Wednesday, March 03, 1999

Ted Turner is no better than Marge




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Fair is fair. If Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig is willing to sanction Marge Schott for her misguided mouth, then the same rules should apply to Ted Turner.

        You can't presume to penalize owners for offending blacks and Jews if you're unwilling to police insults of Catholics and Poles. You can't adopt a zero tolerance policy on intolerance that applies only to certain minorities.

        The eerie silence from the commissioner's office these last two weeks has suggested the owner of the Atlanta Braves was getting a free ride for comments comparable to those that started Schott on the road to her eventual exile. But Selig swears it isn't so. He says his failure to reproach Turner reflects a lack of information rather than a lack of initiative.

        “This has just come to my attention,” Selig said Tuesday evening. “And I am certainly going to to discuss this thing with Ted immediately. I note Ted has apologized, but Major League Baseball is very sensitive to any remarks that disparage any religious or ethnic group.”

        While addressing the National Family Planning and Reproductive Association in Washington on Feb. 16, Turner was asked what he would say to Pope John Paul II. He replied by telling a Polish joke — and an old one at that — about the man who searches for mines by stamping his foot on the ground. Previously, Turner was on record saying Christianity was “for losers.”

Apology seems insincere
        Turner apologized for his joke — the latest episode in a lifetime of poor taste — after Poland's deputy foreign minister threatened to halt cooperation with Turner's broadcasting company. Catholic League President William Donahue says he has accepted Turner's apology — “Do I think it's sincere? No.” — but he remains troubled by baseball's failure to follow up.

        “One of my favorite files that we keep is for double standards and that file, unfortunately, is quite thick,” Donahue said Tuesday afternoon from his New York office. “It's a lot easier to bash Poles or Catholics and get away with it. A different set of rules seem to apply, in part because of the target.

        “No one in their right mind would say Marge Schott or Ted Turner was in the same camp with a Klansman or an inveterate bigot. Yet Schott is sent off to sensitivity training exercises, is penalized by professional baseball and I have yet to hear one official in major-league baseball or one talking head make any criticism of Ted Turner.”

        It was, at the least, curious. So I called Selig's office in Milwaukee Tuesday and then faxed him a story concerning Turner's comments. Within hours, baseball spokesman Rich Levin called back to indicate Selig's alarm. Then Selig called to confirm his concern.

        “This is the first I've heard of this stuff,” he said. “I've got a call into Ted now.”

Does Selig have backbone?
        Selig surely knows that unless he summons the spine to stand up to Turner, his position becomes highly hypocritical. He might say Schott's offenses were more severe and more numerous than Turner's — and they probably do rate a little higher on the Skinhead Scale — but to ignore Turner is to leave us to our own unflattering conclusions.

        “There is a rank hypocrisy among our elites,” William Donahue said. “Ted Turner is regarded as a man who is on friendly terms with the cultural elite. One could argue that he and his wife (actress Jane Fonda) are at the pinnacle of the cultural elite. Margaret Schott has no such pedigree.”

        Neither is Pope John Paul II likely to show up at the winter meetings with a list of grievances, as did the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Like many institutions, baseball sometimes reacts to outside pressures more swiftly than it adheres to internal policies.

        Marge Schott became a pariah because she picked on the wrong people. Ted Turner's fate will tell us how much baseball believes in brotherhood.

        One of the perils of regulating speech is that it calls for rigid consistency and constant vigilance. Marge Schott and Ted Turner make it a full-time job.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

        SULLIVAN ARCHIVE