freedom of speech. And while many of Selig’s critics are misinterpreting the Constitution (it only bars the government from limiting free speech, not private enterprises like baseball), the commissioner, in trying to make his sport look responsible, is making it look hypocritical.

First, there’s the hypocrisy of its past. Roberto Alomar spit in the face of an umpire and was only suspended for five games — while first being allowed to complete the playoffs. Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Otis Nixon and many other drug-policy violators were only suspended 60 days — nearly a month less than Rocker. Is stupidity worse than playing high?

Marge Schott, the former Cincinnati majority owner, is the only other person ever punished by baseball for prejudiced remarks. But her case is much different. 1) She repeatedly showed bigoted behavior, in interviews, in interactions and in refusing to hire a single African American in 30 opportunities. 2) She referred to her black players with the n-word, Jews as
“money grubbing” and said Hitler “was good at first, but went too far.” 3) She was an owner.

That’s important. An owner is in charge of hiring. An owner sets the rules for others.

Rocker is a pitcher. He is 25. If you set the bar of suspension with his comments in Sports Illustrated — which, if you read them, do not contain a single racial slur and sound more like something from an Archie Bunker script
— you have to measure every player against that bar.

And that is where the hypocrisy of the future comes in.

The shape of things to come?

What if a player uses the n-word in an interview? Is he punished less or more than Rocker? What if he uses the n-word, but says it to a small weekly newspaper instead of Sports Illustrated? Do we suddenly take into account the circulation of the publication?

What if he makes prejudiced comments at a private party, but someone tapes them and they get on the news? How many games then, Bud?

You see the folly of regulating stupidity. There’s too much of it. Any sports writer worth his salt already has heard far worse comments than Rocker’s made by players in locker rooms, hotel lobbies or airports. Does the fact that they weren’t quoted make those players any less bigoted?

Of course not. Rocker’s “sin,” it seems, was the where, not the what. He spilled his guts to the wrong reporter. The Braves’ knee-jerk reaction — silencing their players to the media — shows the biggest concern with many sports teams is still less what is said than who hears it.

This is wrong. Stupidity and bigotry must be their own punishment. This is why we allow Nazis to march in this country, however abhorrent. Because, by exposing their bigotry, we use free speech to educate.

There is no education going on here. This is baseball plugging Rocker on a stake and saying, “Him bad. Us good.”

Rocker will pay a huge price. Millions lost in endorsements. Booed wherever he goes. And, by the way, he did apologize. Several times. If his team owner, Ted Turner, wanted to punish him, I wouldn’t object. Then again, Turner himself has insulted Catholics and the pope. All he got from Selig was a letter.

That’s all Rocker should have gotten. I share the anger at his remarks, but a second mistake would not make things better. I’ve said this before, I’ll say it again. This is not Congress, this is not church, this is not a classroom. This is baseball. If Bud Selig wants to catch sinners like butterflies, he needs a bigger net.

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch
“Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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