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Thursday, January 24, 2008
More on Rick Majerus
The story, first mentioned here, of Saint Louis University Men's Basketball Coach Rick Majerus' comments at a Hillary Clinton rally supporting reproductive choice and stem-cell research, and the calls by St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke for university sanctions against Majerus, is becoming a national controversy. Majerus today defends himself in a very thoughtful interview with Bernie Miklasz, a sports columnist from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, that is worth reading. He obviously has spent some time considering and forming his views and beliefs about these issues, about his right or duty to speak about them, and about what his Jesuit education (Majerus graduated from Marquette) teaches him about forming ideas and speaking out.
I am spending a very enjoyable year as a visiting faculty member at SLU's School of Law this year. So I wanted to weigh in on a couple of points.
First, the Archbishop's call for Majerus to be sanctioned makes for great rhetoric, but is not going to happen. And it has nothing to do with the control the Catholic Church does or does not wield over the university. Rather, I doubt the faculty would stand for the university sanctioning a member of the university community for engaging in political speech. If Majerus can be sanctioned, so could any untenured faculty member be sanctioned for her scholarhsip or blogging or public comments. I get the sense that SLU's president, Father Matthew Biondi (whom I never have met), recognizes this unique and important element of being a university and, in particular, being a Jesuit university, with its tradition of open thought. So while Archbishop Burke is right that the school, as a private institution, could sanction Majerus for his speech, my guess is the school, as a university, would not seriously think about it.
I remember having a conversation with a dean at a different Jesuit law school, who assured me that, being a Jesuit institution, there would be full freedom to think and write as we will. My laughing response was that any other possibility never entered my mind. In fact, I said I might be more concerned being on a public-school faculty in some states.
Second, I would highlight the following exchange:
I asked Majerus if speaking out on controversial matters is the proper thing to do for a basketball coach.
Bravo to Majerus; great answer. But the exchange highlights a few concerns.
One, I am troubled that the question was asked because it is inconsistent with our demands elsewhere that athletes (and sports figures generally) speak out. In deciding to speak out, he ran the risk that his comments will offend some listeners and, perhaps, someone will not want to support the Billikens anymore (a point he addresses in the inteview). But to suggest that speaking out on controversial matters (since everything worth talking about is controversial) is not the "proper thing" seems hypocritical in light of our insistence that athletes should speak out and take public stands.
Two, would we ever ask a plumber or a bank teller or a doctor or a stay-at-home mother whether it was proper for her to speak out on controversial matters? If not, then how could it be for a basketball coach? Don't they all share equally the right and opportunity to take part in the public debate? Is it because of his fame, which gives his comments an audience the bank teller does not enjoy? But it would be ironic, to say, the least, if our rule was that the more power or influence one's words can have (because of the fame or wealth or power the speaker has accumulated), the less one should speak. It is fair for one to say "Majerus [or any other sports figure] doesn't know what he's talking about, he's just a baskteball coach"--although I think that response is wrong as to Majerus. But suggesting that what he said was wrong is much different from suggesting that he was wrong to say something at all.
Update: Thursday, 10:00 p.m. C.S.T.:
Great profile by Pat Forde on ESPN about Majerus as a person and why his speaking out, and sticking to his guns, is so in character for him.