It's always nice when someone's given a break. When the bosses don't cashier a guy for an intemperate word or a thoughtless act. When a guy gets a chance to redeem himself.

So that may be the good news in the latest twist in the tempestuous career of John Rocker, the Atlanta Braves' closing pitcher. On the other hand, Major League Baseball's reaction to Rocker's latest outrage seems just as weird and objectionable as Rocker himself.

In Sports Illustrated last month, the 25-year-old Rocker was quoted at length about a lot of things that make him mad besides Mets fans. He doesn't like Asian women drivers, prefers not to sit next to homosexuals with AIDS, and is uncomfortable with the large number of foreigners in New York. He referred to a black teammate as a "fat monkey." He thinks basketball player Latrell Sprewell, who assaulted his coach a few years ago, was treated leniently because he's black.

The commissioner of baseball, Bud Selig, responded by ordering Rocker to undergo psychological evaluation. After that, he'll decide what, if any, punishment the pitcher will face.

There was a time, quite a while ago, when comments like Rocker's would have brought murmurs of objection, but little more. There was a time--and, for many less indispensable people, it's now--when those same comments would be a firing offense. But we live in an era in which psychology is seen as the source of bedrock truth about human behavior, and mental illness is considered an unrecognized national epidemic. For those reasons, the first response to Rocker's intemperateness is to send him to the doctor. If he keeps his job, he'll have the rise of mental health as America's civil religion to thank for it.

It's worth considering, however, some of the issues raised by Selig's order.

Does John Rocker have a mental problem? Well, of course, there's no way of knowing from a distance. It's fruitless and irresponsible to speculate about what he's really like in private. However, the fact that Selig--and not the Braves management, which presumably knows the pitcher far better--intervened suggests Rocker's public behavior is the problem. It seems, in particular, that Rocker's statements evincing racial, ethnic and sexual prejudice are the things that make him a candidate for psychological evaluation.

Racism and homophobia as mental problems requiring treatment? This isn't the way we've traditionally thought of these things in the United States. We've thought of them as bigotry.

We have a long tradition of letting people say pretty much whatever they want, however offensive. In recent years, however, a number of opinions have come to be viewed as so offensive--some people would say, so politically incorrect--that, while a person's right to express them is acknowledged, his employer's right to fire him for saying them is also acknowledged.

When a person's bigoted views contribute to a crime, defendants and their lawyers sometimes try to paint the bigotry as an exculpatory mental illness--essentially a disease that's afflicted the helpless criminal. Judges and juries almost always reject this reasoning. (A Wyoming judge's barring of a "gay panic" defense in the trial of one of the murderers of gay college student Matthew Shepard last fall is the most notable recent example.) As a general rule, prejudice in contemporary America is viewed more as sin than sickness.

This is not to say that Americans don't realize that racial (and other) prejudice can warp the behavior of decent people, or that paranoid prejudices are sometimes prominent features of insanity. But this country, for good reason, has chosen to hold people personally responsible for their opinions. (Whether they should be punished for them is another issue.)

Referring Rocker for psychological evaluation because of his remarks in a national magazine changes this, however subtly.

If he has a diagnosable mental disorder--say, "antisocial personality disorder"--does that make him less responsible? If his angry intolerance is viewed as a mental problem, do we really want to set a precedent in which prominent people with objectionable opinions are urged to change them through medical treatment? The Atlanta Braves may need to introduce Rocker to the concept of tolerance, as so many employers do these days, but do we want to create psychiatric "reeducation programs" for racists?

Admittedly, this may be taking Selig's order too far. But psychiatry, despite its altruistic purposes, has an underbelly of coercion that should give us pause.

Psychiatric patients are the only patients--apart from the rare, recalcitrant person with drug-resistant tuberculosis threatening the public's health--who can be compelled to undergo medical treatment. In recent years, many states have enacted "outpatient commitment" laws that permit a court to force a person to take psychiatric drugs in order to stay out of the hospital. In an astonishing decision three years ago, the Supreme Court upheld the right of states to transfer convicted "sexual predators" to mental hospitals for indefinite detention and therapy once their prison terms are up.

Selig's action has the whiff of coercion, too: He told Rocker to submit to psychological evaluation, or face unspecified sanctions. If the doctors find something, there's a real possibility Rocker will be compelled to undergo treatment in order to escape punishment.

Employers present employees with coercive "choices" all the time. But unless the problem directly affects work performance or safety, coerced medical care shouldn't be one of them. Medicine is built on the principles of beneficence (on the part of the doctor) and voluntarism (on the part of the patient.) Changing people's opinions under the guise of medical "care" is a perilous path.

It may be, of course, that Rocker is not being referred to psychologists because of bigoted opinions but because of the vituperative, angry behavior he's exhibited for years. Fair enough. But in that case, what's his mental problem?

It appears to be his temperament.

Undoubtedly there are many ways to face the task of entering a baseball game in the last inning and doing a few minutes of work before tens of thousands of people--where a single mistake can mean the loss of a game or a championship. A Zen-like, semiconscious detachment might be the best strategy. It's no surprise, though, that the opposite also works--the red-lining, speed-freakish, hyper-aggressive approach epitomized by Rocker.

It makes perfect sense that a great closer would be stupidly fearless, excessively self-confident, high-strung, impetuous, short on introspection and long on testosterone. (The Sports Illustrated article noted that Rocker has gone hunting 40 times since the World Series ended in late October. Cave men didn't hunt that much.) Those traits may not be admirable, but they may allow some closers to do their jobs. Theirs is a highly abnormal vocation from which just about 100 percent of humanity is excluded. No one should be shocked that a few people who qualify are strange, narrow-minded or out of touch with contemporary life.

Let's say Selig and the baseball establishment grant as much. There still may be a reason why they would prefer to see Rocker's behavior as a psychological problem, and not an uncharming form of eccentricity.

The reason is that sports officialdom (alas, largely at the goading of the media) has gotten itself boxed into a corner where there's an expectation that athletes should be "role models" for the average citizen. It may not be the expectation that every great player show the boundless generosity and self-control of a Cal Ripken Jr. But the notion that a great player can be a bad person--and that we'll pay $35 a ticket to watch him play--doesn't sit well.

Unfortunately, such things happen. Richard Wagner's operas are still considered masterpieces even though the composer was an antisemite. As much as we would like there to be a parallelism between talent and character, often there isn't.

It's not likely that a person with John Rocker's skills would be forcibly driven from baseball because of bigoted opinions, even in this era of role-model ascendancy. But it would be easier for Major League Baseball to tolerate him if the things it objects to were viewed as problems of mental health, and not of character.

It may be inevitable, though, that someone as agitated and angry as John Rocker would be viewed as having a psychological problem. We might think that even if he drove a truck or sold shoes instead of throwing baseballs at 91 miles per hour.

Mental illness, we are told, is all around us. Last month, the federal government released the first-ever Surgeon General's Report on Mental Illness. It cited published scientific literature estimating that 21 percent of the U.S. population suffers from a mental disorder in any given year. Less than half of those affected get treatment. The report's "principal recommendation to the American people is to seek help if you have a mental health problem or think you have symptoms of mental illness" [italics in the original].

Mental illness is a wide net, and it catches more and more human behavior every year. We should rue the day when it catches ethnic, racial and sexual prejudice.

David Brown covers medicine for The Washington Post.