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Porto: Sports And Politics

06/18/12 5:55PM By Brian Porto
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(Host) Commentator Brian Porto is Deputy Director of the Sports Law Institute at Vermont Law School. And with both the baseball season and the presidential election season well under way, he's been thinking about what happens when sports and politics intersect.

(Porto) Sports and politics are endlessly interesting, but they don't necessarily mix well. Ozzie Guillen, the manager of the Miami Marlins baseball team, learned that the hard way earlier this spring, when he was suspended for five games after expressing admiration for Cuban leader Fidel Castro during a magazine interview. Guillen said that he admired Castro for having remained in power despite numerous assassination attempts against him during the past 60 years.

My first reaction, on learning of Guillen's remarks, was disbelief that a public figure could be so politically tone deaf as to say anything favorable about Fidel Castro in Miami. After all, the Marlins had just opened a new stadium located in the Little Havana neighborhood, many of whose residents are Cuban refugees (or their descendants) who view Castro as the embodiment of evil. And the decision to build the stadium in Little Havana reflected the Marlins' recognition that much of their fan base is Cuban-Americans. Thus, Guillen's observations about Castro were a marketing director's worst nightmare, and the manager is lucky he still has a job because many fans demanded his resignation.

After shaking my head in disbelief at Guillen's naivete, though, I realized that this incident can teach important lessons to athletes, coaches, and fans at all levels of athletic competition. One lesson is that no matter how much we love sports in general and our favorite team in particular, we must remember that politics and government trump sports because politics and government determine the kind of world we and our families will inhabit. Viewed in this way, the Ozzie Guillen incident had a silver lining, namely, the willingness of baseball-loving Cuban-Americans to part with a talented manager in order to stand up for a political principle. To the extent that Miami's Cuban-Americans put the need for human rights and limited government in Cuba above sports, they taught a lesson that every Vermonter should absorb.

But although the Cuban-American community was within its rights to criticize Mr. Guillen, it mirrored the authoritarianism it fled decades ago in trying to silence him by demanding his resignation for expressing an unpopular political view. This reaction missed the point that the price of freedom of expression is that, occasionally, one must read or hear speech that one abhors. Freedom of speech only for the ideas we share isn't freedom at all.

Thus, I hope that coaches and parents in Vermont will view the Ozzie Guillen incident as a means of teaching young athletes that they should embrace and discuss issues outside of sports, but that when doing so, they must respect everyone's right to speak, even when the speech is uniformed or insensitive.
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