Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Free Speech, Hypocrisy, and the Cost of Unawareness

New Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen stepped on a serious public relations landmine over the weekend when he was quoted in Time Magazine, saying "I love Fidel Castro," later adding, "I respect Fidel Castro. You know why? A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last 60 years, but that son of a bitch is still here." The large Cuban-American population (along with many others) in Miami has not taken kindly to those words, with many calling for Guillen's job. Major League Baseball announced they would investigate the issue, and today, the Marlins announced they are suspending Guillen for five games.

Are Guillen's First Amendment rights being violated? Does MLB have any business getting involved? Does Guillen give any thought to how his words will be viewed when they reach the public? All good questions.
Free speech is one of the core principles of the United States, and for good reason. A nation whose people cannot speak out against what they see as injustice is headed in the wrong direction. Of course, there would be little need to protect speech if everyone agreed with what everyone else said, but that is not (and should not be) the way things work. Instead, much of what is said is unpopular and/or offensive to various segments of the populace. Thus the need for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing free speech, including (perhaps especially) unpopular speech.

However, there is widespread misunderstanding over what exactly "free speech" means. Many seem to believe they have the right to say whatever they please, whenever they please, without any repercussions. This is false. You are protected from arrest and imprisonment (even this has many exceptions: child pornography, truth in advertising laws, you cannot incite panic by screaming "fire" in a crowded theater, etc.). In effect, you are protected from the government. You are not protected from your employer, you are not protected from privately owned businesses, you are not protected from your girlfriend.

Guillen is an employee of the Miami Marlins, and if they believe he is to be punished for his comments, they are within their rights to do so. I do not believe Guillen should be fired, but I have no objection to their decision to remove him from the field for five games. I think there is an important distinction to be made between the Marlins deciding to suspend their manager and Major League Baseball announcing they would "investigate" the matter.

On some level, Guillen is an employee of Major League Baseball, and there are previous instances in which MLB has invoked a "for the good of the game" clause and suspended people for off the field comments, most famously when former Reds owner Marge Schott went on ESPN and praised Hitler and when then Braves pitcher John Rocker spoke with Sports Illustrated and gave a racist, sexist, and homophobic rant about the city of New York (Schott and Rocker's words are easily Googled, for anyone interested).

Unlike the cases of Schott, who I believe was in fact prejudiced against Jewish people, and Rocker, who probably really did hate just about anyone different from himself, I don't read what Guillen said and get any sense that he actually believes Castro has been good to the people or Cuba or is to be truly admired. He used poorly chosen words to observe that there's something to be said for staying in power, much the way Guillen has held onto an MLB managerial job for close to a decade, despite numerous detractors almost constantly criticizing his tactics and personality.

Bud and Fidel: Facebook friends, Words With Friends rivals.
I don't think any of what Guillen said last week is severe enough for Major League Baseball to involve itself, considering they stood idly when Guillen used a homophobic slur to attack an enemy in the media. Forgetting Ozzie for a moment, MLB has also watched numerous players be arrested for DUI or domestic violence without intervening. More to the point, the hypocrisy of Major League Baseball coming down on anyone for being supportive of Castro is staggering, given the fact that MLB Commissioner Bud Selig happily sat next to the man and watched baseball with him during a promotional trip by the Baltimore Orioles to Cuba.

Unless Selig is going to step forward to denounce himself and explain what has caused his change of heart, he has zero business saying a bad thing to anyone about comments relating to Castro. He doesn't have an honest leg to stand on, and if MLB is going to step in on important off the field issues, this should not be where the line starts.

The Marlins organization is another story though. They are running a business, and doing to in an area with a (justifiably) heightened sensitivity to the issue. Many of the people the Marlins are hoping will buy tickets, jerseys, and advertising space have good reason to hate Castro and his regime, and while one might argue that they're getting carried away, Marlins ownership has to operate within the environment they find themselves in, and environment that has now been poisoned to some extent, only days after a brand new, largely taxpayer funded stadium opened in the Little Havana neighborhood, of all places. They were wise to act quickly (flying Guillen home for a press conference on a scheduled off day for the team) and decisively (the suspension).

This is not the first time Guillen has said something controversial, or the first time he's then had to back off his own comments at full speed. There are many (myself sometimes included) who enjoy having someone around to give soundbites so different from what most professional managers/coaches will say. However, there comes a point when one simply must be accountable for having so little filter, or sense of the impact their words and actions can have.

Guillen was brought into manage the Marlins not just for his baseball know-how, but also to build a closer connection between the team and the Latino population of southern Florida. It is far too early to judge Guillen's time on the former, but its fair to say he's off to a disastrous start on that latter. If you'd asked anyone with more than a passing knowledge of the demographics and attitudes in and around Miami, and they'd have told you the worst thing Guillen could say would be something in support of Castro, yet that's exactly what he chose to do.

Guillen said all the right things at his press conference today, looking and sounding legitimately contrite. We'll soon find out whether enough has been said and done to win back the angry fans, the fallout may be far from over. Complain that people are over-reacting if you like, but that doesn't change the fact that this was an easily predicted mess that could easily have been avoided entirely if a grown man had shown any awareness of his situation. Ozzie has made his bed, and has no one to blame if it sleeps like crap.

No comments:

Post a Comment