TORONTO – For those determined to ignore the social justice movement and society’s inability, if not outright refusal, to confront embedded bigotry, not listening to the issues and shutting out the demands for change is really easy.
How else to explain the ongoing polarization in the public discourse three months after the killing of George Floyd beneath the knee of a white police officer? When Rayshard Brooks, back in June, and Jacob Blake, just this past Sunday in Kenosha, Wis., are subsequently shot by cops despite being unarmed, the latest additions to a despicably long list of victims, it takes wilful ignorance to still insist there isn’t a systemic problem.
Still, root causes are so easily manipulated these days that the wave of demonstrations that followed Floyd’s death have become political grist, preventing meaningful progress. Criticizing protests while ignoring the violence against Black people that prompted them in the first place is a standard diversionary tactic, familiar to anyone who watched Colin Kapernick’s kneeling for the anthem to highlight police brutality devolve into a debate about loyalty to the flag.
Within that backdrop, the Milwaukee Bucks’ refusal to take the court for their playoff game against the Orlando Magic, a decision that led to the shutdown of the NBA’s other scheduled contests Wednesday with wider fallout pending, is a seminal moment for the power of sport.
Not only did the Bucks use their platform to reorient a conversation that had been spinning in circles, they demanded specific action with a collective statement that directly applied pressure to the levers of power and governance.
“We are calling for justice for Jacob Blake and demand the officers be held accountable,” they said. “For this to occur, it is imperative for the Wisconsin state legislature to reconvene after months of inaction and take up meaningful measures to address issues of police accountability, brutality and criminal justice reform. We encourage all citizens to educate themselves, take peaceful and responsible action, and remember to vote on Nov. 3.”
That’s how you do smart, strategic advocacy, and it’s a significant evolution from the education and awareness-raising that’s largely been the sports world’s contribution to the justice movement. The bar’s been raised for everyone.
In baseball, the Milwaukee Brewers quickly followed the Bucks’ lead, agreeing with the Cincinnati Reds to also sit out Wednesday’s action, while the Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres, and Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants did the same, as well.
The dramatic step was a radical departure for baseball, which, despite decorating its parks with large Black Lives Matter banners, remains tied to a hidebound culture that discourages bold proclamations and actions.
Consider that until this season, kneeling for the anthem was such a non-factor in the sport that when Anthony Alford — the Toronto Blue Jays outfielder now in designated-for-assignment limbo — dropped to his knee on opening day, he felt “nervous.”
“I think anybody who knelt during this whole movement during the anthem was nervous, to a certain extent,” he said.
Still, he did it, was joined by teammates Cavan Biggio, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Santiago Espinal and that was a statement, and it was important. But while more than 100 current and former Black Players created The Players Alliance, baseball had largely reverted back to cloaking itself in the legacy of Jackie Robinson and eyewash gestures built to fit the moment.
Once the Bucks said enough was enough, and it was time to draw a line the sand after Blake was shot seven times in the back, baseball and the other sports had to decide are they actually fighting for justice, too, or was that just good messaging for the brand?
Through that lens, something Alford said last month really resonates.
“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,” he said. “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.”
The Bucks decided to be a voice for those people in their community. So did the Brewers, bringing along the Reds, Mariners, Padres, Dodgers and Giants for the ride.
“There are serious issues in this country,” Dee Gordon of the Mariners said in a statement. “For me, and for many of my teammates, the injustices, violence, death and systemic racism is deeply personal. This is impacting not only my community, but very directly my family and friends. Our team voted unanimously not to play tonight. Instead of watching us, we hope people will focus on the things more important than sports that are happening.”
The Blue Jays were taking batting practice when the NBA shut down for the day. They were just taking the field for pre-game warmups when the Brewers and Reds made their decision, and didn’t have time to discuss a similar move amongst themselves or with the Red Sox, whom they beat 9-1.
Manager Charlie Montoyo said his players “are going to discuss it and see where we go with this,” while slugger Rowdy Tellez, who put his hand on Alford’s shoulder during that opening day kneel because “I’d lay down my life for that man,” added that “we have a big platform and a big voice and that’s something we’re going to use throughout.”
The Blue Jays, Tellez said, have collectively had “that uncomfortable talk” about systemic racism and Black Lives Matter with Alford, and remain committed to change now that he’s gone.
“It’s really tough to sit there and try to say, ‘Hey, I know what you’re going through, I understand.’ Because we don’t. We have no idea what it’s like,” said Tellez. “They see that adversity day-in and day-out, second-by-second, every day. And for us to say, ‘Hey, yeah, we can understand, we got it,’ we’re listening for us to not have that uncomfortable talk – I had it with Alford. We talked on the phone during quarantine for about 2½ hours on Juneteenth and I learned so much.
“I told him every time, I will never understand what it’s like to be an African American in the United States, but if I can be as knowledgeable as I can, that’s the best I can do for you as a brother of mine. So, we lead this as a team, we lead this an organization, we lead this as a sport and sports around the world have a heavy presence in this.”
Tellez and the Blue Jays listened and learned voluntarily, but too many others aren’t willing to do that. Sports but can serve as a convenient distraction to life’s troubles, but these aren’t times to have attentions diverted.
Encounters with police shouldn’t be life-threatening experiences for Black people. All too often, they are, and the rationalizations by people too stubborn, or too bigoted to consider another point of view, need to stop. NBA players have grabbed the stage and are moving beyond words in trying to force change. Baseball players should climb on up there with them.