Athletes forcing difficult discussions in hope of systemic change

The scoreboard read "Equality" as a Boston Red Sox player warms up in the outfield at Sahlen Field before a baseball game against the Toronto Blue Jays in Buffalo, N.Y., Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020. (Adrian Kraus/AP)

TORONTO – The mistake in dismissing the protests in baseball and the rest of the sports world as hollow grandstanding or woke virtue signalling is that the wider significance of what’s taking place right now gets missed.

“Stick to sports” is a pejorative that gets hurled at everyone in and around this industry all too often, and there’s certainly a comfort in doing just that. For athletes who are creatures of habit and slaves to routine, upending the careers they’ve grinded and sacrificed for to make the general public take note of racial injustice and police brutality is well outside the comfort zone.

Remember, there are professionals in governance, lawmaking and sociology whose training and expertise should be leading the way in repairing the damage in our societies. Yet here we are, with athletes suddenly at the forefront of the tortured discourse around systemic racism and inequality.

As we debate what sports can do, what sports should do and what are athletes’ motivations, the better question is why there’s such a vacuum of leadership that they feel compelled to jump in.

“Our role is first and foremost to make sure that the dialogue continues and that players feel supported, and they have what they need,” Toronto Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins said Thursday when asked what his baseball team should be doing in these troubled times. “And then I think the second potential aspect of that is how can we as an organization help? How can we make the situation better internally, externally? What we’re focused on is learning. We’re focused on how we can do a better job.”

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In a functioning society, that sounds about right for a public institution whose business is to entertain. But if you’re listening to what Black people are saying, if you’re willing to holistically consider the stark realities they’ve faced long before George Floyd died under a police officer’s knee three months ago, you’ll understand our system isn’t serving everyone as it should.

Given the abdication of leadership in that regard, particularly in the United States, the onus is on citizens at large to form a consensus and demand change. In the sports world, athletes who have long been used as vehicles to sell everything from sneakers to orange juice can aggregate an audience and amplify a cause in ways the general public cannot.

When “there are a lot of guys going through stuff like this, I actually like that they’re speaking out,” said Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo. “They have a big platform to talk, they’re using it and I support that.”

As a Puerto Rican who’s been in professional baseball since 1987, Montoyo himself has “been a victim of racism,” citing taunts of “Mexican, go home” as merely one example of the bigotry he’s faced. “I know some players have also been victims of racial discrimination,” he added, which is why “if a player wants to use his platform to make a statement about racial injustice, I fully support that.”

Still, he left the conversation the Blue Jays had Thursday about whether to jump into the protests started by the Milwaukee Bucks and that partially spread into baseball Wednesday night, up to his players.

They met in the afternoon and understood what was happening around the league, deciding as a team that they were willing to play. But the Boston Red Sox, following the lead set by outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr.’s decision to sit out the game in protest, were not, a decision Blue Jays players fully respected and led to a historic protest postponement.

“Initially, they were willing to play,” Montoyo said of his players, “but once we got word that JBJ and the Red Sox made their decision not to play, then we fully supported them.”

Whether the Blue Jays would have reached the same decision as the Red Sox had Anthony Alford, the beloved and respected outfielder claimed on waivers by the Pittsburgh Pirates on Thursday, was still on the roster is an interesting question. He was instrumental in leading the type of uncomfortable conversations necessary to open unaware minds, and had been the only Black player on the club’s big-league roster this year.

Things may have been different, too, had Taijuan Walker, the right-hander acquired Thursday in a trade with the Seattle Mariners, had been there to share his thoughts. Walker was among the Mariners to help drive the decision to sit out Wednesday’s game against the San Diego Padres.

That’s why as much as the Blue Jays have extended the internal discussions about systemic racism that started during the pandemic shutdown, and have continued with roundtables set up under Anima Leadership, a consultancy firm hired to guide their efforts, there’s more to be done. Atkins said he’s come to realize that he doesn’t think about the issues often enough, and while that may sound trite, his reasoning underscores why athletes using their platform is vital.

“If I absorb myself into my family and job, I can often-times lose sight of that gut-wrenching feeling – and what I’ve learned, is that I can’t,” said Atkins. “We can’t as an organization and a team lose sight of what’s happening in our society, what’s happening across North America and how tragic it is. Things are not changing. Things are not getting better. It is interesting the difference in talking to our Black players versus our white players versus our Puerto Rican players versus our Dominican players, and just how different the interaction is talking to our Black players.”

When asked how so, he responded, “I think you understand how so. I mean, just look across North America right now. It’s just heartbreaking, the situation. We have to continue the dialogue and continue those discussions and make sure that we are creating opportunities for change.”

In an emotional media session, Red Sox manager Ron Roenicke took it a step further, saying “this is really an important time in our country” and urging parents asking why they weren’t playing to “have a serious discussion with their kids and tell them what’s going on, explain what’s going on because we need to discuss these things more, we need to listen more and that’s the only way we’re going to change.”

Baseball players are forcing those types of discussions. Athletes in other sports are forcing those types of discussions. People who otherwise wouldn’t are going to listen. Hopefully some, if not many, will even change their minds, too.

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