Reactions to Rocker reveal much about all of us
By biconews On 8 Feb, 2000 At 05:00 AM | Categorized As Archives | With 0 Comments

By Akino Irene Yamashita

I am writing this three days after Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig announced the suspension of John Rocker, the now-infamous Atlanta Braves closer, until May 1 for the comments he made to Sports Illustrated in last year’s Dec. 24 issue. Selig also fined Rocker $20,000 (to be donated to organizations that promote diversity) and ordered him to undergo sensitivity training. The MLBPA (player’s union) has appealed the ruling, saying it is without precedent.

To recap, in case you have no interest in baseball, or just happened to be living in a cave over winter break, here are some of the quotes that generated the uproar. Rocker said about New York City: “Imagine having to take the [Number] 7 train to the ballpark, looking like you’re [riding through] Beirut next to some kid with purple hair next to some queer with AIDS right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It’s depressing.”

Another choice quote: “The biggest thing I don’t like about New York are the foreigners. I’m not a very big fan of foreigners. You can walk an entire block in Times Square and not hear anybody speaking English… How the hell did they get in this country?” Rocker also called it black teammate a “fat monkey” and made derogatory remarks about Asian women drivers.

Now, as a native New Yorker and an Asian woman (though I don’t drive), I was not exactly happy with the comments either, and I think that Rocker deserves to suffer some kind of consequence for his actions. That said, what I find intriguing about the debacle is not what Rocker himself

said, but what the various reactions to him have been, which I have culled from various sources. And there have been as many who have defended Rocker as attacked him for these

comments.

The main arguments put forward in defense of Rocker have had little to do with Rocker himself. The two main defenses seem to be “free speech” and “fairness.” Many have said that for MLB to discipline Rocker is to infringe on his First Amendment rights. However, last time I checked, the First Amendment only applied to action by the government, starting, “Congress shall make no law… .” Since Rocker has not been arrested or jailed, I don’t see how anyone infringed on his rights, as MLB is a private organization.

Of course, a case can be still be made for the principle of free speech. Just because MLB can legally discipline Rocker doesn’t mean it should have. The MLBPA’s statement about its appeal touched on this reasoning slightly: “It is literally unprecedented to impose a penalty on a player for pure speech, offensive though the speech may be.” However, the union’s case seems to be more about “fairness.” Robbie Alomar, who spit on an umpire’s face, received a much shorter suspension, as have pitchers who intentionally hit batters with 95-mph fastbails. Should hateful speech be punished to a greater degree than harmful actions?

Simply as a matter of contract, of the collective-bargaining agreement, the union’s argument may be valid. On the other hand, these errant baseball players only hurt individuals. Rocker’s comments offended a large number of people, many of whom are paying customers who attend baseball games. There is a clause called the “best interests of baseball.” “Free speech” does not mean “speech without consequences.”

The “fairness” argument has also been advanced by many who say that Rocker is being slammed only because he was white and attacked “PC groups” and would be let off easy if he were a minority member himself. Many conservatives have pointed to Reggie White, who made a number of stereotypical and homophobic statements, or to anti-Semitic remarks by some black leaders. Since these offensive remarks did not receive much protest, the argument says Rocker should be left alone, too. This attitude, to me, indicates that “fairness” by itself is a morally neutral argument, too often an excuse for allowing everyone to engage in bad behavior, instead of a call to treat everyone justly.

I say this because, rather ironically, the call of “fairness” and indignant accusations of “hypocrisy” have long been a characteristic of those who pursue “liberal” and “enlightened” causes. And charges of hypocrisy have been directed at MLB from the left, as well, for club nicknames that offend Native Americans, or the paucity of minorities in the front office and management. Yet this attitude also seems flawed to me, for any one action against bigotry can be labeled “hypocritical” as long as problems remain. It seems arguments of “fairness,” with no reference to standards of right and wrong, can be used to uphold the status quo - by saying “no one has been punished before for this, so no one ever can be” - as well as to tear down the status quo.

Another question that has been asked is why John Rocker received more attention for his words than Rae Camith and Ray Lewis received when charged with murder? Or Bobby Chouinard for allegedly abusing his wife? Well, one reason is that people feel personally insulted by Rocker’s comments, while they do not feel as affected by crimes against individuals who they do not know.

But I think there is another twist to this. What, really, is there to say about athletes who are accused of criminal acts? Very few people are going to defend murderers. And while there unfortunately are those who privately think that “beating your wife is no big deal,” not many will say so in public. There is little discussion or debate about these cases because there is not much to debate.

It seems that this story hits home for some in a way different from by being offended. John Rocker’s way of thinking is hardly unique, and screeds against immigrants have come from commentators and politicians as well, though couched in more sophisticated talk. Not that everyone who wants to limit immigration is a bigot, but for many I suspect bigotry is a factor. And, finally, consider this: in his “7 train” tirade, Rocker did not specify the race or ethnicity of the hypothetical man recently released from jail or the young mother. Why, then, were these comments called “bigoted”? Were people reacting simply to Rocker slamming incarcerated men and teenage mothers? Or, did they assume that he must have been thinking of non-whites when talking about people in such situations because they do the same thing?

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