‘I have to be a voice’: Why Blue Jays’ Anthony Alford took a knee

Anthony Alford spoke about his conversations around Black Lives Matter within both the Blue Jays clubhouse and the community, and explained some of the reasons this is so important to him.

TORONTO — Around midnight on March 13, three Louisville police officers used a battering ram to break down the door of an apartment where Breonna Taylor — a 26-year-old African-American emergency room technician — lived with her partner, Kenneth Walker. Police were conducting a drug investigation unrelated to Taylor and Walker, but had received a judge’s order to enter the couple’s apartment unannounced because officers believed it had been used to receive packages related to the investigation.

Inside the apartment, Walker believed someone was trying to break in. Police say they announced their presence, but a lawsuit filed by Taylor’s family cites statements from multiple neighbors who claim the plainclothes officers did not identify themselves. A licensed firearm carrier, Walker armed himself and fired a single shot at his intruders, striking an officer in the leg. Police returned more than 20 rounds, hitting Taylor — who was unarmed — at least eight times and killing her. No drugs were found in the apartment.

Walker was arrested and charged with assault and attempted murder of a police officer, charges that were ultimately dropped after two months of incarceration. The three officers were placed on administrative reassignment. Currently, one of them has been dismissed, while the other two are on administrative leave. None of them have been arrested or charged with a crime.

If you’re keeping track — and organizations like Mapping Police Violence are — Taylor was the 53rd of 130 Black Americans to be killed by police officers this year. Her death came two months before George Floyd was killed on camera by a Minneapolis police officer, sparking nationwide demonstrations calling for police reform and an end to racial injustice. It came three months before Louisville police and National Guard members shot and killed David McAtee as he tended to his barbecue stand during protests over Floyd’s murder. It came three-and-a-half months before an Atlanta officer shot and killed Rayshard Brooks, following a confrontation at a fast food restaurant.

That’s why Anthony Alford took a knee Friday night at Tropicana Field before his Toronto Blue Jays opened the 2020 MLB regular season versus the Tampa Bay Rays. He had to.

“Hopefully we start seeing more justice for people like Breonna Taylor. Her killers are still walking around,” Alford said. “When we see that in Black communities, that really hurts us. To know that someone can be in their house — I don’t care what the reasoning was, if you can’t feel safe in your own home, there’s a problem. And I think the people who killed Breonna Taylor, they should be held accountable. They should be arrested and convicted for that.”

Alford wasn’t the only Blue Jay to take a knee Friday, as teammates Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Santiago Espinal and Cavan Biggio joined him. But he is the most intimately familiar with what they were collectively protesting, having grown up as a Black man in America. Guerrero said recent conversations with Alford were part of his motivation to kneel. Biggio — a close friend who refers to Alford as a brother — said he made the decision to kneel after speaking to Alford prior to Friday’s game.

And when you hear Alford explain his own motivations, you immediately learn why he’s had such an impact on some of his teammates. Saturday, before the Blue Jays played the second game of their opening weekend series against the Rays, Alford met with media over Zoom for 25 minutes, sharing his perspective on racial injustice in America and his own experiences with racism and police brutality.

Much of what follows will be a transcription of that conversation, lightly edited and condensed for clarity, with some additional information interspersed to help contextualize the realities Alford is explaining. Anything in quotes is Alford’s own words. And you ought to read every one of them, starting here with what motivated him to take a knee.

“My biggest thing was worrying about offending people by doing it during the anthem. And that’s never my intention. I’m just trying to voice my opinion on where I stand.

“I have the luxury of having on a uniform, so that provides me with a shield when I go a lot of places. People know who I am, especially back at home. But I feel like I have to be a voice for the people who come from the same community that I come from. People who come from poverty-stricken situations who don’t have that voice, and need someone to speak for them and stand up for them and, in this case, kneel for them.

“I grew up in poverty, so I know what it’s like. I know what it’s like to feel helpless. I know what it’s like to feel hopeless. I know what it’s like to not get many opportunities. You always feel like you’re fighting an uphill battle. So, I’m going to keep fighting this fight with the people who’ve been oppressed for so many years, including myself from systematic racism.

“I hope everybody can just come to terms and realize what we’re fighting for. Hopefully they can join. I think it’s a thing that’s going to require unity. Not just all Black people coming together but Blacks, Whites, Latins. Everybody literally coming together to fight against a system — a system that’s been meant to keep people of colour oppressed. So, hopefully they’re willing to join us in that fight.

