Smile Politely

The Gag Rule

Individuals in positions of authority — especially those positions critical to our survival, such as President of the United States and Illinois Men’s Basketball coach — are incessantly pestered with irrelevant questions from idiots. For some reason we, the public, allow these interrogatory distractions. Worse, we expect the dummies to get their answers.

But we can’t get those answers. Presidential candidates are silenced de facto from speaking honestly, or at length — knowing they will only be ridiculed in the tabloid press. Basketball coaches are prohibited from speaking de jure — specifically, the jure of the NCAA.

There are millions of people who know better than the President of the United States et al candidates for that office. They’ve been loitering in coffee shops for decades.

There are thousands of people who could coach the Illinois Men’s Basketball team better than Bruce Weber. You can find them in chat rooms all over the web. Many of them have offered to do the job for a fraction of Weber’s million dollar salary. Why is it, then, that we keep Weber?

Well, maybe the job isn’t so easy as everybody thinks.

It’s nearly impossible to get a group of people to work together like a well-oiled machine. Even if the people want to work together, precision is hard to come by. Every distraction, relevant or otherwise, impedes the synchronization of the parts. Just you try to get 435 members of congress to put together a coherent energy bill, even during an energy crisis, that threatens all 435 districts. Just you try to get 5 guys to run a fluid motion offense, even if all five want to win a championship.

It’s hard enough to oversee the governing of an entire industrialized nation without simultaneously quelling immaterial controversies, rumor campaigns, and the petty outrages of the perpetually dim. It’s hard enough to oversee the academic and competitive progress of thirteen young men without quelling the incessant incitements of internet chatter.

But, that’s America. And so the already difficult, vitally important jobs of overseeing the proper execution of our laws, and the proper execution of hard-nosed man-to-man defense, are continually sidetracked.

Let’s look at the top five crises facing you, right now:

1. Your mortgage will be foreclosed in 8 days
2. Your son was just injured in Iraq
3. Barack Obama does not wear a flag pin
4. Gas costs $4 per gallon
5. Your planet is melting

And if you live in Illinois,

6. Jereme Richmond’s commitment to Illini basketball

All these are serious problems, according to people who have the right to vote. Luckily, the media is giving each of them a hearing.

When the formerly well-regarded, now universally maligned Charlie Gibson/George Stephanopoulos team set the flagbaiting trap for Barack Obama, it was necessary to bring in one of the Little Brains, a salt-of-the-earth person — the insular group of Americans who don’t understand the complexities of the International Monetary Fund, but have a firm grasp on what really matters to Americans who don’t know anything.

Enter dowdy Nash McCabe (pictured), a gruff middle-aged laborer with some understanding of properly conjugated verbs.

“Do you believe in the flag?” She queried.

This non-issue simply will not die. It was a major talking point when George Bush was running for President… against Michael Dukakis=. It is, however, a great issue for demonstrating irony. The Little Brains believe they are more patriotic for wanting to eliminate the uniquely American freedom which our flag represents.

According to popular stupidity… err, I mean popular wisdom… there are some things you just can’t say in this country. For example, office-seekers are supposedly not allowed to point out that the right to burn the flag is different from the desire to burn the flag, or advocacy of flag burning. No one is allowed to say the flag is merely a symbol (except for the late Senator Paul Simon). You can’t remind even the most bible-thumping of voters that graven images and false idols are not the same as the things they represent.

Candidates, knowing their statements on even the most complex issues will be reduced to ten-second sound bites, evade.

These are the people choosing the topics for your national conversation.

But we may be turning a corner on this stubborn problem. Now, even the people who preferred Bush over Kerry for beer-drinking purposes have begun to recognize that electing a fellow Little Brain (or The Intellectually Incurious, if you must) has consequences. They’ve begun to understand that sitting on a porch and drinking beer, although important, is not among the foremost issues facing the US government.

So, perhaps there will come a day when candidates for President of the United States are allowed to give earnest, forthright, polysyllabic answers — possibly even paragraph-length answers — to complex and stupid questions alike. After all, there is no law that says a candidate can’t speak the truth, or give his assessment of it.

That’s not true for NCAA basketball coaches like Bruce Weber. His constitutional right to freedom of expression is immaterial, because he’s chosen to be part of a self-governing association. And unlike the constitution, the NCAA can and does restrict speech. Specifically, it prohibits Weber from talking about prospective basketball players. I think it’s a bad rule.

Contrast this speech prohibition with the NCAA rule most dear to Illini hearts this year — § 13.1.3 Telephone Calls to Prospective Student-Athletes. That’s the one which puts limits on the frequency and timing of telephone calls from college coaches to teenagers. It’s the rule broken, smashed and obliterated by Cellvin Samsung during his tenure as Head Coach at the University of Oklahoma, and then again at Indiana University.

The phone call rule makes sense to me. I can easily recognize its value. Kids need to have time to sleep, study, talk to their families and play basketball — without being incessantly pursued by fawning grown-ups.

The speech rule makes no sense to me. I simply don’t understand what good is served by it. It seeks to prevent firestorms of hype, and fails. It does nothing to stop a coach from telling a teenager “You’re the missing link to the Final Four.” It only stops all the rest of us from finding out that a coach told the player “You’re the missing link to the Final Four.”

In theory.

Here’s an example of how the speech prohibition hurts, in practice:

Last week the internets nearly burned to the ground when an Indiana grad published an interview with Illinois recruit Jereme Richmond, who is old enough to drive.

We learned that Richmond wonders, like a lot of young people, what it would be like to see the world. Seeing the world would be easier if he were flown off, at no personal expense, to various college campuses — for recruiting visits. But he can’t do that, because it would create havoc here at the center of the universe. People would think Jereme were wavering in his commitment to us. That’s a bit insecure of us, as a fan base. It implies there might be something out there more appealing than the University of Illinois campus, and its Men’s Basketball program. (Poppycock!)

Bruce Weber had no reaction to the story, because he’s not allowed to have a reaction to the story. So he appears, to the casual observer — who doesn’t know about the speech rule — like an evasive politician.

I am all in favor of paid vacations. I think seeing the world is a grand thing. I wish Weber were allowed to tell Jereme “go out there, see the world on their dime. We’ll look forward to seeing you when you get back.”

We Illini fans have nothing to fear, see. The stable is filling up with thoroughbreds. We’re close to home and Jereme’s actively involved family. Our team is managed by ethical people who know how to make important decisions, and provide mature guidance.

But still, Weber can’t tell Jereme to see the world, because he can’t tell everyone else, “it’s okay, I told him to go out and see the world.” In fact, on the topic of Jereme Richmond and all other recruits, he can’t say anything at all.

It’s that incapacity — to stifle the media storm, and possible immolation of the interweb — which prevents Jereme from having his cake and eating it too.

It hurts Jereme, the young person ostensibly protected by NCAA censorship. His parents and the Illinois coaching staff regard the situation of public perception as serious, including last week’s internet meltdown. Shortly afterwards, the Richmond family once again reassured the press that Jereme is not wavering. But because of the NCAA’s anti-P.R. rule, they can’t choose to let him go see the sights. That sucks, because vacations are fun, and enlightening. And free vacations are rare.

The stifling of free expression has real consequences. The stifling of free association has real consequences. The stifling of the free exchange of ideas has real consequences. In deeply felt cases, regarding matters close to our hearts — like patriotism, and college basketball — the stiflers often think they’re doing the right thing.

They’re not.

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