A key part of leadership is being a living example. I’m not sure how Gabe Kapler is going to be in terms of handling his bullpen or his situational substitutions. But I now know he’s a leader — and we all now know he’s an ally.
The 44-year-old San Francisco Giants manager joined several members of his team in taking a knee during the national anthem before Monday’s pre-season game against the Oakland Athletics. Outfielders Jaylin Davis, Austin Slater and Mike Yastrzemski and first-base coach Antoan Richardson also participated in the protest. Ahead of another pre-season game on Tuesday, Hunter Pence, Pablo Sandoval and Mauricio Dubón joined them and also took a knee.
Kapler and the Giants aren’t alone in MLB circles in their visible support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Four Cincinnati Reds players — Amir Garrett, Phillip Ervin, Alex Blandino, and Joey Votto — knelt during the national anthem on Tuesday. It is, of course, noteworthy to see so many baseball players doing what NFL players have been doing for years, but even in numbers their gestures don’t drive conversation the way Kapler’s did.
Kapler immediately became the first manager in any of the North American major sports to take a knee during the national anthem as a sign of protest. And that trailblazing doesn’t come without risk. He’s a young manager without a winning track record, so he lacks the security a manager with more tenure or success might enjoy. MLB is also a league where the majority of the players are white, unlike the NBA or NFL. The message Kapler has sent is that the minorities in the clubhouse deserve majority support — even if that means putting something real on the line to get that message across.
We saw a similar protest recently in MLS. Manager Thierry Henry paid tribute to George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement by kneeling for the first eight minutes and 46 seconds of Montreal Impact’s inaugural game against New England Revolution in the MLS is Back Tournament.
Both acts were incredibly striking protests against police brutality. But the image of Kapler on one knee hits differently because he is white.
Henry taking a knee says that what happened to George Floyd could have happened to him. Kapler taking a knee says that what happened to George Floyd shouldn’t happen to anyone.
This was unthinkable months ago. If Kapler had knelt on Opening Day when it was originally scheduled, it would have been seen as a much more radical statement. Given the events that have transpired since the spring, the gesture may not be as surprising, but it can still create just as much positive change.
As a manager, Kapler is asked to represent the executive ranks of his team and speak on behalf of the entire franchise in a way even star players are not. Kapler kneeling also means all 29 other managers now have to answer questions about it. It provides fuel for the fight against anti-black racism, helping continue the tough conversations we’ve had as a society right as the restart of sports comes along to distract us. It also may open up the minds of coaches and executives in other sports.
Imagine if Kyle Dubas or Nick Nurse took a knee. Imagine if a coach on the Dallas Cowboys staff risked the wrath of Jerry Jones and did the same.
With Kapler and others that look like him as the messengers maybe detractors will finally understand that kneeling isn’t a protest against the American flag or military, it is a protest against police brutality — a fact many refused to accept when a Black man like Colin Kaepernick or a gay woman like Megan Rapinoe first knelt.
Not only was Kapler’s gesture important, so too was his explanation. When asked in a post-game press conference about his decision to take a knee, Kapler addressed his feelings toward his players and hit being an ally out of the park. “I wanted them to know that I wasn’t pleased with the way our country has handled police brutality and I told them I wanted to amplify their voices and I wanted to amplify the voice of the Black community and marginalized communities as well,” Kapler said. “So, I told them that I wanted to use my platform to demonstrate my dissatisfaction with the way we’ve handled racism in our country.”
Kapler went on to say, “I wanted to demonstrate my dissatisfaction with our clear systemic racism in our country, and I wanted them to know that they got to make their own decisions and we would respect and support those decisions. I wanted them to feel safe in speaking up.”
Kapler has the fundamentals down: He doesn’t take up space and make it about himself, he speaks directly to the issue at hand and he shows further support and compassion for those who have faced systemic racism.
To nobody’s surprise Donald Trump has been vocal on social media of late about his disdain for those who take a knee during the star spangled banner.
Asked about the president’s position, Kapler had a ready response: “It doesn’t matter what leader says that they’re not going to be following a game. What matters most is that we’re unwavering in trying to do what’s right, and what guides our decision is standing up for people who need us to stand up for them.”
“I don’t see it as disrespect at all,” Kapler continued, “I see nothing more American than standing up for what you believe in. I see nothing more patriotic than peaceful protest when things are frustrating and upsetting. And finally, there’s nobody that should make us stop doing the right thing.”
I’ve been asked a couple times throughout this period how white people can be good allies. Kapler provided an excellent example. Get in the fight, even when it’s inconvenient. Look at the issues empathetically. Lessen the burden on your BIPOC counterparts. Normalize the behaviour to make it easier for others to follow in your footsteps. And, more than anything, use your power and privilege to shed light on issues that impact those with less power and privilege even if it means risking losing some of that power.
Hopefully, Gabe Kapler’s brand of allyship is an inspiration for more than just other baseball managers and sports leaders. Hopefully, he’s an inspiration for the mangers of our companies and leaders of our communities, as well.