TORONTO — If you still think an athlete kneeling for the national anthem dishonours the flag or is disrespectful to the country, well, it’s really about time to start paying attention.
The May 25 killing of George Floyd, who died after eight minutes 46 seconds with the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on his neck, belatedly triggered the social justice discussion Colin Kapernick was trying to start when he sat for the Star Spangled Banner back in 2016.
Sadly, that conversation ended up focusing on his subsequent kneeling rather than the issues of racial discrimination and police brutality he had hoped to highlight. But after Floyd, even some who had been all too eager to dismiss the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback’s protest as a selfish act of subversion had to acknowledge something is deeply wrong.
The chilling video of Floyd’s pleas for mercy being ignored, on the heels of so many other Black men and women needlessly dying at the hands of American police officers, really hammered home that as much as everyone is supposed to be equal, racism remains alive and well.
As protests raged across the U.S., and elsewhere in the world, Canada included, no sport was slower to recognize the moment than baseball, which waited nine days to release a statement about Floyd. That was surprising given how the legacy of Jackie Robinson is celebrated every year, although given the game’s enduring hidebound culture, maybe it shouldn’t have been.
Still, all that made the variety of opening day protests around the majors – including a collective kneel by the Toronto Blue Jays as they held a long black ribbon shared with the Tampa Bay Rays on Friday – all the more significant.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio, Anthony Alford, and Santiago Espinal were among the @BlueJays to kneel during the national anthems before the season opener. pic.twitter.com/MNBlgkO5ew
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) July 24, 2020
Baseball players, long repressed by the sport’s deep-rooted mores, have started finding their voice, which is what made Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s comments so intriguing.
During a Zoom chat with media before first pitch, the sophomore slugger wore a Black Lives Matter t-shirt and said he planned to kneel during the national anthem. For someone generally reserved in his public comments, taking such a public stand was notable.
“Basically, it’s more personal reasons,” Guerrero, speaking through interpreter Hector Lebron, replied when I asked him why he had decided to protest. “I had a meeting with my family and we all agreed on this. We don’t like the way things are going with the other Black people and all what’s happening out there. We all got together and decided it’s good for me to kneel and wear the shirt I’m wearing right now.”
Guerrero was one of four Blue Jays to kneel for the American anthem, along with Santiago Espinal, Cavan Biggio and Anthony Alford, the lone African-American on the roster. Lourdes Gurriel Jr., put his hand on Guerrero’s shoulder in solidarity, while Rowdy Tellez did the same with Alford.
“I sat down with Alford a couple of times and this situation, I’m very hurt inside about what’s happening right now,” said Guerrero. “It’s reality of things that are happening right now for people with our colour.”
Alford, too, has found his voice since the death of Floyd, starting with this tweet after the mayor of Petal, Mississippi, where he used to live, defended Chauvin and the other Minneapolis officers at the scene.
How could you watch that #GeorgeFloyd video and make an idiotic comment like this? As a former petal resident, I find this disturbing. It’s people like @MayorHalMarx who make other Mississippians look bad. I pray for the #GeorgeFloyd family. I pray for justice pic.twitter.com/CixmYfxc7P
— Anthony Alford (@ajalford_) May 28, 2020
He’s become more active since, celebrating when Mississippi voted to remove the confederate symbol from its flag.
I must say, Mississippi made me proud today!!! #MississippiFlag #Mississippi
— Anthony Alford (@ajalford_) June 28, 2020
And he also opened up about his own experiences with racism.
Still, as Sportsnet colleague Donnovan Bennett detailed so well here, it can’t be only Black athletes who speak out, because enduring racism and hatred isn’t solely the issue of the minority group experiencing it, but a collective one if society doesn’t confront it.
That made Biggio taking the knee, with Espinal to his left and Alford to his right, all the more powerful. He said that when he arrived at the ballpark, he hadn’t planned on kneeling, but “Alford’s locker is next to mine and I know he really wanted to do it, but he was kind of hesitant to do so, just because of the situation he’s in on the field,” said Biggio.
“He’s an up and down guy, not a starter, so I told him, ‘Hey man, if I did it would you feel more comfortable doing it?’” relayed Biggio. “He said yeah, so that was my thought process going through with it. I just wanted to show support to not only a teammate but someone I consider a brother. …
“I was proud to do it with him. I think we can all agree that there needs to be change, and I’m just trying to do my part.”
Earlier this week, San Francisco Giants manager Gabe Kapler took a knee in a similar show of unity. When I texted Alford about it, his reply smartly reinforced the need to remain focused on the cause, not the protest.
“I think Kapler kneeling is a powerful statement and much needed progress in a sense of acknowledging the problem in America,” he wrote. “But the main focus should be on the solution to the problem, being active in black/minority communities, leveling the playing field, etc.”
The Blue Jays have done some good work behind the scenes on that front. They’ve held multiple Zoom calls with players and staff to create awareness, and had discussions on what the team can do to advance the cause.
The Rays set the bar high Friday morning, with a tweet that becomes more remarkable each time you read it.
Today is Opening Day, which means it's a great day to arrest the killers of Breonna Taylor
— Tampa Bay Rays (@RaysBaseball) July 24, 2020
And then they put words to action.
The Rays organization has committed $100,000 to local groups @CDCofTampa_ @PCUrbanLeague @eji_org Remembrance Project @NAACP5139 @pinellasreentry who fight systemic racism.
Please visit our social justice resource guide: https://t.co/irYdBs9eMM #BlackLivesMatter pic.twitter.com/O0S6LaBGDH
— Tampa Bay Rays (@RaysBaseball) July 24, 2020
That it took not only Floyd’s unconscionable death, plus that of so many others, to force a long overdue grappling with systemic racism is our collective shame. The path forward begins with everyone trying to do better, baseball included.