Punishing Jones not the answer

Dipping into the ol' e-mailbag today ...

    Hey Rob,

    I just read about Todd Jones' anti-gay remarks and the Colorado Rockies corresponding response. And the only adjective the Rockies can come up with in response to Jones' disgusting tirade is "unfortunate"?

    If there were really any justice, Todd Jones would be suspended, or even fired, by either the team or MLB. Making anti-gay remarks like that is right in line with racist remarks in reference to Hispanics, African-Americans, etc. and there is no place in that for baseball, America or anywhere else. Somebody as blatantly ignorant as Jones should not be allowed to get off easy for saying such disparaging remarks about people who are probably far better human beings than him.

    Would it be possible for you to write an article calling for harsh punishment on Jones for his comments?

    Keep up the great work man, you're still my favorite writer.

    -- Noah Potvin

Thanks for the kind words, Noah. But I'm afraid that I cannot, in good conscience, call for Jones to be "punished," because I think it's dangerous to punish people for saying things with which you and I don't agree.

Were Jones' comments offensive? Sure, to you and me. But Noah, you and I have both said things in the course of our lives that would have been found offensive by someone, somewhere. Should we have been harshly punished for them?

Noah, many, many people have spoken and written eloquently about the need, in a free society, for a near-absolute right of free expression. Just grabbing the first quote I ran across in Nat Hentoff's brilliant book, Free Speech for Me -- But Not for Thee ...

The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable. To curtail free expression strikes twice at intellectual freedom, for whoever deprives another of the right to state unpopular views necessarily also deprives others of the right to listen to those views.

    -- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., U.S. v. Schwimmer, 1928

Some will argue that while Todd Jones does have the right to say what he wants, he also has to "face the consequences." But when you punish somebody for something he's said, you're discouraging him and others from speaking in the future. See, the most important underpinnings of a free society are tied to vigorous and open debate, and once you start telling people what they can and can't say, you stifle that debate.

It's for exactly this reason that I criticized Major League Baseball for punishing John Rocker three years ago, and found myself in the strange position of appearing on television to argue an issue on the same side as Sean Hannity. And you know what? I'd be on Hannity's side again, if his side was the right of people to speak their mind without fear of punishment. No matter how "wrong" I considered their mind.

Let me stress that "not punishing" isn't the same as "not discussing." When Jones says something like "I wouldn't want a gay guy being around me," that should be a cue for all of us to consider whether he's representative of professional athletes and/or baseball players generally, and what Major League Baseball might do to make gay players -- because there must be some -- feel more welcome in the game. But suspending, fining, or even firing Todd Jones would do significantly more harm than good.

I hope that, sometime in the near future, a gay baseball player comes out, and that he's strong enough to fight through all the crap he's going to get from jerks like Todd Jones. To me, that player will be a hero, more admirable than just about anybody else in the game, right up there with Jackie Robinson and Curt Flood and the few other professional athletes brave enough to stand up for something other than ever-growing paychecks.

But punishing jerks for expressing their backward thoughts isn't going to make things any easier for the first player who comes out. We need to work on changing thoughts, not punishing people for having them.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information, visit Rob's Web site.