In case of Bull Durham, free speech depends on who’s making the rules

They live throughout this nation, not in uniform, though armed with vitriol and misguided patriotism. And when they are called on the carpet for maligning those who disagree with them, reminded of the Constitution and democratic values that distinguish this mosaic of citizens from all others, then they start spewing about “America the Beautiful.”

Last week, Dale Petroskey, president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, canceled the Hall’s planned celebration of the 15th anniversary of the release of the baseball movie “Bull Durham. The reason? Petroskey dislikes the politics of actors Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins _ who both starred in the movie _ during these “important and sensitive” times.

It was difficult to escape the momentum of Martha Burk’s push for female membership into Augusta National’s private men’s club in the midst of the Tiger Woods’ watch at the Masters golf tournament.

Along the way, we’ve been reminded of some rarities among athletes such as Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Arthur Ashe, whose courage to be politically active provided incentive for other athletes to stand up, exhibit courage, and use their influence to create change.

But while witnessing recent events and revisiting history, we must ask ourselves one question: What is the price for an athlete’s courage?

Hostility and ostracism plagued Ali, and his bank account was severely affected. There’s no doubt the same could happen to Woods, especially in the light of the reaction to outspoken antiwar activists Sarandon, Robbins and actor Martin Sheen. Sheen’s public statements against war were followed by Visa’s dropping its television commercials with Sheen and his son Charlie.

There’s a message: Do your job. Get paid. Shut up! Then go home.

Unless, of course, you’re an advocate for our cause. Then, by all means, tell us how you feel.

This hypocrisy tangled with self-righteousness isn’t new. Someone has always been sought to be used for what one group or the other deems a just cause.

Just as Burk, along with her National Council of Women’s Organizations, has tried to use everyone from Woods to the CBS television network to promote inclusion of women into Augusta, the Nation of Islam, no doubt, recognized the benefit of having the loquacious heavyweight champion Ali on its side during the civil rights movement.

When there was little to lose in fighting for a cause, you didn’t ask, “At what price?”

But it seems that these days, it’s the first question you ask.

As pundits gathered to hear Woods reiterate his position _ that women should be allowed to join Augusta _ they snarled at his caveat: “It’s a private men’s club and I don’t have a vote.”

Essentially, the world’s greatest golfer said he was rendered helpless because he’s not a member at Augusta.

Typically, many insist that Woods’ explanation is far from good enough.

Some wanted Woods to boycott the Masters, to avoid trying to make history by winning the tournament for three straight years. They felt it would shine a spotlight on the boys at Augusta, led by a man nicknamed “Hootie,” with a defiance, accentuated with a Southern drawl, that for many stirs painful memories of an earlier era.

There are many athletes _ Michael Jordan, Julius Erving and others _ whose greatness can’t be ignored. But neither can the fact that few of them took major social or political stands like Ashe.

Today’s athletes love being idolized, but they don’t want to take stands that will tarnish their reputations now, even if, like Ashe, Ali and others, history will treat them kindly years later.

They don’t want to be immortalized once they are six feet under.

They want to avoid controversy in order to maximize their opportunities now.

They know it. America knows it. Far too many influential Americans exploit it.

Which explains why silence has become golden for those with so much.

Woods may have elected to keep relatively quiet on this issue because he’s not interested in taking a political position. Or maybe because he’s afraid of the consequences.

When a dissenting opinion is voiced, those with much to lose often find themselves major targets:

Of public criticism. Monetary loss. Vilification at every turn.

The applause, it seems, always comes later _ much later after their athletic skills have eroded.

That is why they are wary of the Petroskeys of the world.

In his letter to Sarandon and Robbins, the former assistant White House press secretary for Ronald Reagan wrote: “We believe your very public criticism of President Bush at this important, and sensitive, time in our nation’s history helps undermine the U.S. position.”

In other words, their position disagreed with his.

Proving once again that America is rarely the problem. Just the few people it chooses to empower.

Evidently, to keep many of the rest of us in check.