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Medicalizing Meanness

By Elaine Cassel

What do you call a man who has something bigoted and cruel to say about almost anyone who is not white and heterosexual? Most would call him mean, but his boss says he might be mentally ill. Atlanta Braves pitching ace John Rocker made headlines in early January for a reason that had nothing to do with sports statistics. It had to do with a barrage of comments he made to a reporter about immigrants, blacks, and homosexuals. Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig ordered Rocker to undergo psychological testing. Some saw this as a political move designed to justify keeping Rocker in baseball. If the root of his meanness is a mental illness, then his pitching job might be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Rocker has done more than talk trash. This past baseball season he spit at New York Mets fans when the Braves visited Shea stadium. But baseball officials need to separate Rocker's beliefs from his behaviors. While psychologists and psychiatrists interviewed in the media conceded that Rocker's out-of-control behavior may be the sign of an impulse control disorder, they emphasized the difference between behavior and prejudice, noting that if racism and bigotry were considered mental illnesses, the all too large number of people who share Rocker's sentiments would have a diagnosis. A frightening recent precedent for labeling those with unpopular views as mentally ill took place in the 1950s and 60s, when the Soviet government imprisoned political dissidents in mental hospitals.

None of this is to suggest that Rocker might not benefit from therapy that gives him insight into the source of his hatred and rage. But medicalizing his meanness—giving it a label—won't help Rocker, his victims, or the kids who look up to him. Rocker needs a change of heart—not a diagnosis.

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