Freedom of speech just means that the government can’t enact a law infringing on citizens’ rights, but an employer is well within his/her rights to do what they want with an employee that represents them. This is a true statement and I agree with it whole-heartedly. If this is where the conversation regarding freedom of speech begins and ends for you, then you should probably stop reading further. For me, it goes beyond that. Freedom of speech is covered in the first amendment to the Constitution, but it is also a cultural ideal with a life beyond the simple confines of law and government. If you want to talk technicalities as if this is some kind of contractual law case, then we’ve exhausted it already.
This isn’t exactly in our wheelhouse because Ozzie Guillen is now managing the Miami Marlins. Still, Ozzie feels kind of like a related story because he was so involved in the American League Central for so long as the Indians battled his White Sox teams year in and year out. This might also miss the WFNY wheelhouse because it is also twinged in politics and we kind of avoid divisive stuff like that because comments almost always devolve into a left vs. right, black vs. white, up vs. down kind of debate where polar opposites claim that the other side is wrong without ever looking for any kind of common ground. That’s O.K. when we’re talking about Eric Mangini, for example, but not so much on a sports site when lightly talking about politics. We should be safe on this issue though because in the end, I don’t want to discuss what Ozzie Guillen said as much as I’d like to discuss the culture surrounding what he said. All disclaimers finished I’ll get to the point.
We’re talking about a platform for speech. We’re talking about a culture in sports where we presumably want athletes and people around sports to entertain us on the field and also when in front of a microphone. Sometimes that is going to lead to mistakes like what Ozzie Guillen made the other day. It is fair to call it a mistake because Guillen apologized and attempted to clarify what he said today while being handed a five game suspension from the Marlins. The suspension is my biggest problem in all this. I think the suspension is more harmful than it is helpful.
A suspension renders an apology and explanation meaningless. In the end, Ozzie Guillen offended some people, but a clarification and an apology should be good enough if he is sincere. Instead the Marlins had to tack on a pretty meaningless five game suspension as some kind of token for the presumably offended people. For me, that’s where it goes too far. That’s where the situation jumps from one of misunderstanding and offense and jumps straight to an attack on the platform for speech. Any attack on the platform itself is overly chilling to free speech as a cultural ideal and I can’t support that. It says to me that nobody believes or trusts the apology anyway. So why bother apologizing?
If what he said is so bad and irreparable then he should be fired. I don’t personally think he should be fired, but if the Marlins truly feel an apology and explanation isn’t good enough then they should stand up with real guts and fire him. If they don’t want to fire him, then his apology should suffice. This middle of the road stuff is more harmful as it doesn’t seek to address issues, but merely placate customers by putting a P.R. spin on things. If the issue is truly of importance then it shouldn’t be for sale or subject to superior marketing.
At the point where we devolve into a culture where apologies are rendered meaningless and our thirst for “justice” is only satiated with attacks on speech platforms – even by private employers – I think we’ve lost something. We’ve lost a level of toughness where words not only hurt us but demand overwhelming punishment even beyond regret, remorse and explanation. That, to me, is even sadder and more offensive than anything that anyone could say.
To attack platforms just forces honesty into the shadows. Recently deceased comedian Patrice O’Neal used to say frequently that as a black man he’d never met a racist before. What he meant by that is that he knows racists exist, but that they just live in the shadows and are dishonest with themselves and the people around them. That might seem like a good thing or progress compared to openly racist days previous, but anyone who is keeping something quiet isn’t dealing with it either. Something that wouldn’t survive in the sunlight is gaining extra life in the shadows. Kind of like if you are seeking the help of a psychiatrist but you lie to them about what is really going on in your life. You can’t work on the things that you won’t acknowledge or be honest with yourself about.
This is why freedom of speech is important as a cultural ideal beyond just governments making laws. Our growth as a culture is sped up whenever we have a chance to deal with something. We have chances to deal with things when people feel free to speak their minds. Maybe this is a little too high and mighty for what happened with Ozzie Guillen, or even guys like Don Imus, Bill Maher or Rush Limbaugh. As always with cultural ideals – at least to me – it is bigger than just the anecdotes.