Baseball Is Off Its Rocker

The Wall Street Journal, January 1, 2000

By Sally Satel

Baseball’s latest bad boy is Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker. Last month he spoke disparagingly of foreigners, homosexuals and a black teammate in Sports Illustrated, and now there are cries that he should be dumped. But before Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig decides what to do with Mr. Rocker, he wants to hear from the mental health profession. On Friday, the pitcher had his first mandatory evaluation with psychiatrists.

Psychiatrists? What is our role in helping Mr. Selig reprimand Mr. Rocker? The commissioner should decide what behavior the sport finds unacceptable, devise a sanction and implement it. Period. By effectively saying that anyone who uses bigoted language is mentally ill, Mr. Selig (who decided in cooperation with the Players Association to obtain the evaluation) is medicalizing behavior that we rightly object to on moral grounds. By asking psychiatrists to help him reprimand Mr. Rocker, Mr. Selig is hiding behind our couch.

I cannot help suspect that, deep down, Mr. Selig and Company know that sending the 25-year-old Mr. Rocker to the shrink is an empty gesture. Perhaps they figure that a needless trip to the psychiatrist will be the first in a longer series of punitive steps. But the gesture still sends a disturbing message to young baseball fans: Offensive behavior is actually a deep pathology, one that individuals cannot control.

Mr. Selig’s prescribed course of action also doesn’t correspond with that of a traditional employer’s. Usually when bosses send employees to a psychiatrist, it is to find out what’s wrong with them or to determine the kind of treatment they need. It is the criminal justice system that uses psychiatrists — usually hired by defense attorneys-to find evidence of diminished capacity as a means of softening a punishment.

But in this age of the abuse-excuse, who knows what kind of Catch-22 may result? If Mr. Rocker were to maintain to psychiatrists that his insulting remarks were well deserved and that he had no intention of retracting them, would this mean he is mentally ill? If so, perhaps he could invoke the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for people with diagnosed conditions.

Not to worry. This scenario is moot: Mr. Rocker already said he was sorry and that he is not a racist. So now that it’s clear that he knows right from wrong, what is Mr. Selig waiting for psychiatry to tell him?

There is much confusion at the interface of bigotry and the field of mental health. The 1968 book “Black Rage” (written by two psychiatrists) claimed that black Americans had developed paranoia as a healthy adaptation to life in a racist society. Thus, William Kunstler, attorney for Colin Ferguson, who murdered white commuters on the Long Island Rail Road in 1995, wanted to use the black-rage defense. Others called Ferguson a racist, plain and simple, and wanted him punished in a straightforward manner. In Ferguson’s case, ironically, psychiatry did have a major role to play. He was neither under the spell of black rage nor was he simply a racist: He was psychotic and delusional about white people.

In the realm of treatment, counselors and psychologists are now administering so-called “multicultural therapy” to those suffering from the effects of racism. These therapists encourage patients to attribute their psychological distress to living in an oppressive society — a convenient way to relieve the patient of personal responsibility.

This is not to say that therapy has no benefit, especially in the case of someone like John Rocker. Psychiatrists can help a patient foresee and weigh the consequences of his actions, perhaps helping him understand why he actively sabotages himself (sharing bigoted remarks with a reporter is a good example of such behavior). A psychiatrist might also help Mr. Rocker improve his poor judgement. But a therapist is of no use in deciding what punishment to mete out.