Now Hear This……

By Joe Strauss
Updated: January 27, 2008

ST. LOUIS — Amazing what sports can do when crudely mixed with free speech.

One week, a Golf Channel commentator makes a clumsy attempt at humor and ends up on a two-week suspension when self-appointed leaders take umbrage over what are broadly classified as “racist” comments.

Meanwhile, the alleged “target” of the on-air verbal fumble, quite possibly the planet’s most-recognized athlete, calls the commentator a friend, says he accepts her apologetic explanation and wishes everyone would move on.

Of course that’s not good enough. Points are to be scored.

It doesn’t matter that Tiger Woods knows the Golf Channel’s Kelly Tilghman to be a good person with whom he has long shared a congenial relationship. Tilghman used the term “lynch” on-air and must pay a price.

And apparently some believe that Woods should also be chastised for not joining in the resulting media feeding frenzy staged to advance somebody else’s platform.

Golfweek sacrificed its editor when it tackled the issue by using a noose on its cover to illustrate Tilghman’s clumsy quip. PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem, who apparently enjoys considerable editorial sway with the publication, lent his indignation.

So it is apparent that all speech is not really protected as free. Or in an increasingly Orwellian world, maybe some speech is supposed to be freer than the rest.

Charles Barkley, a smart guy adored by the Turner Broadcasting camera, quips on air why he hates white people and everyone shrugs. It’s just Charles being Charles. He was trying to be funny and (most) everyone’s cool with that.

Barkley may still run for governor of Alabama if he wants. Tilghman received no such leeway. She received no “Get Out of Jail Free” card from those who know diabolical intent when they hear it. She is to be made an example.

The free speech issue took hold locally last week when St. Louis University’s own Round Mound of Rebound, Rick Majerus, went public at a rally for Hillary Clinton and voiced support of embryonic stem cell research and abortion rights.

Since Majerus is head basketball coach at SLU, his words struck Archbishop Raymond Burke as, shall we say, interesting.

Burke does not govern SLU. But he does speak with ultimate authority on issues of Catholic teachings and faith. Majerus is Catholic and a very visible representative of the state’s best-known Catholic institution.

What he espoused contradicts what his faith considers a moral absolute.

Majerus subsequently noted his right as an American to offer his opinion while making an appearance at a political rally. He is absolutely correct; he has that right.

But Majerus was not making a clumsy attempt at humor. He was taking a political stand on an issue of particular personal relevance while also placing his employer in a decidedly uncomfortable position.

Burke’s quick rebuke of Majerus was predictable. It would seem hypocritical for a religious leader who would deny the Eucharist to a Catholic politician supportive of abortion rights to remain silent when a Catholic basketball coach publicly renounces church doctrine.

Burke stated he wants Majerus punished, an unlikely outcome given the university’s response to the flap. The archbishop could refuse the coach sacraments, the church’s equivalent of a flagrant technical.

He could move to have him excommunicated, which is tougher than anything the NCAA tried to do to Jerry Tarkanian.

Majerus says he is standing on principle. So, too, does Archbishop Burke. And that, boys and girls, is where it gets particularly messy. Whose principle does one support?

The state will not imprison Majerus for his exercise of speech. But as Tilghman learned earlier this month, the First Amendment does not offer immunity from the private or, in Majerus’ case, religious sector.

Some would have Burke butt out. How dare he insert himself into such an issue when Majerus is attempting the noble work of resurrecting Billiken hoops? Of course, there are those upset with any religion that demands its members conform to its tenets rather than cater to the whims of the flock.

If it is right for Tilghman to be disciplined for her on-air political incorrectness concerning Tiger Woods, is it wrong for Majerus to be asked to atone for expressing sentiments offensive to Catholic orthodoxy?

Burke has ostracized numerous Catholics within the archdiocese with his hard-line policies and a destructive power struggle with St. Stanislaus Kostka.

He is also authority on all matters Catholic. The archbishop, not the coach, receives final word if he wishes. Maybe that’s what makes a lot of folks — politicians, basketball coaches, even media types — most uncomfortable of all.