Is MLB Prepared For Anthem Protests?

Believe in something (or not).

It’s a simple question without a definitive answer, and it’s part of the pregame in a public relations struggle that Major League Baseball could face in the near future.  Is MLB prepared to handle a Colin Kaepernick-level social injustice protest moment in baseball?

Unlike the NFL which was caught unawares when Kaepernick first took a knee BEFORE the game, MLB had a good view of the asteroid from afar.  It’s coming, and President Morgan Freeman isn’t going to tell us that an ark has been built in the soft limestone of Missouri.  There is nowhere to hide nor should anyone feel the need to do so.  MLB has had almost two years to plan and prepare a reasonable response, so there is no excuse for not having a manila folder tucked away in a filing cabinet under the section labeled “How Not To Wet The Bed On Protests Of Social Injustice”.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m no expert on social injustice, civil disobedience, racism, baseball, or anything else for that matter.  Think of me as a not necessarily innocent bystander entrenched on a carefully selected perch from which I shall gawk and rubberneck when the time comes.  That time is coming, and Nike’s “Just Do It” ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick may be just the right catalyst to put all sports front and center in the social injustice discussion.

So consider this more a stream of semi-consciousness than an op-ed meant to dissect Kaepernick’s social activism.  Instead of working to fully form an opinion intended for presentation with well-considered structure and flow, I’m making it up as I go.  I want to capture the logical flow as the opinion organically forms and grows.  In doing so, I’m challenging myself to admit to preconceived notions, confess my biases, and demonstrate my shortcomings as a man of limited, selective principles.

I’ll start at the beginning.

Kaepernick’s initial National Anthem protest wasn’t actually a protest of the National Anthem itself; rather, it was an unexpected shot from a flare gun that expanded into a massive bloom of elevated awareness. My gut reaction was “What the hell is his problem?”  That may seem harsh, but I think that reaction was actually the best possible one for someone coming out from under a rock.  The protest was intended to draw out the inquisitive side in people.  He wanted people to ask questions so that he could give his answer.

Then I found out what his “problem” really was, and I found myself struggling with my notions of patriotism which I had never considered could be construed to be at odds with social justice for African-Americans.  There I was mad that someone would have the nerve to disrespect the National Anthem, the American flag, God, and perhaps most importantly the start of a football game.  Forget the cause, damn the messenger.

In hindsight, it really took far too long for me to arrive at the conclusion that kneeling during the anthem wasn’t meant to be disrespectful, and it was in fact a fairly tame form of protest.  The purpose was to draw attention to a cause and not actually to the man who would become identified with and vilified for the form of protest he chose.  He was the messenger – merely a conduit or vehicle, and I have to respect someone who stands up for what they believe.  The most notable exceptions to this are the cretins who think the Earth is 10,000 years old, because they are basically peeing into the gene pool.

I still find kneeling during the anthem distasteful and bad etiquette, but that’s just me speaking from an awkwardly narrow worldview that I blame on lack of cable television as a child.  In that idyllic world of rainbows, unicorns, and calorie-free ice cream, protestors find a different means to protest which results in global enlightenment and equality for all.  That idea seems no more or less ridiculous or plausible than the calorie-free ice cream thing, but the pragmatic view for me really is that going with “best available” option makes sense.  Of course, now that the initial shock value has gone, there is a slight risk that those bending the knee for the sake of appearances may be indistinguishable from the protest purists.  Cynical, I know.

Try balancing that cynicism with a strong sense that the ultimate issue with which I’m grappling is actually free will accompanied by a desire to judge how other people exercise said free will.  Speck in brothers eye, log in mine (bible thing) for sure.  #TeamFreeWill won mostly because I believe in the right of self-determination especially as it pertains to obtaining funding to invent the aforementioned ice cream.  That’s obviously a vacuous example, but the point is that if I want to exercise free will responsibly, then I can’t sit here and cast stones at others for doing the same.

To that end, a vague sense of honor dictates that I fully support what I perceive as Kaepernick’s right to peacefully protest.  I also fully support what I perceive as his detractors’ right to peacefully protest Kaepernick’s protest.  Furthermore, I support Kaepernick’s supporters in peacefully protesting Kaepernick’s protestors.  And so on.  It does not matter which side I agree with or whether I agree with either side at all.  It’s a matter of simple principle, and that’s a conclusion not easily arrived at in my case.

It doesn’t matter that a member or former member of the armed forces supports Kaepernick, and it doesn’t matter that a member or former member of the armed forces wants to bash him for what they believe is disrespectful to the American flag or the men and women who protect the country it represents.  That both groups are exercising the same right may not be the most palatable idea to some, but it is THE idea.

At the heart of this idea is freedom of expression which so long as it does not infringe upon other basic rights seems to be a fairly easy thing to understand.  Heck, I understand it even when I don’t agree with what is being said.  My reaction may not be to hug the person with whom I disagree, but I would be a hypocrite to complain about his/her right to say it.

I’m struggling with precise ambiguity or perhaps ambiguous precision here, so I’m calling on one of the greatest fictional leaders the country has ever known, President Andrew Shepherd (The American President), who so eloquently stated that which I cannot possibly hope to explain.

“America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad, cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say ‘You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, and who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.’ You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.”

Can baseball’s patriarchy acknowledge that man without banding together to argue about which fuel to toss onto the dumpster fire the way the NFL has?

I’d like to think so, and there are reasons why I believe that MLB is better positioned to cope than the NFL was.