“But I know it’s going to take a lot of time. I don’t think one or two years is realistic. This is a system that’s been put in place for hundreds of years. So, it’s not going to just happen overnight. But hopefully we get more and more people on board to join us and realize all lives can’t matter until black lives matter. And how offensive it is to us when we hear, ‘Well, all lives matter.’ Well, all lives aren’t being affected right now. I know it’s a crazy analogy, but that’s like me saying on 9/11, ‘Well, all buildings matter.’ All buildings are not affected. I just hope that people are willing to accept the fact that something’s wrong. I can’t speak for every country but I know that something’s wrong in America.”

View this post on Instagram

Often times my occupation shields me from the harsh realities of being a black man in America. Because of my status, most of the time I’m granted grace when it comes to dealing with our justice system. Many of my black brothers and sisters do not have the luxury of being able to throw out that they’re a professional athlete when dealing with the law. I do. And I’ve used it to my advantage, but sometimes that’s not even enough. ————— When I take off my uniform, and leave the field, I am just another black man. So when I speak, when I stand, when I kneel, it’s not just for me. It’s for the people who look like me but don’t have a voice. It’s for the kids growing up in poverty stricken situations and don’t get the same opportunities as privileged kids. It’s for the people who are being oppressed by systemic racism. I could have easily been Ricky Ball George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Elijah McLain Sandra Bland. Atatiana Jefferson Stephon Clark Botham Jean Philando Castille Alton Sterling Freddie Grays Eric Garner Ahmaud Arbery This list seems to be never ending!! Im easy to love but can you love my black brothers and sisters who don’t have the luxury of playing for your favorite team??

A post shared by Anthony Alford (@ajalford13) on

Alford was born in Columbia, Mississippi, a city of around 7,000 in Marion County near the state’s border with Louisiana. The 2010 American Community Survey — taken when Alford was a 16-year-old growing up there — estimated that only 12.5 per cent of the county was Black. But that doesn’t reflect the reality Alford grew up in.

He was one of the nearly 30 per cent of Marion County residents living beneath the poverty line at the time and he remembers the experiences in the Black neighbourhoods where he grew up being quite different from the ones in more affluent — more White — areas.

In the years since he became a professional ballplayer, Alford has hosted youth baseball camps at the Columbia diamond where he grew up playing the game. He wants youth growing up in the same situation that he did to know that although their circumstances will be tougher than privileged kids in better-advantaged communities, they can’t let that be the reason they don’t strive to succeed.

“From an education standpoint, at the school I grew up going to before I transferred when I got to high school, we had no resources. Lack of computers; lack of laptops. We didn’t have the best teachers. I mean, they’re trying. But we had very limited resources — from an athletic and an academic standpoint.

“People always put doubt in my mind. Like I couldn’t make it. Or I couldn’t accomplish certain things. So, when I go back now, I really want to give my time. It’s easy for someone to just write a cheque. Money you get back, but time is something you don’t. I really want to give them hope. Seeing these kids who grew up in the same exact projects that I came from — they’re able to interact with me and see I am human. Because the only time you’ve ever seen me is on TV. Or on some kind of news station. I really just want to give them hope.

“I had an opportunity to talk with Bo (Bichette) a lot. Bo went to a majority Black school with a lot of kids from the hood. He was telling me how there’s so much potential and there’s so many kids who had God-gifted abilities that go to that school. And 30 minutes up the road, there’s kids that come nowhere close when it comes to skills or ability. But the difference is the kids in these Black communities just don’t get the opportunities. The kids have the same skill level, if not better, but they just don’t get the same opportunities as these privileged kids. That’s the difference.”

Sign up for Blue Jays newsletters
Get the best of our Blue Jays coverage and exclusives delivered directly to your inbox!

Blue Jays Newsletter

*I understand that I may withdraw my consent at any time.

And then there was what Alford experienced outside of school. When he was just existing as a man of colour in his own community.

According to data from Mapping Police Violence, 108 people were killed by police in Mississippi from 2013 through 2019 — 41 of them being Black. That 38 per cent proportion is close to being in line with the 36 per cent of the state’s population that identifies as Black, and doesn’t stand out as starkly as states with alarming discrepancies, like Ohio, where only 12 per cent of the population is Black, but 37 per cent of those killed by police are Black.

