Punishment was symbolic, yes, but necessary

February 04, 1993|By Steve Jacobson | Steve Jacobson,Newsday

What they should have done is washed out Marge Schott's mouth with soap at noon in Fountain Square. It would have been like placing a nasty woman in the stocks in Salem.

The Major League Baseball Executive Council could have sold the whole event to ESPN or something. Those owners are always alert to a money-making proposition.

What they did was what they thought they had to do. A one-year suspension. A $25,000 fine. It should have been more. They could not let Marge Schott off -- after what she said and what she did -- without some form of public punishment.

The duration and the amount are symbolic, which is what they should have been. After all, baseball is symbolic. Winning a baseball game doesn't feed the hungry or cause the illiterate to read. The hiring of four minority individuals in the operations of the Cincinnati Reds hardly makes a ripple in the pool of unemployment and racial and religious bigotry in this land -- except for the symbolism.

And that's important. Punishment says that what she did and said -- her words -- about niggers, money-grubbing Jews, Japs and Irish Catholics is not acceptable. In legalistic terms, it separates that individual from the institution of baseball. In people terms, it says her kind of thinking does not represent the conduct of a business as visible and as public as baseball.

We can't think for a minute that punishing a charmless, cranky, miserly woman who lets her dog run free on the field -- remember how the Leona Helmsley jury was advised that the woman was "not on trial for being a bitch" -- will make her a tolerant person in her heart.

And there is a real question under this Constitution whether being a bigot permits you to have your property taken. As Michael Rapp, director of the Jewish Community Relations Board in Cincinnati, put it: "Is odious speech reason to separate her from her property?"

"The First Amendment is not a right to slur; there is precedent," said councilman Tyrone Yates, who raised the first voice of objection to Schott's behavior. Baseball has a quasi-public status; the Reds play in a public building.

Think what the message would have been if the executive council let this all pass over her head. The Reds aren't Procter & Gamble or Kroeger Stores, but more people know who Schott is than know the chairman of the board at Kroeger, and what a

baseball owner does and says influences how people think.

Let's be reminded of what this is all about, as presented in a Dec. 6, 1991, deposition over her firing of former Reds controller Tim Sabo. Never mind that the business practices he accused her of were scandalous; this is about racial and ethnic slurs and discriminatory hiring practices.

"In her deposition," Yates pointed out, "she admitted that in eight years she had 30 hiring opportunities and never hired one African-American. Coupled with her racial and ethnic slurs, this is conscious behavior."

Schott testified that she didn't know whether blacks were offended by being called nigger. "I've never really asked them," she said. Some people, she said, might think the term is a joke.

Did she refer to Martin Luther King Day as Nigger Day? "I hope not," she said. "Anything's possible."

Do you have any prejudice against Jews? "No," she said. "They're not smarter than us, just sharper."

(Sharp. Crafty; designing; underhanded. -- Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary)

When former Reds marketing director Cal Levy, a Jewish man, mentioned seeing a swastika armband at a party in her home, Schott said, "I don't know why he'd be offended by the armband."

There was more in the deposition, and Cincinnati insiders say they knew there was more years ago. Levy testified that Schott frequently referred to Reds players as niggers and that she called Eric Davis and Dave Parker her "million-dollar niggers."

When Lawrence Horwitz of a restaurant chain sought to sell his product in Riverfront Stadium, Schott dismissed the offer by saying, "Sneaky, Goddamned Jews are all alike."

Of a decision by former general manager Bob Quinn, she said: "He's Irish-Catholic; what do you expect?"

This was out in the open. Her cavalier attitude suggests that she thought it was all right to use those terms. "In 1992, when she's the owner of a polyglot team? For God's sake," Yates said.

Baseball couldn't pretend it didn't hear. Because Rapp heard. And Yates heard. And Frank Allison, president of the NAACP in Cincinnati, heard.

They put together a coalition that met with Schott three times, focused the light, and got some things done.

Schott made three public apologies. That's not to be taken lightly in the carriage of this woman.

The group caused an equal opportunity policy in writing for the Reds' organization, lifting the lid, so to speak, and encouraged suppliers and vendors to equal-opportunity practices.

She wrote in a paragraph about permitting employees time for religious observances with the Reds and her two auto dealerships.

She contributed $100,000 to the Cincinnati Academy for Physical Education -- a largely minority school -- to send two girls to college each year.

Yates said that contribution shouldn't have been accepted. "Was it blood money?" Rapp said. "I'm not looking for motivation; let God worry about what's in her heart. It's sending two girls to college."

Baseball's fine money should go to similar programs. Marge Schott should have to put on an apron and serve lunch to the Jewish poor of Cincinnati, to hungry black people.

This is a kind of small victory for those people who recognize that the same mean mind would make victims of both blacks and Jews.

Baseball -- all sports -- should be on the leading edge for social change. This is a tool.

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