It’s not inconceivable that Milos Forman will film the life of John Rocker, with Courtney Love as his girlfriend and Mariah Carey singing The Star-Spangled Banner on the soundtrack as Big John lopes in from the bullpen to take his final revenge on the New York Mets. That’s the way Hollywood paid homage to another First Amendment martyr, the loathsome pornographer Larry Flynt.

From a constitutional point of view, Rocker, a former member of the Durham Bulls, is twice the martyr. Flynt is a sleaze merchant, to whose protection the Founders were not consciously committed; Rocker is only a loudmouth and a knothead, whose free speech they would have defended with their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. But don’t hold your breath for The John Rocker Story. To liberals of the Hollywood variety, pornography is a trivial sin, public bigotry a deadly one.

The Rocker episode, which began with an inconsequential magazine interview, has exposed nearly as much hypocrisy and societal dry rot as the Monica Lewinsky debacle. Does anyone remember what this hulking baseball player actually said, to become Scapegoat of the Year for every minority pressure group in America?

“Imagine having to take the 7 train to the ballpark, looking like you’re riding through Beirut, next to some kid with purple hair next to some queer with AIDS right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It’s depressing,” Rocker told Sports Illustrated.

That’s a view of the borough of Queens from a native of Statesboro, Ga., which isn’t the prettiest place in the South as I recall. What the speech police characterize as a truckload of sociopathic poison strikes me as a fairly ordinary expression of redneck xenophobia, what a sociologist might term a classic conflict between rural and urban sensibilities. A clash of aesthetics. How many of the kids in Rocker’s high school class in Statesboro would have a different reaction to the 7 train?

“Queers” has an ugly ring to it; no way Rocker knows that’s what sophisticated homosexuals call themselves. But the word “depressing” strikes me as a little passive, for hate speech. The full measure of Rocker’s stupidity is not what he said but the fact that he said it to a weasel with a tape recorder and 3 million readers. I picture the writer fighting a smirk, his sly little heart pounding with the ecstatic, career-enhancing prospect of betraying this fool who was blithering out of control.

I’ve come to see most sportswriters as desperate cases. After a decade or two interviewing punch-drunk mercenaries who have absolutely nothing to say (“Take it to the next level”…grunt…”Let the game come to me”…grunt), you don’t have much left to say for yourself. Cheap headhunting breaks the monotony.

I’ve worked the locker rooms. I saw a Hall of Famer sit buck naked on a birthday cake and waddle off to the showers with his backside maple-frosted halfway to his knees. I didn’t meet many athletes I’d describe as refined, well-educated or conceptually gifted. Enticing one of these musclebound mutants into saying something offensive to minorities is about as challenging and rewarding as slaughtering baby seals with an ice ax.

In locker room context it’s a pitiful achievement, this revelation that relief pitchers are unfit for polite company. Or place it in the context of America’s toxic media culture, where Don Imus, Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh and a thousand imitators earn their living broadcasting bigotry and bad manners. Who classifies a professional bigot as entertainment and an amateur like Rocker as an outrage? If you hate Jews especially and thrill to a hardcore bigot of the old school, buy the White House tapes of Richard M. Nixon, newly available on CD. (If it takes a moron to be trapped by Sports Illustrated, how dumb was the president of the United States to tape himself?)

Context? During Rocker’s travails two professional football players were indicted for murder one. Rae Carruth was charged in the fatal shooting of a girlfriend nine months pregnant, All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis in the stabbing deaths of two young men outside an Atlanta nightclub. While friends protested that Lewis was a harmless sweetheart, reporters discovered that he’d been accused of beating up two different pregnant girlfriends, and currently faces assault charges for punching another woman in a bar in Baltimore. Another NFL linebacker, Cincinnati’s Steve Foley, was arrested for assaulting the mother of his son–his third arrest in a year. Steve Muhammad of the Indianapolis Colts was charged with beating his pregnant wife, who later died in a curious automobile accident.

That’s just the top of the rap sheet on these terrifying thugs. Public outrage? Not half the outrage that greeted John Rocker when he insulted minorities and thumbed his nose at the media capital of the world. Baseball’s alleged commissioner, Bud Selig, was so shocked by Rocker’s indiscretion that he suspended him for 10 weeks and fined him $20,000.