Still, Mississippi has not been without its incidents of racial injustice and police brutality. Far from it.

In May, 2018, two police officers in Laurel, Miss. — just east of where Alford grew up — were dismissed after repeatedly kicking James Barnett, an unarmed Black 36-year-old, at a vehicle checkpoint.

In January of 2019, George Robinson died of a hemorrhage caused by blunt force trauma to the head after he was forced from his parked car in front of his home in Jackson, Miss. by police and detained. A month later, Mario Clark died of strangulation and suffocation after police allegedly beat and kicked him during a schizophrenic episode, also in Jackson about an hour north of Columbia.

Alford recalls a persistent and oppressive police presence in his Mississippi community as a child, and says it wasn’t unusual to have negative experiences with law enforcement.

“One of the first times I had an interaction with a police officer I was 12 and had a gun drawn on me. Like, how can I be — I’m a 12-year-old kid, you know? That was very traumatizing for me for a police officer to draw a gun on me at 12 years old. Being pulled over while I was driving back from a college visit just so police can search my car for no apparent reason. Don’t tell us why he pulled us over — really just take advantage of three teenage kids in a car. Things like that happened all the time.

“It’s really not fair. Because nobody deserves that. I shouldn’t have to feel intimidated or scared or nervous when the police come around. You’re supposed to protect me. But every time you come around, I get nervous. Even to this day, if I’m driving and I see a police car, the first thing I’m going to do is look and see how fast I’m going. Because I don’t want any interaction with police officers. I just don’t want to give them the time of day. And it’s sad it has to be like that. Black parents have to have different kinds of conversations with their kids. Like, make sure you keep both hands on the wheel. Make sure your ID is here. Make sure your insurance card is here. Black parents really fear for their kids’ lives whenever they’re away from the house. One of their biggest fears is them having interactions with police officers.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

“People in general, I think they understand what’s going on and they’re aware of what’s going on. But they just don’t want to acknowledge it to a certain extent. I think when it comes to racism, that’s something that’s passed down from generations. I’ve had people come and say a lot of encouraging words to me, letting me know that they’re with me and they know I’m a good person. But my question to them is, ‘OK, are you with the people that’s in those poverty stricken situations? Are you with the people that’s been oppressed? The people that you don’t know — are you willing to fight for them? I know you’re willing to fight for me. But are you willing to fight for them?’ And that’s what this fight is about. Not just me or anybody else in the big leagues or NFL or NBA. We have to be a voice to those people in our communities.

“I hope people really educate themselves on what’s going on in those Black communities or those minority communities. Educate themselves on systematic racism. Speak up when they see something that’s wrong. Silence is an act of violence. When you just sit there and watch something bad happening to people and you don’t say anything or you don’t step up, in my eyes you’re just as guilty. If I was George Floyd and I see people standing there while this guy’s got a knee on my neck, even though you’re saying something to him, I need you to take action, step in and be able to point people out. Whenever you hear family members saying racist stuff, speak up. Tell them, ‘Hey, that’s not right.’ I think that’s one of the toughest conversations to have is with your family and telling them that you don’t view things the same way that they do or you don’t support what they believe. Those are some of the tougher conversations for them to have.”

Despite the obvious and undeniably compelling reasons to do so, Alford says he felt anxious taking a knee Friday. He wasn’t sure how it would be perceived. Alford’s not an everyday player, after all, as he expressed to Biggio before the game. And he’s surely familiar with what happened to Bruce Maxwell, a former catcher for the Oakland Athletics. Maxwell became the first MLB player to take a knee during the national anthem in September of 2017. Two years later, he was out of the league.

It doesn’t help that when Alford looks around his clubhouse, he doesn’t see many people who look like him. Only about eight per cent of MLB players are Black, a number that pales in comparison to the NFL and NBA, which are both over 70 per cent. There are only two Black MLB managers — Dave Roberts and Dusty Baker. Front office representation is similarly lacking, as Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein recently admitted, openly questioning his own hiring practices.

For those reasons and more, being a Black athlete in baseball is an isolating experience. That’s why it was so meaningful when a White player like Biggio, and Latin players like Guerrero and Espinal, joined Alford on their knees Friday.

They did more than those who simply tell Alford they’re with him and go on about their days. They showed the world they were with him. As Donnovan Bennett wrote, “There is a huge void on these issues where White athletes’ voices should be.” Amid an insanely politicized and deluded American cultural climate, Biggio had the courage to not let Alford kneel alone.

