The sports world is populated, by and large, by Idiots. Supremely talented Idiots, perhaps, but Idiots nonetheless. These Idiots were identified at a very early age as being stronger, faster, more agile, more graceful, more physically gifted than their peers and have spent the bulk of their post-diapered lives perfecting their curveball, jump shot, pass-blocking, etc, and evidently not enough time with the mental calisthenics, if you get my drift. They are often pampered and coddled through their "academic development" until such time as they are able to abandon the books all together and move on to a lucrative career in professional sports. All of which is fine by me. I don't pay to watch Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa discuss quantum physics. That's why we watch "Monday Night Football" and not "Monday Night Jeopardy".
The problem is, every now and then one of the Idiots will look down and see a microphone and feel compelled to speak into it. Usually what comes out is some variation of the same tried-and-true sound bites that have been in use since shortly after the Earth cooled.
EXAMPLE: (Reporter) So, Moses. How does it feel to finally lead your people to the Promised Land.
(Moses) Well, uh, it's hard to describe, ya know? We had our backs against the wall, it was do or die, right down to the very end. But we refused to give up. We refused to quit. We just kept fighting until the very end and I'm just so proud of everyone in this locker room tonight. (Wipes a tear).
(Reporter) Tell us about that final play, when you parted the Red Sea.
(Moses) Oh, that. Yeah, that was something we f9oled around with a little bit in practice but never thought we'd use in an actual game situation. But the time seemed right for it, someone had to step up and make something happen, and I guess that's what they pay me for.
(Reporter) One final question, Moses. Is this the end for you, are you finally ready to hang it up or will you be back again next year?
(Moses) That's something I'll need to sit down and discuss with my family to decide what's best for me and what's best for them. For now I think I'll just take a little time off and enjoy this win. Maybe wander the desert for a while.
Unfortunately, the simple mathematics of it dictate that if you put a microphone down in front of enough Idiots, eventually you will find their King. Last year Reggie White proudly wore the crown following his comments to the Wisconsin legislature wherein he divided all of humanity up into neat little groups based on their "gifts" (White folks were good at making money, Hispanic folks were good at making babies, Asian folks were good at making TVs into watches, etc). But now, as we stand at the precipice of a new millenium, the scepter has once again been passed to a new ruler. One who perfectly embodies the unique combination of ignorance and self-importance. I therefore present to you, Idiot King 2000, John Rocker.
As you most probably already know, King John the Brave got himself in a little hot water last week over a few inflammatory remarks made during an interview with Sports Illustrated. At last count had had insulted Blacks, Hispanics, Gays, Single Moms, Hindus, Indians, AIDS Patients, Japanese, Overweight Monkeys, and the entire ridership of the #7 train to Shea. In short, he pretty much pissed off everyone with opposable thumbs.
The debate now rages not over whether or not an apology is in order, King John has already offered many. The debate now moves to the issue of free speech and whether or not he should be punished for voicing what are, essentially, his own opinions. At first glance, it would seem that baseball has a precedent for dealing with such matters. Al Campanis lost his job for voicing his racist view that blacks lacked the necessary qualities to manage a professional ballclub. Marge Schott was suspended for a year for extolling the finer qualities of Adolph Hitler and for referring to Dave Parker and Eric Davis as her "Million Dollar Niggers". Both incidents were near PR calamities for Baseball and were dealt with harshly. The saving difference for Rocker here is that both of the aforementioned parties were in hiring firing positions and thus held to a higher standard. Therefore, his punishment should not exceed, nor even approach, the punishments levied against the likes of Schott and Campanis. Of course, the similarities between these incidents and King John's are obvious. Racism is racism is racism and should not be tolerated.
But what of "Free Speech"? Does not John Rocker, like any other American, have the right to hold and to voice is opinion, no matter how repugnant that opinion might be?
Actually, that depends. The right to free speech is not absolute. We are all familiar with the "shouting fire in a crowded theater" argument, but the same holds true for any incendiary speech. You do not have the right, for example, to stand in front of me and scream obscenities in my face. Having made that distinction, the question becomes, did John Rocker overstep his constitutionally protected rights when he made those comments? My opinion, for what it is worth, is no, he did not.
