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Free To Express His Views
BY HOWARD M. WASSERMAN
February 1, 2005
The ink was not dry on the four-year, $52 million contract that first baseman Carlos Delgado signed last week with the Florida Marlins when fans starting debating his politics. Since last year, Delgado has declined to stand, on the field or in the dugout, when God Bless America is played during the seventh-inning stretch. A native of Puerto Rico, he is protesting both the war in Iraq and decades of U.S. weapons testing on the island of Vieques, off the coast of Puerto Rico.
Delgado is the latest in a line of athletes who have protested through nonparticipation in pre-game patriotic ritual:
In 1996, NBA guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf remained in the locker room during the national anthem to protest inequities in American society.
In 2003, Toni Smith, a basketball player at Manhattanville College in New York, protested the war in Iraq by turning her back to the flag while standing with her teammates for the anthem.
The NBA briefly suspended Rauf; Smith kept playing but became the target of flag-waving, jeering fans at away games.
His agent suggested that Delgado would abide by any team rule requiring him to stand for the song; Marlins Manager Jack MacKeon suggested that he would allow Delgado to decide. And Miami talk radio was abuzz with questions of whether he should continue his protest as a Marlin and how fans should respond.
The simple answer is that, whatever one thinks of his views, Delgado does nothing wrong with his silent protest, and the Marlins should not attempt to halt it. Delgado is engaged in political protest over the policies and practices of the U.S. government, expression that all regard as the minimum core of the First Amendment.
He is making a political point through the forum that is uniquely available to him -- the patriotic ceremonial rituals at baseball games. That he could find another way to make his statement is no reason to deny him the chance to speak in the manner he chooses.
Moreover, his message is appropriate for that time and place. The Marlins and Major League Baseball chose to celebrate America (and, implicitly, the actions of the government in going to war) by playing God Bless America in the first place.
An essential element of free speech is the right to counter-speak, protest and dissent from the original message. Delgado does that by declining to stand, but he does so in a way that in no way interferes with the ability of the Marlins, his teammates or the fans to make their statements through the song. Nor can it be that Delgado has forfeited his right to protest U.S. policies because he makes $13 million per year. Attaining financial success cannot rob one of the right to criticize government and society.
The other simple answer is that fans remain free to counter-protest Delgado's protest. They can sing God Bless America louder. They can display signs reaffirming their support for U.S. policy and signs criticizing Delgado for his dissent. They can boo him.
In fact, it might be interesting to see what happens when Marlins fans' political passions collide with their passion to root for the home team. On the other hand, many fans may support Delgado, either because they agree with his position or simply because they respect his willingness to take a stand by not standing.
The point is that this exchange of views on weighty matters, initiated by one ballplayer willing to speak out, occurs comfortably in the public forum that is a Major League baseball game.
Howard M. Wasserman is assistant professor of law at Florida International University College of Law.