That's the question major league baseball faced last Monday when it fined Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker $20,000 and suspended him until May 1 because of his comments in Sports Illustrated late last year. It was the worst non-drug related penalty in baseball since Pete Rose got a month's vacation for shoving an ump in 1988.
Unless you've been living in a batting cage these last few months, you know Rocker's the one who insulted homosexuals, foreigners, and everyone out there who's darker than copier paper. Rocker's verbally violent safari, which included calling his black teammate a "fat monkey," led to protests from his co-workers, his higher-ups, and others around the world.
Problem is, this is a suspension that never should have been levied.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not condoning what Rocker said. But by disciplining the tart-tongued pitcher for saying it, we send all the wrong messages to employees.
You see, what scares me about John Rocker is not what he says, but what he thinks. By punishing his speech, we attack not hatred but the act of letting others know you hate them. When Rocker's comments hit the news wires, several of my friends and acquaintances remarked that they "Couldn't believe he had the guts to say that" and that "Rocker needs to learn to keep his mouth shut."
I was shocked to hear that others essentially held the same views as Rocker, but are merely reluctant to express them. Are these the thoughts that normally go through people's brains, but they have to stop themselves before saying them? Am I naive in not knowing that most people around me are as uncomfortable around foreigners and gays as they are around a Doberman with a pot roast dangling in front of it? Is Rocker's problem merely a lack of tact?
By punishing his words, that's certainly the sign we send. A sign that's it's OK to hate everyone but white European Americans, but if you do, keep it to yourself. A sign that's it's OK to assume as Rocker does that all bad drivers are Asian, so long as you don't tell anyone.
Also, by putting the muzzle on Rocker and bringing future utterances behind closed doors, we provide more ammunition to those that say that racism and prejudice have largely vanished from this country. This bolsters their argument that such things as diversity training are a waste of time.
If you want to make the case for diversity training, you ought to let the lowest common denominator of humanity speak their minds, then let the world decide if such training is worthy. Whether you are for or against affirmative action is a subject for another day. If you are, though, John Rocker would make an ironic but eloquent spokesman.
Finally, by clamming up speech, we prohibit the targets of such speech from ever refuting the words and the messages spoken. Remember your eight-year-old son, talking bad about the neighbors? Wouldn't you like the opportunity to explain to Junior why the McGillicuddies don't like him playing football in their lilacs?
Similarly, Rocker refuses to ride in a subway because he doesn't want to sit next to "some queer with AIDS," and there certainly are others who think the same. By letting his sick thoughts out of the bottle, we are offered yet another opportunity to educate people about how you can and cannot catch the HIV virus.
Major league baseball represents the most American of workplaces -- American in the sense that people from every race and religion and nationality are working in relative harmony to produce the best product in the world. When John Rocker, who summed up his view of the world when he said "I'm not very fond of foreigners," enters this workplace this spring, he'll probably find out they're not very fond of him either.
Learning the lesson that people can hate him as much as he hates them will hurt him much more than some pocket change and a few missed baseball games ever could.
Other columns by Todd Raphael: