Can We Learn From Controversy?

Did anyone ever think Ozzie Guillen would apologize for anything? I certainly didn’t.

If you somehow missed it, Ozzie Guillien commented that he “respected” former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, in particular because he had survived so many assasination attempts. Following those comments, an uproar ensued from anti-Castro Cubans, most of whom are based in Miami. Ozzie was forced to walk back his comments and apologize, as well as being suspended for five games.

On their face the comments are not terribly remarkable. Castro, like many world leaders, has fans across the world. In Guillen’s home country of Venezuela many people have strongly pro-Castro feeling. Guillen is a noted supporter of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a major ally of Cuba’s government. So from that perspective Guillien was voicing a viewpoint quite consistent with many of his countrymen including the current government. While one may not agree its hard to see how this is particularly controversial, further in the United States while it is a crime to travel to Cuba, it isn’t one to praise Fidel Castro.

It would have been nice had this incident produced some more informed debate, about not only Cuba-US relations, but about the relationship of Cuba with this particularly American product. There is almost no country in the world more passionate about baseball, Cubans avidly follow the major leagues and participate in all international competition at a high-level. Historically the Cuban winter leagues hosted the best Negro League players, looking to augment their meager pay, and play the game they loved. This is all very rich, very interesting history, and perhaps some further reflection of how baseball has intersected with relations between the largest island in the Carribean and the United States would have done us some good.

I think the real problem here is the lack of political discourse in sports. Once upon a time athletes like Muhammad Ali, or Jim Brown, or Kareem Abdul-Jabar brought up broader social questions sharply. Now athletes and coaches are afraid to say much of anything for fear of hurting their brand. Does anyone even remember that the great UNC coach Dean Smith spoke out against the Vietnam War, the death penalty, and nuclear weapons?

This to me should be the real thrust of the media discussion, our current disdain for enaging when social issues intersect with sports. Unforutantely the media too often shys away just as much as the players and coaches, for fear of offending subsets of fans. In other words the fact this has all been about Ozzie is the problem. A low-level controversy has not only been blown out of proportion, but the sports media mostly hasn’t used the mushroom cloud over the issue to advance the conversation outside of a few instances.

In fact in some ways the media is the most complict in this. I once remember Michael Wilbon ridicously letting Tiger Woods off the hook about criticsm he had taken from Jim Brown about not being politically and socially engaged. Tiger just pumped up his foundation and said he had no idea why Jim Brown wouldn’t count that as being politically and socially engaged. Wilbon passed on the easy follow-up to pin down Woods.

It’s the same deal here, While this isn’t uniform, it is shocking how again and again sportswirters, even those supporting Ozzie’s right to say what he said, support the basic assumptions coming from anti-Castro forces who were enraged by Guillen’s professed admiration for El COmmandante.

Whether you are pro-Castro or not, isn’t it strange that almost no articles have come out in the sports media that are? It’s not as if there are no informed defenses of the Cuban government existing in the world, why aren’t there in the American sports media? Are we that homogenous? Is it not possible that there are arguments in favor of Ozzie’s vague sentiments? Too often instead of asking the probing, tougher, more controversial questions, even our best media commentators stick to convetional narratives to avoid an uproar.

These debates are healthy for sports, which is one of the areas of our lives that has so much relvance socially and poltically not just as entertainment. Sadly the Ozzie Guillen controversy seems to me to be another victory of crass commercialism trumping the need for real conversation in sports.

One notable exception and the best piece to come out of the controversy in my opinion comes from ESPN’s Wright Thompson. His “What Guillen Revealed about Miami” column that came out on April 17th is a well considered, nuanced piece on Cuban-Americans and their relationship with the island’s government and Miami’s anti-Castro organizations. More of this, and less of the “who cares what he said?,” and “Ozzie is a human rights hating jackass” and we’ll be better for it.

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12 years ago

Great article U!