ESPN Was Smart to Fire Paul Shirley

03/31/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Morris W. O'Kelly Host of "The Mo'Kelly Show" on KFI AM640 and author of The Mo'Kelly Report

All men are created equal says the Declaration of Independence. And except for that part in the U.S. constitution where slaves were considered 3/5 of a man, the founding fathers largely got it right.

(Yes, except for that er uh "minor" faux pas.)

Conversely, not all opinions are created equal. Some are more informed than others. Some are more valid/valuable than others and should be treated accordingly. It's why children cannot vote. It's why the NTSB and the FAA have slightly more influence than Mo'Kelly when it comes to airline safety regulations. And most importantly it's why career journeymen basketball players shouldn't be anywhere near the arena (pun intended) of political/socio-economic commentary. The acceptance of opinions is not guaranteed equal protection under the law, despite the misguided complaints of some.

It's with these precursors we should more closely examine the controversy surrounding the remarks from now former ESPN blogger Paul Shirley. Note, Mo'Kelly said the controversy surrounding the remarks, not the remarks. The remarks in and of themselves aren't worthy of debate. Sometimes the boundaries of "obscene" and "indecent" extend beyond the borders of pornography. The remarks of Paul Shirley arguably meet the standard of both obscenity and indecency.

There will be no debate as to the merits of his remarks. Mo'Kelly has neither the time nor the inclination to do your homework and retrace the time-line of events ranging from the 1915-1934 American occupation of Haiti to the IMF loans of today and how they impacted all things in the time between the two. Pick up a history book, or use Google, and get in the game (pun intended); but it won't be Mo'Kelly's job on this day.

Conversely, what could and should be discussed is whether ESPN stepped over the line in firing Shirley for those same remarks, irrespective of how ill-informed, illogical and insensitive they surely were. There are those invariably who have argued Shirley's "freedom of speech" has been encroached upon and we are diminished as a society when we persecute those with opinions of lesser popularity.

It's a fair discussion to have, but anyone yelling "free speech" in defense of Paul Shirley has already missed the point and should re-examine the meaning of the first amendment:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Freedom of speech is the inalienable right to avoid prosecution for one's views, not persecution ... a distinct difference. In addition, freedom of speech is a dialogue, not a monologue. Paul Shirley is allowed to express himself within the boundaries of law and ESPN is allowed to express its disapproval and fire him in response.

And yes, Mo'Kelly is ecstatic ESPN did the right thing in this instance.

We as Americans do not have an inalienable right to our own column, television show, or radio program. We are only guaranteed the right to express our opinions without fear of arrest, not the medium or platform in which to express it.

Virtually all companies have a code of conduct policy for its employees, ESPN included. ESPN as a media entity undoubtedly has editorial guidelines and surely has an ombudsman. Color Mo'Kelly cynical, but Paul Shirley commenting on the supposed political ineptitude of Haiti and its citizens' "need" for more stringent use of birth control likely fell outside of a "sports blogger's" purview. To his credit, he was an equal opportunity offender, managing to disrespect the memory of both the Tsunami victims as well as the Haiti earthquake victims. His ignorance was world-renown is a number of ways you could say.

To be completely honest, it doesn't bother Mo'Kelly that Shirley does not support any Haitian relief effort. That is his "right." He has the "right" to voice his displeasure and he will not be whisked away to jail for it. His comments were consistent with most partially-educated career athletes; those who spent most of their lives on the field of play and not in a classroom or library. Paul Shirley, a person who likely has never contributed anything meaningful to society beyond dribbling a basketball should be loathe to lecture anyone as to who might be taking up too much space on planet Earth.

(And Mo'Kelly might also add, Shirley's basketball contributions were negligible at best; his name a trivia question on its best day.)

If there is any single individual who embodies the ugly and arrogant Americanism despised around the world in the wake of the Bush administration, Paul Shirley is it.

But Mo'Kelly digresses...

At the same time, ESPN has the "right" to have nothing to do with individuals such as Shirley or their associated commentary. The same was true for MSNBC and Don Imus and the same is true for the continuing relationship between Sirius Radio and Howard Stern. We have a right to do business or not do business with whom we please. The first amendment doesn't guarantee employment and we should be thankful it does not. Paul Shirley is "free" to disregard the rules and guidelines of ESPN and offer his theories on race, class and birth control via some other media outlet. The internet is an infinitely vast landscape. Yet in this free speech dialogue, the rest of us are "free" to ridicule his ignorance accordingly.

Paul Shirley is simply the latest in a long line of athletes/entertainers who wrongly assumed that because he/she has a platform in which to express him/herself it somehow validates the subsequent opinion.

It doesn't.

It only magnifies our awareness of their woeful ignorance on issues wholly unrelated to their expertise. Paul and others like him should leave the heavy lifting of race and politics to the trained professionals and go back to doing what he does best, wallowing in mediocrity on and off the court.