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Everyone who spouts off about the First Amendment should take the time to read it once in a while.

I pass this advice on to the many outraged voices I have heard on radio and television call-in shows or in letters to editors in defense of John Rocker.

Those who protest that the Atlanta Braves relief pitcher has a "First Amendment free speech right" to make bigoted statements about blacks, homosexuals, foreigners, welfare mothers and AIDS patients, as he did in a Sports Illustrated interview, miss the point.

The First Amendment says that "Congress shall make no law" abridging the freedoms of speech, the press and so forth. That means government shall not abridge free speech. The First Amendment does not say that Bud Selig, the commissioner of major league baseball, cannot set rules that abridge the freedom of relief pitchers to shoot off their mouths to reporters in ways that embarrass their team, their employers or the entertainment industry known as Big League Baseball.

I wonder how Rocker's defenders would feel if his vile observations had been expressed by, say, a "gangsta rap" star. I wonder how many of those same callers and letter writers would be calling on the music industry to shut the rapper up under threat of a boycott.

Or, for that matter, I wonder how many would be ready to refer the rap star to a psychological evaluation, as Selig has ordered Rocker to undergo.

Unfortunately, Selig missed the point, too. The point is that Rocker's sentiments, expressed in a rude and crude attempt at humor, were unacceptable in a civilized society, let alone the entertainment industry known as professional sports.

There is no serious reason, based on Rocker's statements quoted in Sports Illustrated, to question the young ballplayer's sanity. If sanity is defined as conforming to social norms, the sad fact is that Rocker's sentiments are quite normal indeed, especially in the tradition of "good ol' boy" conversations in the rural Georgia from which Rocker hails.

My biggest gripe is with the way the sports industry tends to handle ill-informed comments that, however wrong-headed, are nevertheless the honest expressions of the individual.

A major reason why wrong-headed notions about race, ethnicity and gender are able to flourish is the absence of open and candid conversations. Too many people are afraid to speak their minds for fear of punishment or ostracism. Instead, they confine their opinions to private conversations with others who share their wrong-headed notions.

Then, before they realize it, they're saying something in public that hurts their relations with their neighbors, their fellow workers or, in Rocker's case, his teammates and fans.

A better way to help narrow-minded people before they hurt themselves was described by former New York Knicks player Bill Bradley during his presidential debate with Al Gore on Martin Luther King Jr. Day: Take them aside for a heart-to-heart talk.

"When I was with the Knicks," Bradley recalled, "one of my jobs was, when there was a white player that came on the team who didn't quite understand, used the wrong words, I took him over to the side and said, 'Look that doesn't work on this team. If you want to be on this team, you respect everybody.' "

If somebody had passed on some good sense like that to Rocker in time, he might not have to be apologizing so profusely now.

Rocker's real problem is not his lack of rights. It is his lack of respect for others, including his teammates, who are quite a multiracial, multinational, multicultural bunch.

One of the best suggestions I have heard for how Rocker should be dealt with came from a listener to National Public Radio's "Weekend Edition -- Saturday." Rocker should be fined, the listener said, and the money should be evenly distributed to groups representing each of the groups he offended. Then, he should deliver the money in person, sit down and meet some of the people he talked so rudely and crudely about.

The Chicago Tribune

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