“I think it’s expected for someone who’s Black or a person of colour to kneel. But much respect to Cav, because that wasn’t an easy decision for him. He might have had somebody in his family who doesn’t support it. A lot of people don’t feel like that’s the time to protest. It took a lot of courage for him to get down on that knee with us and show us that, ‘Hey, I’m with you.’

Livestream Toronto Blue Jays games all season with Sportsnet NOW. Plus, watch marquee MLB matchups, the post-season and World Series.

“I was nervous. I think anybody who knelt during this whole movement during the anthem was nervous, to a certain extent. I was going to do it regardless of whether (Biggio) did it or not. But I know I had his support. Just knowing that him, along with the rest of my teammates and the staff and front office, that I had their support, it means a lot.

“(Being a Black athlete in MLB,) it definitely feels isolating. I never really realized it when I first got into pro ball because growing up I was always one of the few Black people on the baseball team. But I think one thing that kind of put that into perspective for me was when I went and played winter ball in Mexico. Our manager was Black, so I would always feel comfortable when I was around him. I’m not necessarily saying that I didn’t around anybody else, but I was more comfortable around him because he was Black and he knew what Black people go through in the game of baseball. He’s been through it.

“That’s a big thing. As an African-American, or just as a human period, you usually feel comfortable around people who you have something in common with — whether you look like them or have some sort of history or come from the same place. But you don’t really see many Black — not even just in baseball, but in football — you don’t really see many Black head coaches. You don’t see many Black managers or (people) in the front office. You might see somebody of colour, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re African-American.

“I think we could be more diverse in those departments. Because we play this game. A lot of African-Americans dedicate their lives to the game of baseball. So, I feel like they deserve the opportunity to at least let their voices be heard as a manager or somebody in a leadership position. Or even in a front office.

Alford is one of 150 current and former athletes who have formed the Players Alliance, a nonprofit working to create awareness of issues in Black communities, and improve diversity and inclusivity within baseball. It was through discussions with the Players Alliance that MLB agreed to play a message, narrated by Morgan Freeman, calling for change and equality before opening day games across the league while players took a knee holding a black ribbon.

Also thanks to Players Alliance advocacy, MLB has relaxed its policy forbidding players from writing messages on their cleats in order to allow them to “express themselves with social justice messages and causes.”

For a sport that took more than a week to release a statement denouncing the murder of George Floyd and standing in solidarity with its Black players, this is marginal progress. But it’s something. The Blue Jays organization has also taken steps in recent months to raise awareness of Black issues among players and staff, holding discussions over Zoom and encouraging players who want to speak up to do so.

Alford says he appreciates that. He hasn’t decided whether he’ll continue kneeling throughout the regular season yet. He felt Friday’s opener was a good opportunity, considering the ceremony all players participated in prior to the game. But he’s not so sure what he’ll do going forward.

Remember, he’s still on somewhat of an island. Only three of his 29 teammates joined him in kneeling during Friday’s national anthem. And while many Blue Jays players wore Black Lives Matter t-shirts during warm-ups prior to the game — including Bichette, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Randal Grichuk and manager Charlie Montoyo — many chose not to.

If he’s being honest, Alford was disappointed he didn’t receive more support. But, considering where he comes from and the history of the game he plays, he probably wasn’t surprised.

“Some guys didn’t wear (the Black Lives Matter t-shirts). A lot of guys didn’t wear it, actually. You only see on camera who did wear it. But that’s their decision. And just like they respect my decision, I might be disappointed on the inside but at the same time I respect your decision. You’re free to do what you want to do. Everybody has their own beliefs. The biggest thing I wanted them to see was The Players Alliance, we’re not affiliated with the Black Live Matter organization. That’s what they see — they see the organization when we wear these shirts. And that’s not what this is about. This is a movement and this is an outcry for people of colour. But everything is just so politicized these days.

“It definitely would’ve meant a lot if everybody wore it. It would’ve meant a lot to me. But the reality is, we still have a long way to go. People have their beliefs and I respect them as human beings. It’s not going to make me feel any different about them as a person or as a teammate. I’m going to still love them. I’m going to still joke with them and laugh with them, communicate with them. It was disappointing. But, at the same time, I still respect them.”

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.