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Memphis Flyer Much Ado About Nothing

John Rocker's friends say the portrayal of the Atlanta pitcher is inaccurate.

By Jake Lawhead

FEBRUARY 7, 2000:  Disappointment. That was the initial emotion felt by Ched Smaha when he heard of John Rocker’s bigoted comments in the January issue of Sports Illustrated.

Not disappointment in Rocker, but disappointment in the media, who Smaha claims misrepresented someone with a good heart.

"When I first heard of the comments, I immediately knew, before I talked to John, that something was wrong and that he had to have been misrepresented," says Smaha.

Who is Ched Smaha? He is Rocker's life-long best friend, and a Lebanese-American, son of first generation Lebanese immigrants. Smaha is also a fraternity brother of mine from the University of Tennessee. Trust me, Smaha is not one to befriend a bigot. Consequently, I've known of John Rocker for about three years, before he was the ultra-intimidating, politically questionable, fireball reliever for the Atlanta Braves.

And that's all I could think about during the scandal following the furor over the Sports Illustrated article. While everyone concerned themselves with what John Rocker was thinking, I was wondering what Ched thought.

One would have to have been living in a cave to not have at least heard of the ethnically derisive comments John Rocker made in an exclusive interview with Sports Illustrated. He offended gays, blacks, foreigners, and New Yorkers. This week baseball suspended Rocker for 73 days, including spring training. He will miss about 28 days of the regular season and will not lose any pay.

I kept asking myself how could a guy say those things when his best friend is Lebanese and why would Ched be friends with a guy like this? I assumed that Rocker was a bigot who was flexing his muscle, not his brain.

"John is a normal 25 year-old," adds Smaha, "who sometimes lets his mouth get ahead of his brain."

If John Rocker is such a bigot, why are his minority friends defending him? Could it be that through his actions, he has proved he is not a bigot?

And through countless open doors, friends will tell you, Rocker has welcomed such minority players as Bruce Chen, Odalis Perez, and Andruw Jones into his home for extended stays.

"When I heard about it, I thought, 'That's John going crazy,'" George Lombard, a black friend of Rocker told ESPN.com. Lombard told Rocker: "Come on. Be careful from now on."

I am not defending John Rocker's statements. In fact, I disagree with Rocker. What I do agree with, however, is his right to make whatever statement he wants without the consequence of being kicked out of baseball. I know I'd rather have a guy who says the wrong thing but does the right thing than the opposite.

What doesn't offend people nowadays? Shock radio jocks do it every day and get paid for it. Howard Stern pokes fun at gays, blacks, and the mentally retarded. Local sports personality "Marky B." (Mark Bialek on Rock 103 WREG-FM) constantly refers to the Tennessee Titans as the "Tennessee tackling faggots" and the Lady Vols basketball team as "Bitches in Orange Britches." Whether we like it or not, they have the right to say it.

I know that we live in an imperfect world, and people are fired from their jobs every day because of difference in opinion. But that doesn't make it right. Punishing someone for stating his opinion, no matter how shocking, should outrage us all in the land of the free.

The most common response to all of this hubbub has been, "I just think he's really stupid for saying that stuff to a reporter … I mean, even if you do think that, you don't say it to a reporter." I have heard that line, near verbatim, from almost every person I've asked.

Let's say that Rocker did mean those comments and is now just swimming in a sea of face-saving remorse. Then what most people are saying is that it is "smart" for one to lie about his true feelings, and "stupid" for him to be honest and say what he thinks. What kind of backward society do we live in where those who are honest are stupid and those who lie about their beliefs are tagged smart. Since when are people condemned for being honest. If that's the case, I hope my children grow up to be pretty stupid.

What people don't seem to be getting is that these are, arguably, Rocker's opinions. I don't agree, but they are still his opinions and no one should punish him for voicing them. If Ched Smaha found a way to look past what Rocker has said, I figure I can too.

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