“What Selig has done is establish an indefensible precedent,” wrote Furman Bisher, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s 100-year-old sportswriter. “It’s a precedent he’ll live to regret, denying the right of free speech in the major leagues, defying the Constitution.”

Bisher got it right, but he didn’t speak for the majority. Public opinion was chiefly divided between people who applauded Selig’s decision and people who thought Rocker deserved much worse. Our terms of discourse have been subtly altered–and our respect for free speech dangerously eroded–by a militant new strain of left-wing paranoia. Americans under its influence received John Rocker’s childish outburst like the Second Coming of Father Coughlin and Joseph Goebbels.

It was my turn to be shocked. I was in New York for a friend’s memorial service. Many of her friends, many of our mutual friends, are aging city liberals who once were radicals. Sitting at a table with a half-dozen of them, I was bewildered to hear them agree that Rocker should have been banned from baseball for life.

For life? Deprived of millions of dollars and banished to a used-car lot if he’s lucky, for 10 minutes of loose speech? Were they speaking as New Yorkers and Mets fans, personally wounded by Rocker’s attack, or did they really mean it? Among them were individuals who remembered Sen. Joe McCarthy, whose friends had been hounded and blacklisted for political indiscretions, for trying to practice their First Amendment rights in a time of paranoia and repression when you could lose your livelihood for saying that Karl Marx was worth reading. What kind of amnesia has set in here, among people who above all others should know better? The ACLU has been preaching the same sermon for 80 years now, and some of its dues-paying members still don’t get it.

There was an article on the New York Times op-ed page by a gentleman of their persuasion named Lewis Steel, identified as a civil rights lawyer. He argued that Rocker’s free speech was limited by federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination in employment. The Supreme Court has ruled, he contends, that discriminatory harassment includes any speech, anywhere, that offends one of your fellow employees.

Since you could never work for a company so homogeneous that no one objected to any of your opinions, free speech, according to Mr. Steel’s argument, is now available only to the unemployed. How I love to give lessons in first-year logic to people who flaunt legal credentials.

But the media were the worst. A vacuum yawns where news media once practiced moral indignation. They no longer remember the arguments against conspicuous consumption, corporate aggrandizement or grossly unequal divisions of wealth; they peddle tepid, contradictory editorials and shill shamelessly for developers and computer evangelists. Yet they’re lions and tigers in defense of any group wounded by intolerance–even the intolerance of a relief pitcher with a head-to-neck ratio that falls significantly below one-to-one.

“What hypocrisy!” chirped one virtually illiterate editorial, in The Miami Herald. “Rocker said some mean, nasty things and got barely a slap on the wrist. Major league baseball should get tougher.”

A major American newspaper that despises free speech? Apparently the news media no longer identify themselves as vital conduits for the free flow of information–only as billboards for advertising and entertainment. With no sense of their own identity, they’re patsies for identity groups whose rabid self-righteousness passes for a moral compass.

Multicultural SWAT teams manipulate the media because they can–because like contemporary businessmen and politicians they believe that everything comes down to power and suddenly they have some. But civilization in any hopeful form rests on principle, not power. The First Amendment isn’t a monolithic, eternal principle. Personally I’d applaud a reinterpretation that discouraged the Larry Flynts of the Internet from preying on children. But the place where the First Amendment becomes incontestable holy writ is precisely the place where John Rocker, the lone loudmouth, walks in.

Sympathy for the devil? Not exactly. Rocker also expressed his distaste for foreigners, and I was amused to read that the arbitrator for his suspension hearing was an immigrant named Shyam Das. But Rocker is his own worst enemy and no one else’s. Where sports and the media converge there’s a wilderness of hazardous waste and bizarre spectacle, where multimillionaire felons batter pregnant women and vile promoters pay the daughters of ex-heavyweight champions to smash each other bloody in the prize ring.

Athletes are facing the electric chair, for Christ’s sake. In this carnivorous circus, John Rocker is not one of the scarier gladiators. He doesn’t carry a knife and no pregnant woman accuses him of assault. The odds that he’s a misguided joker are poor; odds are good that he’s a complete idiot–and on Rocker’s right to be an idiot in public rests nearly everything in this country that’s still worth saving. EndBlock