Rocker a jerk, but wrongfully punished

Even as police blotters fill with murdering linebackers and wide receivers, the most disturbing moment in sports this week came with the discipline of a player.
On Monday, major league baseball suspended Atlanta pitcher John Rocker until May 1 for comments he made in a December issue of Sports Illustrated.
Rocker was also fined $20,000 and ordered to undergo sensitivity training for his comments, which openly disparaged gays, blacks, immigrants and women.
Though many would argue the suspension is an appropriate action in light of public outrage at Rocker’s statements, fining and suspending Rocker is a ludicrous solution to a problem much too big for baseball to handle.
Few would argue that Rocker is an exemplary human being, and even fewer would agree. But how can major league baseball start legislating people’s opinions?
Simply put, Rocker is entitled to be an idiot if he so chooses. He is under no obligation to be a good human being. Only a few people in the world can throw a baseball as hard as John Rocker, and that is virtually all his contract says he must do.
By sending Rocker to psychologists and “sensitivity training,” baseball is also sending a dangerous message. Baseball is, in effect, saying there is something wrong with Rocker, some illness that causes him to hate people who aren’t like him.
John Rocker is not sick; John Rocker is stupid. And there is a huge difference.
In the course of his baseball travels, Rocker has undoubtedly encountered black, Latino and Hispanic opponents and teammates. He rode on buses with them, showered with them and roomed with them. Yet he called a teammate a “fat monkey.”
No amount of training, I don’t care how sensitive, is going to change the man.
But as much as the rest of us disagree with his opinions, Rocker is entitled to them. He has committed no crime, nor has he done anything to harm anyone other than himself. Just because he is a public figure and a famous athlete doesn’t mean the First Amendment doesn’t apply to him.
Imagine for a moment if Ty Cobb, renowned for being one of the meanest, most bigoted athletes ever, played today. He’d barely play a couple of innings between visits to shrinks and appeal hearings.
Major league baseball, swayed by a climate of political correctness, has made a dangerous step in trying to police the thoughts and words of its players. The fact is, no disciplinary action on the part of baseball is necessary.
Baseball has long been a self-policing game. If a player slides into second with his spikes up, the next batter can likely expect the next pitch to be in his ribs. A yappy baserunner can expect throws to the bag and hard tags from the first baseman. Teammates stick up for each other.
That’s the way it should be.
Proper justice for John Rocker should come between the lines, with the teammates and opponents with whom he has to work.
Imagine it:
Braves and Mets at Shea Stadium. New York fans, the objects of Rocker’s scorn, are screaming unprintable things about the pitcher’s mother and his upbringing as a backwoods, country bumpkin.
In a tight game, Rocker comes in to hold a tie and is forced to bat in the top half of the inning. The Mets bring in Armando Benitez, a black pitcher who throws every bit as hard as Rocker.
With the Mets’ crowd egging him on, Benitez smiles and puts his next pitch behind Rocker’s ear, knocking the reliever into the dirt. The New York crowd goes wild.
And the Braves’ bench doesn’t do a thing.

Josh Linehan covers men’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]