Larry Johnson Is Not a Political Prisoner

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Larry Johnson was given his walking papers yesterday by the Kansas City Chiefs, after they had finally had enough of his antics. The latest incident involved him criticising the Chiefs' head coach, Todd Haley, and using gay slurs to attack both members of the KC media and commenters on his Twitter page. Of course, the real reason Johnson was released wasn't because he's a bad guy (which he most assuredly is), but because he's a bad guy who isn't an elite football player any more

As part of my job writing this column, I listen to an enormous amount of sports talk radio. It's incredibly unpleasant much of the time, mind you, and will eventually destroy whatever faith you have in humanity, but hey, it's part of the job. I have to know not only what is actually going on in the sporting world, but what people are saying about it as well. 

Yesterday and today, what people have been talking about is Larry Johnson. Pretty much every angle has been covered, with the most pressing question being, "Would you take him?" And I've heard something several times from callers into these shows that I just can't let go. On at least three separate occasions I can recall, I've heard callers refer to Johnson's use of various slurs as a free speech issue. One older gentleman, calling into Brian Kenny's show on ESPN Radio last night, asked no fewer than five times, "Whatever happened to free speech?"

click to enlarge "You want to put in a clause protecting professional athletes' right to call people fags on the internet? Mr. Madison, that seems awfully specific, and I don't understand several of the words in that sentence."
"You want to put in a clause protecting professional athletes' right to call people fags on the internet? Mr. Madison, that seems awfully specific, and I don't understand several of the words in that sentence."

Okay, people, listen up, because I'm only going to say this once. To anyone out there who thinks Larry Johnson being dumped by Kansas City is in any way a freedom of speech issue, please please please just shut the fuck up. 

Freedom of speech is one of the pillars upon which our country is built. One of the most hallowed and sacred of our civil rights as Americans. The First Amendment, in fact, is one of the most important achievements in human history. It guarantees us the government won't come in and just start tossing people in jail because they criticise a policy or decision. The other half of the First Amendment, that whole freedom of the press thing, is nearly as important, and rather close to my own heart as well. 

What the First Amendment does not do, however, is give you the right to be a ridiculous douchebag, say whatever you like about whoever you like, and not have to face the fact there may be some consequences. It also doesn't say anything about private entities. 

When Larry Johnson starts peppering his Tweets with the word fag, that's not a free speech issue. When Larry Johnson is called on the carpet to answer as to why he felt it necessary to start tossing those sorts of slurs around, it's still not a free speech issue. And when the Kansas City Chiefs finally decide they've had enough of an unproductive running back with a history of bad behaviour a mile long, guess what? It's still not a free speech issue. At all. How is this so goddamned hard to understand? 

If I were to start tossing around racial slurs toward people, the River Front Times would, in all likelihood, fire me. Now, ignoring whether or not you personally feel that would be a good thing, the paper would be completely justified in doing so. What I say reflects on my employer, and the RFT certainly doesn't want to be associated with a bigot. Does everyone see the division line here? The RFT has every right in the world to protect their image and interests, and having someone on the staff who is offending readers and advertisers most definitely falls under that heading. 

The First Amendment is there to protect us from the government throwing dissidents in jail, not to ensure Larry Johnson is safe from repercussions when he starts publicly calling people names. Got it? 

Larry Johnson is many things. He is not, however, in any way, shape, or form, a political issue. 

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