Rocker and Racism

As I write this, the John Rocker controversy is still in full swing. Perhaps you've heard about it. In case you haven't, here's a very brief overview.

In a December issue of Sports Illustrated, John Rocker, a relief pitcher for the Atlanta Braves, was quoted making some flagrantly offensive comments. He said he never wanted to play for a New York sports team because he doesn't want to end up on a train "next to some queer with AIDS." He said, "I'm not a very big fan of foreigners ... How the hell did they get in this country?" He called a black teammate "a fat monkey." He made fun of Asian women and single mothers. This came after Rocker offended New York Mets fans during the regular season, calling them stupid and accusing them of throwing batteries at his mother.

The result to the Sports Illustrated comments (which are here, if you care), of course, is the typical outrage. People want him fined. People want him suspended. Some people want him expelled from baseball. All eyes turned to Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig (a contemptible little man whose pathetic nature I don't want to get into a tangent about at this point in time), wanting to see how he'd respond to this. Several days passed. Then, finally, Bud spoke.

"Let's give him a psychological evaluation!" Bud declared, both of his brain cells firing in unison.

This is where it rapidly falls apart for me. Anyone can look at Rocker's comments and clearly see that they are the words of a racist and a homophobe, no matter what protests to the contrary Rocker offers after the fact. What can Bud possibly expect a psychological evaluation will accomplish? Does he think that they'll discover he has some sort of deep psychological problem that will require lots of in-patient therapy or something? The only thing that this tactic will accomplish is to delay the need for him to make a decision. (If Bud discovered a bomb in his home, he'd need to talk to the focus groups for several weeks about whether or not he should call a bomb squad.)

An Atlanta City Councilman called the move disappointing, adding, "What are they evaluating him for? He's a 37-save guy, and they know he is psychologically fit to play the game. Even if he is diminished mentally, he still made those hate-filled comments." This is true, except for the part about "if he is diminished mentally." Face facts: EVERYONE is diminished mentally in some capacity. It also points out the ludicrousness of Bud's move in spectacular fashion. Rocker is clearly fit to play baseball. He just happens to be a baseball player who was openly racist during an interview.

Sadly, I tend to think that puts him in the majority. People know that racism is not openly accepted anymore in public circles, so they tend to be more careful about expressing those feelings in public, but they're there. I was stunned to see how much it's there. During my summer job, I talked baseball with some of my co-workers. There were quite a number of Phillies fans there, and we had a lot to talk about after the catcher for the Atlanta Braves, Eddie Perez, played a major role in instigating a major brawl between the two teams during a game. I was discussing the brawl with one of the people, and we agreed that if Perez had not been involved there wouldn't have been a brawl. The co-worker shook his head and vehemently spat, "Fuckin' spics."

My jaw hit the floor, not just at the comment, but how naturally it came to him. I mean, he didn't even blink. For him, using a slur against all Hispanic people was as natural as seeing the sun rise in the east. I blurted out, "Hey!" He turned and looked at me expectantly, wondering what I was going to say, apparently not considering his comment worthy of that type of response. I considered trying to take a straightforward approach, making the typical comments about racial epithets, but I figured it wouldn't have any impact on him, and besides, I didn't think I could get the words out. Finally, I managed to get out two words: "Bobby Abreu."

Bobby Abreu is a top-level outfielder for the Phillies who has superstar written all over him. He is also one of those "Fuckin' spics." The reaction when I dropped his name was immediate. "Oh, no, not him," my co-worker quickly backpedaled, shifting gears quickly.

"Oh, no, not him," I echoed sourly, rolling my eyes, and I turned and walked away.

Later that day, another co-worker called Eddie Perez a "spic." I was a bit more prepared this time, mentioned Bobby Abreu again, got a similar backpedal, and walked away again.

We like to think that we've come so far, made so much progress, righted so many wrongs. And we have, we have. Things are certainly better now than they used to be. But they're still not what they should be. I live in an area that consists predominately of white conservative Christians who live in the sort of mindset that Bill Maher once described as "Peace on Earth, good will toward men, faggots burn in hell." Living in this area, I can afford myself the luxury of thinking that things are pretty good, because I don't see many race-related problems, and I'm able to tend to forget that the reason these problems don't really exist is because there aren't all that many black, brown, yellow, etc. people in the area to test the waters. It's easy to say you're tolerant of other people when you never have to put your money where your mouth is. (If no one is going to test my word, then I am the greatest baseball player who ever lived.) Keith Olbermann used a good analogy. He said, "If it's gotten fifty degrees warmer in your house since the furnace went on, that's great if it was eighteen degrees out before you fixed the damn thing. If it was -273, that's another story."

