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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.

"The wisest thing probably is not to be involved in any of this," he said. "But I feel like, in my heart of hearts, that I should talk about what I believe in.

"A lot of people like the safe harbor. And perhaps my comments will hurt my recruiting efforts, or damage the relationship I have with our (basketball) supporters. I hope not. But I can't divorce what I believe from who I am."

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.


As usual, good post Howard. I'm surprised that with such a controversial issue, noone has commented yet...

Setting aside personal beliefs on pro-choice, stem-cell research and Hillary, I think it really boils down to wether his contract has anything in it about this type of behavior.. I wouldn't call it a morals clause, but I wouldn't be surprised if a school with religious affiliations put some restrictions on speaking in opposition to its beliefs or mission.

And remember, as much as it is Majerus right or duty to speak out, the Archbishop and Father Biondi would enjoy the same rights and priviliges in denouncing his statements...whats good for the goose....

(granted, I'm not aware of any such clauses in existance here, nor do I know if Father Biondi has, will, or would denounce the statements... I'm simply thinking out loud)

Blogger Jimmy H -- 1/24/2008 10:41 PM  


Congrats on the visiting post at SLU. I hope you are enjoying the great academic atmosphere that the Jesuits provide for both faculty and students.

By way of background that I did not disclose in my post on Tuesday (no love Jimmy H.???), I spent eight years in Jesuit schools (Loyola Academy followed by Boston College), thereafter, volunteering for a year in inner city Phoenix for the Jesuits (Jesuit Volunteer Corps Southwest). I regard these as the best years of my life, largely because of the academic freedom afforded to me along with the strong emphasis on social justice. While I do not know Coach Majerus personally, I am sure that by virtue of his "man for others" education and coaching experience at both Marquette and SLU, he felt comfortable to stand up for what he believes in.

This is not the first time that Archbishop Burke has stood up against members of his own faith who he believes should be publicly taken to task for a lack of adherence to the strict teachings of Rome (google Burke and Sheryl Crow, John Kerry, and St. Stansilaus Kostka). I would hope that non-Catholics do not take Burke's comments as representative of the Catholic Church, but when he speaks out like this I cringe that this may be the case.

At the end of the day, Coach Majerus standing up for what he believes in is one of the best examples he can give to his players.

Blogger Tim Epstein -- 1/25/2008 12:45 AM  

Sorry Tim, of course I meant to include you as well since your post started the discussion... I'll have to chalk this one up to a long day at work, way too many phone calls from political groups trying to solicit votes, or just plain ignorance on my part :)...

Blogger Jimmy H -- 1/25/2008 6:58 AM  

No problem, Jimmy. Thanks for your insightful comments. Greatly appreciated.

Blogger Tim Epstein -- 1/25/2008 10:48 AM  

This post regards the hypocrisy of the Church, and specifically Burke; so, this is your heads up (to quell the pending psuedo-religious debate):

Burke has no right. No. Right. The Court found that SLU does not control the school so Burke should keep his Kerry-hating lid trapped. Yes, you have the right to spew your hate (as does anyone) but no right to influence it's President to fire the Fat Man.

The Catholic Church has an unrivaled history of murder, bigotry, hate, expulsions, crusades, massacres, forced conversion and pogroms -- many say which continue to this day. How quick we are to forget, Rev.

Anyone rememebr the Second Vatican? The Society of St. Pius X?

Hypocrites should shut the hell up.

Anonymous The Revered -- 1/25/2008 12:27 PM  

Tim and Howard,

I think we all agree that SLU could sanction Majerus if it wanted to (private institution), but probably won't because it would send a strong message of censorship to the faculty.

Would SLU have to have a clause in Majerus contract in order to sanction him, or could they use a "best interest of..." type argument to go along with Archbishop Burke's comment:

When you take a position in a Catholic university, you don't have to embrace everything the Catholic church teaches, but you can't make statements which call into question the identity and mission of the Catholic Church.

Blogger Jimmy H -- 1/25/2008 12:51 PM  

What if he had made racist comments? Would you all be so insistent on tolerance?

I really am curious.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 1/25/2008 12:54 PM  


If you have read anything I previously have written in this (or any other) space, you know that my answer would be "yes," I would be just as insistent on tolerance. I don't think he would get the same support from a university faculty, but that is another story.

I cannot speculate as to the details of Majerus's contract. But I doubt there is any clause in there specifically tied to his adherence to or support for the essential doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. First, again, it would be inconsistent with the school's broader mission as an academic institution. Second, and more broadly, it would mean the school never could hire a coach who is a practicing Jew. I imagine rejecting Jesus' divinity would be a statement "call[ing] into question the identity and mission of the Catholic Church."

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 1/25/2008 2:11 PM  

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