Free speech for all–besides pro athletes

When David “Boomer” Wells rode down the Canyon of Heroes with the 1998 World Series Champion New York Yankees, shredded computer paper and ripped newsprint fell from office windows, fans piled on each other’s shoulders and dangled from light polls just to catch a glimpse of his 125-50 team, and the perfect game pitcher finally felt like he was an official Bronx Bomber.

“Babe Ruth s been here, and Gehrig, and Mantle, and Whitey, and Yogi, and DiMaggio, and Reggie . and now me. I finally feel like I ve joined the club,” Wells wrote in his controversial autobiography entitled “Perfect I’m Not. Boomer on Beer, Brawls, Backaches, and Baseball.”

Wells not only joined the club of series winning ball players, but his lifestyle initiated him into a line of controversy-clad men who have donned the pin stripes. The New York Yankees fined Wells $100,000 in response to his book that Yankee General Manager Brian Cashman said tarnished the Yankee image.

In his text, the all-star claims that steroid use is rampant among major leaguers and that he was half-drunk on the mound the day he pitched his perfect game against the Minnesota Twins.

“Fifteen men in the history of organized baseball have ever thrown a perfect game. Only one of those men did it half-drunk, with bloodshot eyes, monster breath, and a raging skull-rattling, hangover. That would be me,” Wells wrote.

In support of Wells, Dave Addis of the Virginian-Pilot wrote, “The Yankee image still trades heavily on the legends of Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle, both of whom played more games with hangovers than David Wells will play in his entire career, sober or otherwise.”

Boomer s words may or may not have actually tarnished his team’s image, but if the Yankees feel that their employee s book hurt the organization, the front office has every right to take action.

In this and similar cases of professional athletes being reprimanded for expressing views that differ from those of the organizations that employ them, many argue that the speaker’s words are protected by the First Amendment. They aren t.

Former Atlanta Braves reliever John Rocker ran his mouth off to Sports Illustrated writer Jeff Pearlman in a 1999 interview. The 50-day suspension and $20,000 fine that baseball commissioner Bud Selig imposed on Rocker as a result, led to a nationwide discourse on First Amendment rights.

As much as the content of his speech was shunned, many Americans defended the closer s right to say it, stating that Major League Baseball should not have the right to censor his politically incorrect mouth. But what many do not understand is that the First Amendment only protects the freedom of expression against government intervention.

“It means a squad of secret police can’t knock down his door and arrest him for his thoughts,” Steve Kelley, a Seattle Times reporter wrote. “It doesn t mean Major League Baseball can t severely punish him for what he said.”

Although private sector corporations have the right to ensure their employees represent their best interest, some believe that their stifling of speech is taken too far.

Fines, suspensions and other disciplinary actions have been imposed on professional athletes since the beginning of pro-sports in the United States, but whether or not it is ethical to suppress the speech of athletes remains a controversial issue on the modern playing field.

Christine Brennan of USA Today raises the question, “Isn t there something inherently fascinating about the athlete who emerges from the cookie-cutter image of his or her teammates or peers and dares to be different?”

After all, it was not merely The Babe’s swing that made him so beloved. It was his hedonism too. Although there was no official count as to how many people walked through Yankee Stadium to pass his coffin and pay their respects to Ruth in August of 1948, the line was estimated to include between 77,000 and 200,000 mourners.

That degree of patronage is hard to match for modern athletes confined within the limits of professional contracts that force them to conform to role model status. The thing that makes athletes like Dennis Rodman and Charles Barkley so intriguing is their courage to be different in a business that forces its members to stay within the lines.

Professional sports organizations have every right to impose their own rules, but perhaps management should consider letting some variety leak into their clubs before all the Boomers in the dugouts conform into good guy, Sunday school teaching, Andy Petittes and the character flaws that make professional athletes the heroes that fans can relate to are lost forever.