Ozzie Guillen and Free Speech in Baseball

The controversy over Ozzie Guillen’s statements regarding Fidel Castro occur at a fascinating intersection of money, politics and baseball, resulting in a media tempest and a five days suspension for Guillen. There are two reasons why Guillen’s comments in praise of Castro might have gotten him in trouble. The first reason would be that his political views angered the Marlins ownership. The second reason could be that Guillen’s, at best, poorly phrased, admiration for Castro, risked alienating the Marlins from Miami’s sizable Cuban-American population, many of whom are baseball fans.

The second explanation is the more plausible, and in a business sense, at first glance, more justifiable. The Marlins have invested heavily in an impressive new stadium, a handful of talented and visible players, such as new shortstop Jose Reyes as well as, Guillen, a colorful manager who has succeeded at the highest level of the game. With all that money invested in the team’s new image, the last thing the Marlins ownership needs is a visible senior figure representing their team speaking kindly of a foreign leader who is widely detested by an important segment of the Marlins fan base.

Guillen, as many remember, is not the first baseball person in recent years to create trouble for himself by saying insensitive things. Both Al Campanis and John Rocker did this as well. Rocker was suspended for his bigoted outburst, but Campanis resigned altogether shortly after making his offensive statements. Campanis and Rocker, however, made statements that are more broadly offensive than anything Guillen said. Guillen’s comments may have been insulting to Cuban-Americans and others aware of the nature of Castro’s regime, but they are not comparable to the cruel racism and bigotry in Campanis and Rocker’s statements. For this reason, the response to Guillen came from the Marlins, rather than from MLB as was the case with Rocker.

Another way to see this difference is that had Guillen still been managing the Chicago White Sox, his comments about Castro probably would have been a one day story, except for every few years when his team came to Miami to play the Marlins, where he would have been enthusiastically booed. Thus, the response to Rocker and Campanis was political, the response to Guillen was economic.

With regards to free speech, this is a grey area. The idea that your employer can suspend you simply for expressing a political view that, while not racist or bigoted, is different from that of many customers or potential customers is not exactly consistent with the spirit of free speech. It is also worth remembering that there are, in fact, a range of opinions on the Cuban regime within American society, if not perhaps among the political elite in the U.S.

In general baseball players do not say much about politics, but the high degree of religiosity which is found in among many ballplayers, coaches and managers is not entirely apolitical in nature. Accordingly, a secular ballplayer would probably feel some discomfort in a clubhouse where statements about faith in Jesus, and the political views that frequently accompany fundamentalist Christianity were part of the fabric of every working day, but those secular players are generally more likely to keep their views to themselves.

This example, on the surface, has little to do with the Guillen case, but the question of what would happen if a secular player who played on a team with a heavy Christian bent, for example the Texas Rangers, actively asserted his secular identity during discussions with the media and dismissed religion as superstition, follows clearly from the Guillen case. These are legitimate political views held by some proportion of the population, but coming out of the mouth of new manager for the Rangers, Houston Astros or some other team with a large religious Christian fan base, could be damaging to the team’s ticket sales. If, however, that player was suspended, it would seem to be a clear case of discrimination based on political views. Religious conservatives could imagine a similar case if, for example, a San Francisco Giants manager, made critical remarks about the tolerant and secular culture in the Bay Area.

Freedom of speech exists to protect unpopular and occasionally uninformed speech. This particular case has not become a major free speech issue because Guillen himself does not seem to believe particularly strongly in what he said and is anxious to move on. Suspending baseball people like Rocker or Campanis for essentially hate speech is one thing. After all, they were not simply expressing opinions on political issues but making statements aimed at hurting colleagues, co-workers and even fans. Rocker was being hateful and Campanis was being ignorant and racist. However, the precedent for suspending Guillen is different and makes it possible for management to limit the political views of managers and players much more closely.