Standing Up to Schott and to Racism

December 06, 1992|By WILEY A. HALL III

The fact of the matter is, this is a free country, and Marge Schott, the irascible owner of the Cincinnati Reds, is free to believe whatever she wants to believe-- no matter how vile and ignorant those beliefs may seem to the rest of us. And, she also is free to express those beliefs whenever and wherever she wants, so long as her mode of expression does not interfere with the rights of others.

If the Lords of Baseball, sitting in grand conclave at their winter meetings this week, decide to punish Mrs. Schott for using such terms as "niggers" and "Jap" and "money-grubbing Jews," it is only because Congress has granted major league baseball extraordinary powers to run itself like a private fiefdom (much like the privileges Congress has given itself).

But this freedom thing works both ways. Just as Mrs. Schott is free to be offensive, the rest of us are free to take offense.

Fans, for instance, are free to forgo the pleasure of watching Mrs. Schott's Reds play baseball, whether in person or on television.

Major corporations are are free to take their advertising dollars someplace else.

Most importantly, the players and coaches are free to refuse to play for a woman whose beliefs and behavior they find offensive.

Does this sound so impossible -- that an apparently mean-spirited and bigoted person be treated with the contempt she deserves? That she become a pariah? That decent people choose to disassociate themselves from someone whose behavior they find detestable? Have we built a society where wealth excuses all?

Up until about a month ago, baseball fans saw in Mrs. Schott a certain rough charm, a woman with the moxie to succeed in a man's world, someone who was more eccentric than mean. A widow for 24 years and a native of Cincinnati, she has been a limited partner of the Reds since 1981 and the principal owner, president and chief executive officer since 1984.

But her image changed following the release of depositions taken in a wrongful-firing lawsuit brought against Mrs. Schott by a former employee. Those depositions included allegations that Mrs. Schott regularly used offensive language, including an occasion when she referred to superstar outfielders Eric Davis and Dave Parker as "million-dollar niggers." In her own depositions, Mrs. Schott confirmed at least some of the allegations but contended she did not mean any harm.

Both Parker and Davis have left the team. Meanwhile, the executive committee that currently operates major league baseball in lieu of a commissioner, may decide next week to fine or suspend Mrs. Schott for her conduct.

As I've said, she has the legal right to call her players by any name she chooses. And she is likely to continue doing so, too, even if her fellow owners find it in their hearts to punish her. In fact, the only thing that will really teach her a lesson would be for her players to take a stand on principle and refuse to play for her.

Do they have that kind of courage?

Seemingly not. Individual players often refuse to play as part of a negotiating ploy for a more favorable contract. Players, through their union, may also strike or threaten to strike. But that is business. Modern day players seldom seem to take stands for anything other than their personal profit.

But it wasn't always that way. In 1965, for instance, black football players forced the postponement of the American Football League's All-Star game because they did not like the way they were treated by the host city, New Orleans. The game was played five days later in Houston.

New Orleans, which had been hoping to showcase the All-Star game as part of its campaign to obtain a professional franchise, had written each of the 21 black players before the game, urging them to bring their families and assuring them that they would receive a warm reception by the citizens. Instead, players found that taxi drivers refused to carry them from the airport. Club owners in the French Quarter refused to admit them. Hotel employees were rude and reluctant to serve them. Enraged, the players voted and refused to play so long as the game was held in New Orleans. The Lords of Football threatened and pleaded, but eventually they were forced to move the game.

Similarly, Muhammad Ali proved willing to sacrifice his heavyweight championship on behalf of the principle that the war in Vietnam was immoral. He, too, resisted threats and attempts to compromise.

In both of those cases, as well as several others during the 1960s and early 1970s, athletes proved themselves willing to risk their careers in support of their principles. The difference, of course, is that athletes did not stand alone in those times. They belonged to a community that was mobilized for change. Acts of courage and sacrifice and included everyone from school children to grandparents, from custodial workers to Ph.D.s.

Today's athletes often bemoan the fact that they are held up as role models. They complain that they do not seek to be role models nor are they particularly qualified. They fail to understand, I fear, that all of us are role models of one sort or another. (Drug dealers do understand this and are quick to take youngsters under their wing.) But the rest of us fail to understand that acts of courage do not occur in a vacuum. If today's athletes fail to stand on principle, it is because we fail to provide an environment that would support such a stand.

What we need is an issue, a clear-cut cause around which the entire community can rally, each doing his or her part to drive home the point that decent people will no longer tolerate certain behavior and attitudes. Good old Marge Schott -- she has given us just the issue we needed.

Wiley Hall is a columnist for The Evening Sun.

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