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February 1, 2000

Forty years ago today, four students in Greensboro, North Carolina, staged the first civil rights sit-in. Thirty-five years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was one of hundreds arrested in Selma, Alabama. We've come a way since then. We have an even longer way to go.

The comments Braves pitcher John Rocker made in his Sports Illustrated interview are contemptible, but not completely unheard of. Regrettably, this kind of random hate speech can be found anywhere in America. That a national sports figure used a national forum to spew this venom is unfortunate but unsurprising, considering the undisciplined nature of many modern athletes. It proves that Rocker has poor judgment along with his prejudices against women, African Americans, gay people, immigrants, and apparently anyone who doesn't look like him and think like him.

In one way or another, for the entire span of its history, America has been trying to rid itself of this kind of hatred. As long as the speech is tolerated, the feelings it expresses will continue to abide in people's hearts. Bigots will think that it's acceptable to abuse those who are different from them. This diminishes us all. But it's not up to the government to punish the sin or change the sinner. It's up to us as a community to condemn the sin and instruct the sinner.

John Rocker should be punished for his words. But he shouldn't be punished by Major League Baseball, which has fined and suspended him. There's no place in our society for official regulation of free speech, no matter how detestable and damaging it is. The governing body of the sport should not have the authority to make its employees conform to a standard way of thinking and talking, any more than the government can control the hearts, minds and voices of its citizens.

Hank Aaron is Rocker's boss. If anyone has the right to take action against him, it's this man who has felt the effects of bigotry at every stage of his life and career. Aaron has suffered the consequences of the intolerance fostered by the attitude Rocker's words portray. He has been called the worst of names. At the pinnacle of his career, as he chased Babe Ruth's all-time home run record, he was subjected to death threats, simply because he was a black man challenging a white icon. He was a man who didn't know his "place." Yet he has used the opportunity provided by Rocker's disrespect to reach out and try to heal the divisiveness on his team and in society.

Rocker is already being properly punished. He hasn't been allowed to get away with a feeble apology. The attention he drew to himself has brought him a contempt he couldn't have expected. Whenever he steps onto the pitcher's mound, he will hear the voices of baseball fans who don't believe his hate speech has any place in society. He used his celebrity to spread the malicious poison of ignorance and prejudice. The punishment should come in the arena where he gained that fame, and I trust that it will.

This discussion has opened a dialog that can be turned around and used to educate those who think like Rocker, those who believe it's acceptable to demean their fellow citizens. Even Rocker himself might be converted by the open examination of the effect his kind of speech has on those he uses it against. If that happens, he should be forgiven and embraced. For now, let the boos ring out.

Could this be the beginning of the end for George W. Bush? He has apparently gone down in flames in New Hampshire, where John McCain is winning on the character issue. It would be nice to think that judgment, leadership and ability might have knocked the lightweight of all time out of the race. Momentum is a wonderful thing in politics, and once a candidate like Bush starts to slide, it could be fatal to his hopes. He was never going to stand up under severe scrutiny anyway, because he has nothing on his resume that recommends him for the presidency. He has a pedigree, but he always seems to be pulling his foot out of his mouth, ducking questions and hedging on answers.

Even though I'm not a Republican, I'm a little giddy seeing the better person win. I just hope it means something.

Well? I don't have any pets, and I live alone and work at home. What, I'm going to talk about my stinking job every day? The weather? My diet? My adventures in not-so-haute cuisine?

By the way, I loved the Randy Newman commercial on Once and Again last night. I hadn't seen it before. Mostly I loved seeing Randy sitting at a piano singing, but it was a nice spot for Johnson & Johnson, entitled "How to talk to kids about being different." (Great episode, by the way, even if Sela Ward was missing in action.)

There. Now you know something more about me.

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