Ozzie Guillen and Free Speech

Howard Cosell once said famously that sports and politics don’t mix. Yet the more you stare at the world of sports it becomes obvious that it’s not “sports and politics” that don’t mix, but sports and a certain kind of politics. If an athlete wants to “support the troops,” rally behind a new publicly funded stadium, or in the case of Tim Tebow, do commercials for rightwing evangelical hate-shop like Focus on the Family, then you are a role model. Anyone who dares step out of that box would bear a very different set of consequences. This was seen sharply with the case of Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen. In an interview with Time Magazine, Guillen said in the freewheeling, macho style that has become his trademark, “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 b—— is still here." Guillen was immediately suspended for five games for his comments.

Given that Guillen manages in Miami and given that the team just opened a new $2 billion taxpayer funded stadium, the comments elicited an all-too-predictable firestorm.

To be clear, I have no problem with what Guillen said. Castro’s ability to survive since Eisenhower was President of the United States is remarkable.

I also have no problem with South Florida’s very well connected, rightwing Cuban community, flexing their muscle in an effort to denounce Guillen. Free speech doesn’t mean freedom from criticism.

I do have a tremendous problem with the Miami Marlins franchise suspending Guillen for five games without pay.

I do have a problem with Guillen becoming yet another person from the world of sports who gets fined, loses money, and has his job threatened for daring to have something political to say.

I have a problem with him, in order to save his job, having to grovel like a broken man at a press conference that was only missing a stockade. Guillen had to say, “I come to apologize on my knees with my heart in my hands,” and “I’ve learned not to speak in politics where I don’t belong.” He then renounced Castro, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and every last red short of Paul Robeson. Those kinds of political statements were fine.

This kind of awful morality theater is nothing less than the stone-cold definition of a chilling effect on free speech.

As Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, said, “Baseball managers are entitled to the same Constitutional rights as anyone else. Period, full stop,” Marshall wrote. “In fact, we ought to call an end to the all-too-common ritual of public humiliation, confession, and absolution that follows whenever some celebrity says something stupid or offensive. It’s the closest thing our supposedly free society has to a totalitarian show trial.”

I know that there are those who will rush to say that the First Amendment has nothing whatsoever to do with Ozzie Guillen’s case. They will point out correctly that the First Amendment is about the government not being able to pass laws abridging freedom of speech. They will also say that that as soon as we enter our private workplaces and whenever we represent our employer, the Bill of Rights isn’t worth more than tissue paper. Yes, democracy in the streets and dictatorship on the job is as American as apple pie.

But please consider this: The Miami Marlins and their new stadium would not exist without billions of dollars in taxpayer commitments. While legally it is a private entity, it is in all but name an entirely public funded operation. Shouldn’t that loosen the awful restrictions placed on Guillen and all pro athletes who are scared to speak out for fear of having to suffer a similar fate? As long as sports teams take public funds, the people who play them should be entitled to see their playing field as a public square with all the First Amendment protections implied. Then everyone would be protected and not merely the Tim Tebows of the world.

Athletes have a proud tradition of using their hyper-exalted platform to try and change the world. We should defend their right to do it.

Dave Zirin is the author of several books on sports and has just released a film titled, “Not Just a Game: Power, Politics & American Sports.”