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Free speech versus fired speech

In December of 2012, ESPN fired Rob Parker, a respected African American sports journalist, for relaying an observation he had heard about Redskins QB Robert Griffith III. Here’s what happened. It seems that RG3 had been asked by USA Today about being a Black quarterback, and Griffith said, “You don’t have to be defined by the color of your skin…you want to be defined by your work ethic, your character, your personality.” The next day, while appearing on ESPN’s “First Take” show, Parker said, “The guys I talk to at the barbershop say he’s Black, but that he’s not really down with the cause…he’s not the guy you’d want to hang out with. He’s a cornball brother.” That remark got Parker suspended for one month, during which time he made a public apology, and planned to return to work after his suspension was over. Instead, ESPN fired Parker, saying, “Rob Parker’s contract expired at year’s end. Evaluating our needs and his work, including his recent RG3 comments, we decided not to renew.”

As I pointed out in my January 19, 2013 column, ESPN’s decision to fire Parker was arbitrary and misdirected. Back then, “First Take’s” motto was “embrace the debate,” and that’s what Rob had done by offering two sides to the RG3 issue, specifically the old fashioned, conservative Black side. Rob’s older, barbershop cronies were none too impressed with RG3 being all about his brand, and not so much about his team, thus their “cutting” remarks (no pun intended). Also, not only did Parker do what he was supposed to do (debate), he was fired over a remark he didn’t even make. He simply repeated what he had heard in an African American barbershop.

The same day Parker was fired, ESPN’s PC Police also took aim at legendary broadcaster Brent Musberger. Why? While doing play by play for the Alabama/Notre Dame game, Brent noticed that the director had trained his cameras on Katherine Webb, girlfriend of Bama’s QB A.J. McCarron, and a former Miss Alabama beauty queen. Musberger said, “You quarterbacks get all the good looking women. What a beautiful woman!” Musberger’s comment made an instant celebrity out of Ms. Webb, whose twitter following went from 526 to 150,000 within minutes. The next day, ESPN’s Mike Soltys said, “We apologize that the commentary in this instance went too far, and Brent understands that.” The 73 year old Musberger was made to apologize for doing nothing wrong. Even Ms. Webb came to his defense, saying, “It was kind of nice…For a woman to be called beautiful, I don’t see how that’s an issue. I don’t see why any woman wouldn’t be flattered by that.” Her message was lost on the ESPN brass.

And so what did we learn from the Parker and Musberger incidents? We learned that if you’re Black, you can’t offer a conservative view of a Black player, and if you’re a White man, you can’t call a White woman beautiful. Sounds ridiculous, but sadly, it appears to be indicative of how ESPN meets out justice.

In the intervening years, ESPN has continued to police the speech of its employees, including an attempt to make former Red Sox hero Curt Shilling drink their PC Kool-Aid. Last year, Shilling was suspended for writing the following comment on his personal Twitter page, “It’s said that only 5 to 10% of Muslims are extremists. In 1940, only 7% of Germans were Nazis. How’d that go?” Shilling’s comment was factual, and shouldn’t have stirred any controversy. In fact, his words would have been celebrated in Europe. According to Slate.com’s William Saletan, in Germany, for example, it is a crime to make comments that “minimize” Nazi atrocities. But here in America a sports announcer can get suspended for actually recognizing those atrocities. In any event, Shilling apologized, served his suspension, then returned to the broadcast booth – at least for awhile.

Last week, ESPN fired Shilling for posting a comment about North Carolina’s transgender “bathroom bill”. Tweeted Shilling, “A man is a man, no matter what they call themselves. I don’t care what they are, who they sleep with, the men’s room was designed for the penis, women’s not so much. Now you need laws telling us differently? Pathetic.” Accompanying the quote was a photo of an overweight man dressed in women’s clothing, with the caption, “Let him into the restroom with your daughter, or else you’re a narrow minded, judgmental, unloving, racist bigot who needs to die!” Again, Curt did not create that photo, he only shared it. Ironically, though, his firing by ESPN only validated the humorous narrative that accompanied the photo.

On April 28, Shilling fired back at his former employer, telling SI.com that, “some of the biggest racists” he knows work at ESPN, but that they get by with it because their opinions reflect a liberal slant. He cited Stephen A. Smith, who once said that RG3 wasn’t playing QB because he was Black. Smith still has a job at ESPN, but Rob Parker doesn’t because his RG3 comment reflected a conservative view. Shilling, Parker, and other broadcasters have learned that there’s a difference between free speech and fired speech.

Unfortunately the US Constitution only guarantees us the right of free speech in so far as governmental redress is concerned. In other words, the Feds can’t arrest Curt Shilling for his tweets, but ESPN is free to muzzle him while he’s in their employ. Let me be clear. I abhor hate speech, even to the point of calling for criminalization of internet defamation. But so long as what you say is factual and not malicious, then no employer should have the right to fire you for expressing an opinion on your own time, at least not without having first clarified their limited speech policy prior to hiring you. Otherwise termination becomes arbitrary. In this politically correct society of ours, it seems that only a powerful employer is allowed to utter hate speech, so long as it consists of just two words: “You’re fired!” !

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11 a.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).

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