- The Washington Times - Friday, January 21, 2000

From salary caps to touchdown dances to the lengths of players' jerseys, the major leagues regulate almost every conceivable aspect of sports-related activity.

But should they be regulating speech?

That's the question facing Major League Baseball in the wake of Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker's recent remarks about immigrants, minorities and homosexuals.

And in a larger sense, it's the dilemma that confronts professional sports whenever athletes, owners or league employees make statements that antagonize segments of the public.

As highly visible industries that trade almost exclusively in public good will, professional leagues face significant pressure to punish persons making such remarks.

At the same time, doing so requires leagues to wade into the murky arena of value judgment, subjectively deciding what sort of speech is and is not acceptable.

"I don't envy the position the leagues are put in with this," said Jeffrey Rosenthal, a professor of sports law at Rutgers University and chairman of the New York Bar Association's committee on professional sports. "I'm sure 90 percent of fans would like them to do something. And they have to protect their public image.

"But where does it stop? [Utah Jazz forward] Karl Malone is now a spokesman for the National Rifle Association. If the [National Basketball Association] doesn't like that, can he be disciplined?"

Consider Rocker, who said in an interview with Sports Illustrated last month that he would never play for a New York team because he didn't want to ride a train next to "some queer with AIDS." The 25-year-old relief pitcher also bashed immigrants, made fun of Asian women, and called a black teammate a "fat monkey."

Although Rocker later apologized, minority groups, homosexual groups and even some of Rocker's teammates have called for him to be fined, suspended or dismissed. Moreover, commissioner Bud Selig ordered Rocker to undergo psychological testing last week before considering further action.

A Major League Baseball spokesman declined to comment on the nature of Rocker's testing.

"Should Rocker be punished?" said Mark Anshel, a sports psychologist at Texas A&M; University. "Yes. It's called limit setting. Responsible organizations have very clear policies of what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior and part of that includes making statements that have adverse effects on the communities that these organizations depend on for support, income and longevity.

"Athletes are entitled to their biases. But they are not entitled to express those biases in a communitywide manner. They are being paid to represent a community, city and culture, not simply their own personal viewpoints."

On the other side of the debate, Jeff Pearlman the reporter who interviewed Rocker has said that athletes should be free to express their opinions without the threat of punishment.

Others agree.

"Do you really believe we can legislate stupidity?" said Peter Titlebaum, assistant professor of health and sports science at Dayton University. "Rocker is stupid, he's ignorant, but he's entitled to be that way."

"He's just a kid," said Braves owner Ted Turner on CNN's "Moneyline." "I think he was off his rocker when he said those things. He has apologized. I don't think we ought to hold it against him forever. Let's give him another chance. He didn't commit a crime."

Collective bargaining agreements in all four major leagues the National Football League, National Hockey League, NBA and MLB grant commissioners in each league the power to punish acts deemed detrimental to the "best interests" of the sport.

As a result, baseball was free to fine and suspend Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott in 1993 for negative remarks about blacks and Jews. Likewise, the NBA was free to fine Chicago Bulls forward Dennis Rodman $50,000 in 1997 for anti-Mormon rhetoric.

"There are certain rules that you know going in, the minute you sign a contract," NBA spokesman Chris Brienza said. "And you're expected to uphold them. Period."

However, the inherent vagueness of the various "best interest" clauses means that leagues evaluate offensive remarks on a case-by-case basis. And that, in turn, leaves leagues playing speech cop a subjective and difficult task made harder by the sheer volume of "trash talk" so common to athletic competition.

"Why is trash talk about someone's mother different than insulting someone's race or ethnic background?" Mr. Anshel said. "It can be argued that it doesn't make a difference, that it's all a way of expressing emotions that are heightened during competition."

Moreover, policing speech can create the appearance of a double standard.

In 1981, Mr. Turner suggested that unemployed blacks be used to move MX missiles from silo to silo in order to save money; in 1990, he said Christianity was "a religion for losers"; in 1996, he likened fellow media mogul Rupert Murdoch to Hitler; and last year he told a Polish joke about Pope John Paul II while ridiculing the Ten Commandments.

And unlike Mrs. Schott, Mr. Turner went unpunished.

"It gets very dubious, trying to decide on what's offensive speech and what the intent of it was," said Howard Fienberg, an on-line hockey columnist.

Perhaps mindful of that dilemma, the NHL recently has taken a novel approach toward curbing controversial speech by hiring independent consultant Zachary Minor to conduct "diversity training" sessions for all 28 of the league's teams.

When Ottawa Senators center Vinny Prospal recently directed an ethnic slur toward Montreal Canadiens defenseman Patrice Brisebois, he was ordered by the league office to meet with Mr. Minor.

By contrast, two Washington Capitals players were suspended in 1997 for using racial epithets during games.

"We're trying to make it clear to all players that respect for each other is an utmost priority," NHL spokesman Frank Brown said. "And I think it has worked. There's no way to measure the number of incidents that may have been averted by this training. The only thing to measure is the number of instances that have come before the public.

"We have 600 players and play 1,150 games. And if it happens one time, I would say that's pretty darn good."

Other leagues may be following suit. The NFL and NBA offer some form of diversity training during their rookie orientation programs. And the NBA instituted a mandatory diversity program for league office employees last year.

While some doubt their effectiveness, Mr. Anshel said such programs can be an attractive alternative to the messy business of policing speech.

"To what extent can we control feelings and attitudes?" he said. "Well, you can't force people to have attitudes, and the major leagues don't want to be thought police.

"But we must do all we can to minimize racist and prejudicial attitudes and provide educational opportunities to alert pro athletes that they have a responsibility it's not just how you play the game, it's the personal and professional characteristics you bring to the game."

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