Sports Law Blog
All things legal relating
to the sports world...
Friday, December 15, 2006
John Rocker and Free Speech (Again)

John Rocker is back. Rocker, remember, is the former reliever who went on an anti-homosexual, anti-immigrant, anti-grunge, anti-unwed-mother, anti-New York, anti-7-Train diatribe in a 1999 Sports Illustrated article. This got him a one-year (later reduced by an arbitrator) suspension from Major League Baseball, made him a pariah among fans, and was the first step in a strangely precipitous decline in his pitching ability that had him out of baseball a few years later. Rocker was the subject of a lengthy interview on, apparently triggered by the correspondent's desire to learn what Rocker thought of the Michael Richards controversy.

The interview shows that Rocker has not changed his mind about many things. He is writing a book containing "more conservative Republican rantings." Muslims are too sensitive and easily offended. He is promoting a campaign called "Speak English." The SI story did not present the correct version of his comments or events and took things out of context. Michael Richards will bounce back and work again, although Rocker was not given such leeway even after he apologized. His girlfriend is Black and two or three of his best friends are Dominican or Puerto Rican. And Jeff Pearlman, the author of the article, is a "liberal Jew from New York" with an agenda. The last point prompted this response from Pearlman on's Page 2.

One problem with trying to develop a framework to discuss athletes' speech is that for every Muhammad Ali, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, Toni Smith (the college basketball player who in 2003 turned her back to the flag during the national anthem as a war protest), or Carlos Delgado, there is a Rocker. The former involve (at least viewed with a modern lens) involves unpopular, but at least arguable political stands that the majority generally recognizes as within the realm of acceptable debate and dissent. The latter made comments that, while political in the broad sense and unquestionably constitutionally protected, run afoul of what society considers acceptable discourse. And MLB and its teams, as entities with their own expressive interests, may want to make clear their objection to the former but not the latter.

But both are within the bounds of constitutional protection and we do not draw legal lines between them in the pure First Amendment context of government action--neither Ali nor Rocker could be subject to legal penalty for his respective expression. So, if we are discussing a framework (albeit not a First Amendment one, obviously) for what professional leagues should or should not do in response to athletes' off-field speech, do we still have to avoid such lines? It follows that, if we believe (as I think most people do, now) MLB should not punish Carlos Delgado for his war protest and Muhammad Ali should not be stripped of his title for refusing military induction on relio/political grounds, it becomes more difficult to justify Rocker's suspension for his comments.


I think Rocker is a lot smarter than we give him credit for. It's easy to dismiss him as an ignorant redneck, but the man is obviously using inflamatory rhetoric to promote his new book or at least a desire to find a publisher. He has gotten his name in the paper again at least.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 12/15/2006 3:01 PM  

Post a Comment