Ozzie Guillen’s Respect for Fidel Castro Is Not a National Crisis

Why we prefer our sports figures on mute.

In 1989, the Dallas Cowboys unceremoniously fired Tom Landry and brought in Jimmy Johnson. After the move, I said to my dad, “Why would they hire a guy like Jimmy Johnson? He’s such an asshole.” My dad replied, “They’re not paying him to be a nice guy. They’re paying him to win ballgames.”

But in today’s sports world, it’s imperative that sports figures be both winners and nice guys. Otherwise, there is universal moral outrage (apologize to us, Tiger, for what you did to your wife. We bought Gatorade!) and righteous indignation (I can’t believe he got a DUI. He’s a football coach, for heaven’s sakes!). We’ve somehow established a strange notion that all sports figures are not only great athletes but also perfect human beings, and when they inevitably let us down (since they happen to be human beings) sportswriters and fans get to jump all over them, and thus get a chance to prove their moral superiority.

But in our current age, doing something wrong (such as cheating on one’s wife or getting a DUI) isn’t the biggest sports crime that our sports gods can commit. The crime that really gets our blood up these days is when sports figures say something outside of mainstream thought.

Last year, Vikings running back Adrian Peterson compared NFL players to modern-day slaves. It was a comment, though controversial and not mainstream, that was certainly fascinating and far from what athletes typically say about “giving it 110 percent.” You would think sportswriters would gobble this stuff up.

“Tell us more about your thoughts on how the NFL is like slavery, Adrian. Nobody in this league ever says anything interesting, and that was interesting.”

But no, very few sportswriters have any interest in probing deeper. They’re too busy sermonizing their own white-bread, mainstream (and therefore obviously superior) opinions, thus proving that they and the fans who read them are morally superiority to the athletes they follow. Never mind that Peterson was making a very worthwhile point. (If you love sports, please do yourself a favor and read the excellent William Rhoden book, Forty Million Dollar Slaves.) No, Peterson’s opinion didn’t fit into the tiny box that most sportswriters and sports fans demand that athletes fit into, and thus he needed to get back in his place (ironically, helping to prove his very point about slavery). Sportswriters and fans want athletes to be our pets, and fit into our personal world views and the corporate images carefully constructed by the leagues and the Disney-owned ESPN, and when they aren’t little Disney characters who always say and do what mainstream America believes, we feign indignation. How could they?!

Another NFL running back, Rashard Mendenhall, last year questioned why people were cheering Osama bin Laden’s death, and then went on to question what really happened on 9/11. That hardly makes him unique. A 2006 poll sponsored by Scripps Howard and conducted by Ohio University found that 36 percent of Americans thought it was somewhat or very likely that federal U.S. officials either assisted in the 9/11 attacks or took no action to prevent them because they wanted the U.S. to go to war in the Middle East. Of course, that’s not a mainstream opinion, so it goes without saying that the national sports media and football fans were swift in their universal condemnation of Mendenhall. No questions about his opinions, no further discussion needed. He was wrong, we’re right. Now apologize, Rashard, for challenging our mainstream beliefs.

And so, when Ozzie Guillen said last week to Time magazine that he respected and loved Fidel Castro for surviving “when a lot of people have wanted to kill him,” all hell broke loose. (After Monday’s game in Philly, he flew back to Miami to face the heat. This morning, the Marlins suspended Guillen for five games.) Fox sportswriter Ken Rosenthal, outraged by Ozzie’s hurtful words, called on the Marlins to suspend him. Politicians, not missing a beat in the midst of campaign season, called for him to resign. Stories about how offensive this was were filled with laughable hyperboleto dismiss this … would be saying to your fan base, and to an entire community of Cuban-Americans, that your sport is more important than their deep-seated emotions based on decades of pain caused by a murderous oppressor.

Was what he said stupid? Yeah, I happen to think so. Fidel Castro is a despicable man (as was his former cohort, college-campus hero Che Guevera), and he is not deserving of love, particularly from a guy who manages near a part of Miami called Little Havana. I can obviously understand why Cuban-Americans are up in arms about the comment.

But I also rather enjoy it when people challenge my beliefs. I want to know where they are coming from, so I can adjust my own opinions accordingly. But I’m not allowed to do that when it comes to athletes. If they don’t fit into the little box that the wannabe athletes who make up the majority of sportswriters and sports fans have created for them, then I will never hear what they really mean, because for PR purposes they have to immediately apologize. It’s so tiring, listening to these blowhards express their righteous indignation anytime an athlete doesn’t say something that fits the conventional mindset, and then watching the sports figures apologize for speaking their minds.

And how many of the sportswriters who are currently attacking Guillen have ever given a thought to the Cuban population of Miami before? You think Ken Rosenthal runs the Little Havana Urban Achievers? No, but Guillen is today’s fresh meat, so sportswriters gotta go in for the kill. They won’t ask him to clarify his remarks, because they’ve already formed their opinions on what he was trying to say. In sports it’s all black and white and good and bad. There are no shades of gray. They have to demand that stating that he respected Castro for staying in power is the equivalent to supporting a murderous regime, and now we can all prove how morally superior we are to Ozzie Guillen.

To which I say: Whataya want, a cookie? So what if you’re morally superior to him? So what if he says things that don’t fit into our worldview? So what if he has an opinion on something that’s outside the mainstream? He’s not paid to be a nice guy, and he’s not paid to express the opinions we all want him to express. He’s paid to win baseball games. And as long as he does that, he can say whatever the hell he wants. Because this is America, not Cuba, and we’ve got a right to say controversial things. Please quit trying to take that away from sports figures simply because it gives you a chance to pat yourself on the back about what a superior human being you are.