Beginning with the most obvious, the demographics are vastly different.  The NFL is predominantly made up of African-American players.  Depending on who is doing the counting, African-Americans comprise roughly 70% of all NFL players with whites accounting for less than 30%.  The remainder consists of non-white Hispanics, Asian/Pacific Islanders, and some vaguely defined “mixed race” category which I find interesting.  MLB is roughly 7-8% black (African-American/African-Canadian) and 50-60% white with somewhere in the neighborhood of 30% Hispanic.  Toss in a handful of Asian players, and you’ve got a level of diversity that simply does not lend itself to a specific consensus in my mind.

That’s probably not giving enough credit to non-blacks supporting their fellow players regardless of race, but I’m sticking with my basic premise here that there is safety in numbers.  In this case, the concept of safety has many, many facets – financial, employment security, social media hate spewing, and clubhouse dynamics.

Would the potential backlash for the protesting MLB player be as significant as it was for Kaepernick?  Probably not.  Playing Buzz Aldrin to Kap’s Neil Armstrong has its benefits.  An MLB player choosing to kneel in protest has no reason not to be informed and aware of the likely responses.  In short, they could prepare themselves and those around them.  Also, plenty of NFL players other than Kaepernick have bent the knee, so we’re talking more David Scott (7th person to walk on the moon) than Buzz Aldrin.

A lot depends on the player.  Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, there is a risk/reward assessment to be done here.  If you are a baseball player in a contract year, maybe you don’t want to risk upsetting the apple cart.  If that’s the case, then waiting until you’ve got a dump truck of guaranteed money to speak out is simply a business decision.  Sure, one could argue that principles are principles and money be damned, but that’s just not how most people operate.

And again, there’s the Kaepernick precedent.  He may or may not have been blackballed for his protest efforts, but the reality is that he’s lost some prime earning years for one reason or another.  Without a doubt, the possibility exists that his loss was due to the perceived PR headache no NFL team wanted to inherit by signing him.  Unfortunately for Kap, there’s also a reasonably decent football argument to be made based on his merit (or lack thereof).  While I think lesser quarterbacks have made a good living in the NFL holding a clipboard (Chase Daniel), he may simply not be a good fit for holding that clipboard and making silly hand gestures from the sidelines.  Maybe he sees himself as a starter, or maybe he just has his own reasons for doing what he does.  Perhaps he’s found his calling as a social activist or realizes that the fight carries on with or without him.

At some point, someone in MLB is going to pick up the ball from Kaepernick and run with it.  Now that an underdog startup like Nike has gotten involved and thrown its massive weight behind Kaepernick, lines of communication have surely opened, and chatter goes both ways.  Kaepernick does not have to reach out to someone.  Someone may reach out to him.  Maybe it will be someone in baseball who knows Kaepernick, went to school with him, or maybe it’s another Nike athlete, but someone will pick up that ball.  Andrew McCutchen could be that guy.  Mike Trout could be that guy.

I respect both of those guys, but Trout’s potential influence on this particular subject far outweighs McCutchen’s in my mind.  It’s one thing for a veteran player nearing the twilight of his career and who happens to be African-American to take a stand by kneeling.  Getting the same from the best player in baseball who happens to be white would be next level support.  Not that I’m calling out either one of those guys or suggesting that they join Team Kap….but both happen to be Nike guys.  Just saying it could happen.

What would Rob Manfred do then?

Personally, I’d like Manfred to embrace both the protest and the protestor(s), and maybe the rest of MLB will follow his lead.  There is an opportunity there to play a significant role in fighting social injustice through awareness, education, and leading by example.  The primary alternative to being part of the solution is being accused of being part of the problem, and there isn’t really any gray area to speak of.

There is no quicker way to galvanize people than by telling them that they are wrong, although non-verbally indicating that you want no part of their quarrel through passivity runs a close second.  There is no more expedient way to polarize an issue in America than to unnecessarily distill it down into a murky stew of race, sex, partisan politics, gender, faux patriotism, and farcical Constitutional misrepresentation.  There may be no better way to avoid all of the above in this scenario than by embracing the cause of social justice for everybody, because inclusion is a thing.

This is where MLB has a decided advantage over other sports should it choose to use it.  MLB constantly promotes the sport, its teams, its players, and the causes it chooses to champion.  Including the league-wide causes and the respective teams’ causes, we’re talking about a lot of promoting.  Granted, the NHL, NFL, and NBA too have well-oiled marketing machines, but MLB has more opportunities.  There are 81 home games a year for each team to use as a platform, and MLB isn’t hesitant about using them.  The league designates days for Jackie Robinson, PRIDE, and Stand Up To Cancer.  Teams do giveaways and promote things like “Bark in the Park”, “Christian Night at the Ballgame”, and “Booze and Balls” (totally made this one up).

What’s a single game or even a month dedicated to raising awareness?  Educate and inform players, managers, owners, coaches, owners, administrators, fans, and even the owners about how bad things are still happening to good people and what can be done to prevent/reduce such occurrences.  Get out ahead of this thing before someone drops it on your doorstep early one more.

Before kneeling in protest during the National Anthem becomes a thing in baseball, I want baseball to be prepared to respond with the grace, thoughtfulness, and dignity that those kneeling deserve on behalf of their cause.  Optionally, MLB can choose to follow the NFL’s lead and turn it into a flaming bag of dog excrement, but why follow when you can lead?



PS.  Before you yell at me for thinking this ground has yet to be broken, let me head you off at the Maxwell pass.  A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell already did this, right?  Sure, but the former backup catcher who is now the backup to the backup catcher hardly counts as “Kaepernick-level”.  He barely moved the needle, and most of you now have “Bruce Maxwell kneeling” in your browser search history.  Nice work.



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