So, there's still racism out there, a lot of it. And John Rocker has displayed it, and now everyone is demanding that he be held accountable. Which is well and good, but why isn't anyone else in this matter being held accountable?

There's Sports Illustrated, for example. The remarks that have caused this mess were originally published there. Does anyone think that Sports Illustrated made any effort whatsoever to avoid this mess? The people in charge there absolutely KNEW what was going to happen when these comments were published. They HAD to! Did they make any effort to contact John Rocker, let him know that the comments were questionable in nature, and offer him the opportunity to retract them even before they were published? Or did they see these quotes and start drooling in anticipation of the sales figures they would see that week? Yes, perhaps they did put a lot of thought and grief into whether or not to publish the article. I don't know. I do know that they certainly have jumped on the bandwagon as far as giving people the opportunity to sound off against Rocker, and while what Rocker said was certainly offensive, there seems to be a bit of hypocrisy involved in saying "We were just reporting what he said" with one side of their mouths while encouraging people to pile onto the "Hate Rocker" bandwagon with the other. The article in question focuses entirely on his offensive comments, with no room left for anything else he may or may not have said, no room for anything that would portray the man in an even remotely positive light. They even have a link to (which no longer works) on their site. This is impartial journalism?

There's also Bud Selig. If he was truly offended by Rocker's comments, if he truly found Rocker's comments "were reprehensible and completely inexcusable" as he claims, if he truly felt something needed to be done, why, nearly two weeks later, are we left with an order for psychological evaluation and nothing more? He claims that action needs to be taken, then does nothing. I have to wonder if he meant that comment in terms of Rocker's comments being worthy of an official response, or if he meant the comment in terms of needing to look like he was considering the situation with the appropriate sense of professionalism so as to look good to everyone else.

Or maybe, despite his sound bites to the contrary, he truly doesn't feel that it's the responsibility of major league baseball for punishing someone for being a racist. If he truly does feel that, than I can respect his position on this a bit more. Because, honestly, I don't feel that it's the responsibility of major league baseball to punish someone for being a racist. They cross that line, they become responsible for punishing people for religious beliefs and sexual preferences and anything else that is none of their damn business, as well. I'm not going to get into the "prejudice is okay; discrimination is not" issue here, beyond mentioning it and adding that there is no evidence that John Rocker advocates discrimination... yet. But it's up to the people to not tolerate Rocker's comments, not baseball. As has been said, the punishment for Rocker is going to come from the fans, and even his teammates, as he plays this season. Taking money from the man won't teach him respect for other people. It'll just make him bitter and resentful about one more thing.

And hey, at least he's openly racist. This doesn't sound like a good thing, but at least you know it's there. The more typical kind of racism these days is much more insidious, the sort that comes from people who know the firestorm an open stating of their opinions would cause, and instead say all the right things while doing all the wrong things. I would imagine that Rocker's statements are far less shocking than knowing someone for years and believing them to be among the most kind-hearted and generous people you've ever known, and then hearing that person say that he is worried that the black neighbors down the street are going to drag down property values. The most shocking thing about Rocker's opinions is not that he has them, but that he stated them so openly and so bluntly.

And that, I think, is the lesson that should come out of all of this. Amidst the calls for kicking Rocker out of baseball (as though baseball has been a paragon of racial equality) from people who are just as disturbingly extreme as Rocker but about more popular things, and the comments themselves, and the so-called "fans" who express their disgust at Rocker's comments by threatening physical violence against him, I think we need to step back and look at this a bit more rationally. So Rocker said some nasty things. As the saying goes, "It's only words... Unless they're true." Does anyone believe Rocker's generalizations are true? So just say to yourself "What an asshole" and move on. And realize that no matter how much we want to believe we've moved past the days where skin color was the sole factor some people used in determining another person's worth, it still happens, and it's not a phenomenon limited to the deep south, as we would like to believe. Take Rocker's words not as a sign that one man has issues with reality, but rather as a sign that, as far as racial issues are concerned, we still have a long, long way to go.

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