This does not mean that Baseball cannot or will not punish him, nor would they be wrong for doing so. The right to free speech does not mean free speech with impunity. Any freedom carries with it a responsibility and it is King John's responsibility to live with the natural consequences of his comments.
The natural consequences in this case are that he has embarrassed his franchise, tarnished the game of baseball, and offended (perhaps irreparably) his teammates, many of whom are black and/or Hispanic. All apologies aside, steps will need to be taken to ameliorate the situation. His team may be forced to trade or even outright release him, depending upon the reaction of the local community. The league could and most probably will fine him and/or suspend him for anywhere from a week to not more than a month, again depending on public outrage. Rocker's comments are a huge black eye to an industry that relies heavily on public perception, particularly at a time when the sport has finally put the stigma of The Strike in the past and apparently won back their fans (Thanks in no small part to an epic home run battle involving one of Rocker's "Fer-ners"). By donning the uniform and accepting the paycheck he accepts a position as ambassador for the sport. Any time his conduct begins to reflect negatively on his employer he must answer for it to his employer. Therefore, if Major League Baseball decides that the only way to repair the damage done the game is to punish him, then they undoubtedly can and will punish him.
Of course, the real long-term damage has been done inside the locker room and among his peers. Many observers quite rightly wonder how King John will fare when he has to report to camp next month and look the likes of Andres Galarraga or Brian Jordan in the eye. And never mind looking players in the eye, how will he be able to look catcher Javy Lopez in the crotch between pitches looking for signs? How effective will he be as a pitcher, knowing that if he even comes close to pitching inside it just might be all the excuse someone like Albert Belle needs to charge the mound and pound a little respect into his redneck head? And when such an incident eventually does happen, (and it will), do you suppose Galarraga and Lopez and the like might hesitate just that extra fraction of a second before rushing to his aid? Worse, an incident such as this is likely to dog him for the rest of his days, no matter what team he plays for.
The important thing to remember in all of this is what John Rocker is: A young man who has made a terrible, terrible mistake that he must now pay for. I truthfully do not know John Rocker the person. It is possible that he is simply a brash young man who was shooting his mouth off trying to impress a reporter and said a few things for shock value that he now regrets. It's possible. It's also possible that he really is the racist bastard that he appears to be. The point is, we don't know, and since we don't know, it behooves us to give him an opportunity to redeem himself.
So how does he do this? How does John Rocker atone for his transgressions and get this whole ugly incident behind him? Well, he's already taken the first step: Apologize. Next he must accept whatever punishment the Atlanta Braves and Major League Baseball hand down with no complaints. Then comes the hard part. He must NOT, no matter how much he might want to, make any excuses for his behavior or defend himself in any way. His official apology might read as follows:
"To my teammates, my fellow athletes, my family, and to all the fans and non-fans who were offended by my statements last month, I offer my most sincere apology. Words cannot express how deeply I regret the comments I made and the pain they inflicted. They were born of ignorance, and made by an ignorant person, and I am ashamed. Worse, they revealed aspects of my character which even I was unaware existed. This experience has forced me to examine many of my opinions and beliefs and to conclude that I am not the person I would like to be. I would not insult you by asking your forgiveness, as at this point in time I do not deserve it. I draw hope only from the knowledge that ignorance is treatable, and it is my pledge to take the necessary steps to educate and enlighten myself so that I can one day learn to live in acceptance and harmony with my fellow man."
Or words to that effect. Like a drug addict, he must throw himself on his own sword, acknowledge his personal shortcomings and vow to make himself a better person. Then, he must move on and spend each and every day demonstrating that his words were not empty and that he has indeed become a better person.
In the meantime, he will have to suffer the natural consequences of his "free speech" for the rest of his professional career, indeed for the rest of his life. Suspensions come and go, fines are paid, everyone gets a second chance. But John Rocker, King of the Idiots, has been labeled a racist in an industry where he is in the minority. That, my friends, may be the harshest punishment of all.