I'm struck by the diversity of comments here with regards to an interview given by the new Miami Marlins manager, Ozzie Guillen.
Guillen committed the nearly unpardonable sin of having kind words to say about Fidel Castro and Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.
A little background. The Miami Marlins baseball team opened a new stadium this season, right smack in the heart of Little Havana, la communidad el Norte for Cuban refugees. This casts an intriguing light on what Guillen said, for it's the older Cuban-Americans who have a problem with it, while later generations are more "Who's Castro?"
I could parse and dissect this difference, but let me sum it up by saying there could possibly have been a bit of calculation in Guillen's comments, trying to drum up some audience for the Marlins, who not only spent an enormous sum of money for the stadium (some of which was highly questionable funding) but also shelled out the better part of the GDP of a small nation for new players, mostly Latino.
Nonetheless, once Guillen realized what he had said had created an huge backlash in the community, he apologized for saying it. Needless to say, it's also an election year (Miami mayor), and this ruckus has infiltrated into the election.
Guillen is scheduled to hold a press conference this morning and is expected to repeat his apology and possibly expand on it.
Here's the thing: it's a free country and Guillen had every right to say what he said. However, Guillen also works for a private corporation, which limits what he can say without repercussion. And there's the nub of the question.
Should politics be kept out of sport and sport kept out of politics? It seems logical, and yet, it rarely happens because of the money involved. After all, no one builds a major league stadium through completely private funding. Usually there are tax breaks involved or loan guarantees.
Similarly, given the popularity of sports, no politician in his right mind isn't going to exploit a team's fan base for the sake of identifying with the team and scoring a few cheap votes. You saw it all the time when Rudy Giuliani was mayor of New York. He would constantly be shown in his front row seat at Yankee games, and God help anybody who got between Giuliani and a camera when the Yankees would win a title.
If Guillen worked for, say Wal-mart, he likely would have been called down to HQ and either fired outright or demoted, or apologized and had it accepted. No one would have batted an eye, no outcry would have occured and things would have moved on. Business was taken care of.
But here we have a different, more nuanced situation: Guillen de facto works for a quasi-public entity. Major league baseball is exempt from certain laws with respect to monopoly practices, and under those auspices, receive political scrutiny far beyond what any other industry would get.
How else do you explain Congress getting involved in a drug scandal?
In this capacity and as a public figure, Guillen has influence beyond the domain of his clubhouse.
Generally, sports figures stay away from politics. It's bad for contract negotiations, which is also why you see players setting up charities for kids with cancer or who are poor. And remember, Cassius Clay spent time in jail after he changed his name to Muhammad Ali and refused the draft for Vietnam as a conscietious objector.
It has happened, however, where ballplayers have gotten involved in making political statements and paid no price: in the 1960s, black players would express support for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Some ballplayers even protested the Vietnam War (Tom Seaver, one of the greatest pitchers ever, springs to mind).
Hell, Castro was scouted for baseball when he was a kid!
Guillen should pay no price, either. He's apologized, but I don't think he needed to. If Guillen is to pay a price, if we are to clearly remove politics from sports (which might not be a bad thing, but right now, is not a necessary thing), then Tim Thomas should be forced to remove his helmet while playing for the Boston Bruins. He paid no official price for refusing to meet with President Obama, either. If Guillen is punished, then so should Tim Thomas.
My suspicion, however, is that we want the right kind of politics (in all senses) from our athletes, which is even stupider. If we're going to claim Tim Thomas has the right to wear a Teabagger symbol on his helmet, then fairness-- a doctrine America was built on-- demands that Guillen be allowed to speak out, or tattoo a hammer-and-sickle on his arm, or whatever else.
For if we're going to have "politics for me, but none for thee," then this country is in very grave danger.