Thirteen months ago, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick remained seated for the national anthem, stating “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
Other NFL players soon joined Kaepernick’s protest. But others, including President Donald Trump, felt that Kaepernick’s actions were disrespectful. At a rally in Huntsville, Alabama on Friday, Trump blustered, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when someone disrespects our flag, say ‘Get that son of a b—- off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired!'”
Nearly 150 football players listened to the Star-Spangled Banner on one knee this past Sunday in response to Trump’s incendiary comments. Basketball superstars Lebron James and Steph Curry were outspoken in their own criticisms of the president–James even called Trump a “bum.”
And wouldn’t you know it, a baseball player finally voiced their opinion.
Before Saturday’s AL West match-up between Oakland and Texas, Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell (who is black) took a knee during the anthem. Maxwell’s teammate, Mark Canha (who is white) had his hand on Maxwell’s shoulder.
With one simple gesture, Bruce Maxwell pulled baseball into the firestorm. It’s time for other players to take up the mantle.
Maxwell is the ideal standard-bearer for the game on this issue. Born to an African-American father and a white mother, Maxwell grew up in rural Alabama in an area where he was forced to confront the horrors of racism at a young age. He understands respect for the military; Maxwell’s father is a veteran himself. His character? Impeccable: just read some of the stories about the young catcher in Jeff Passan’s piece for Yahoo Sports. In seemingly every respect, Maxwell is an admirable man.
In introducing baseball to the anthem protest, though, Maxwell faces a seemingly insurmountable task. Baseball has remained remarkably silent on current socio-political issues, particularly when compared to other major American sports. Lebron James, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwayne Wade of the NBA called upon athletes to take a stand at the 2016 ESPYs. Kaepernick and other NFL players took a knee. But baseball, the sport where Jackie Robinson famously broke the color barrier in 1947? Nothing.
Though regrettable, baseball’s absence from the discussion is hardly surprising. Over the course of a long season from February through October, players spend countless hours together. In such an environment team unity is everything. No one wants to stick their neck out and rock the boat. In clubhouses where white Americans from rural farming communities stand shoulder to shoulder with Mexican immigrants, Japanese prospects, and black athletes, uncomfortable discussions about identity politics are best avoided.
Speaking to Jayson Stark, then of ESPN, before the season, Marlins reliever Brad Ziegler summed up baseball’s stance on politics. “People know it’s a very volatile subject right now…No one wants to create tension that could end up riling up the locker room.”
Maxwell’s decision to protest the anthem took months of contemplation. The first thing he did upon making his decision? He spoke with his teammates, explaining his stance on the situation in order to smooth over any potential animosities. Even as he made the bravest decision of his life, Maxwell was concerned about team unity.
Make no mistake about it, what Maxwell is doing is incredibly brave. He is far from a household name; he’s barely played a full season with the Athletics. He is still fighting to cement himself as their full-time starter for the 2018 season. Colin Kaepernick is still without a job, and he was nearly a Superbowl champion; imagine what would happen to a no-name catcher on one of the worst teams in the league. That Maxwell is willing to bear the weight of the sport and the fight for racial justice on his shoulders is a telling demonstration of his courage and character.
It is also remarkable for its rarity. No other baseball players have joined Maxwell’s protest, and it would be surprising if any more did. Take the case of Chris Archer, pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays and one of a handful of African American ballplayers in MLB right now. Archer has expressed support of Maxwell and his protest, and has been outspoken against racial injustices before. But regarding the possibility of joining the anthem protest, Archer said, “From the feedback that I’ve gotten from my teammates, I don’t think it would be the best thing to do for me, at this time.”
“From the feedback that I’ve gotten from my teammates.” That, right there, is why baseball was so late to join the anthem protest, and why the protest is unlikely to spread. Clubhouse unity is paramount in baseball, and matters outside the confines of the team–no matter how morally and socially critical–must not be allowed to permeate the walls of baseball’s sanctum sanctorum.
Yet to bemoan the lack of overt political participation among baseball players is also a mistake, one that assumes kneeling for the national anthem is the only way to enact change. Baseball players still have the responsibility to improve their communities and fight for equality. They can volunteer their time with local aid organizations and non-profits who are fighting for admirable social causes. They can work with local charities to combat hunger and poverty. As the stars of a quintessentially American game popular among a wide swath of social, political, and economic classes, baseball players have a unique opportunity to improve their community, and their country.
Let me be perfectly clear: I am not belittling or condemning the actions of those protesters who have taken a knee during the national anthem. Their bravery is admirable, and I find it troubling that the discussion around their protest has turned into one of patriotism and respect for the military rather than the primary reason for the protest itself: the continued racial injustice in America. Americans of all walks of life have the undeniable right to speak their mind and protest against the prejudices that plague our society.
I am also, however, sympathetic to the baseball players who feel unable to join the anthem protest. The emphasis on team unity limits the ability to publicly address controversial and potentially inflammatory contemporary issues. Players should not be castigated for trying to preserve team unity.
Baseball has been late to join the protests. They have the chance to lead the way in a new narrative, one of activism and service to community to promote equality and justice. That should be something the whole team can agree on.