Professional athletes can amplify social justice movements – if they follow through
It is the professional responsibility of journalists to highlight any conflict or bias that could skew their objectivity. You see it in The Washington Post whenever there is a story about Jeff Bezos; somewhere in the body of the article there is a parenthesis (“he’s my boss, he owns this newspaper”) to inoculate the author against accusations that he is trying to get away with something. With that in mind, let me be as clear as I can be: my bias is that I love Gabe Kapler.
My love affair with Kapler began when he was traded to my beloved Red Sox mid-season in 2004 to bolster the defense. He hit nearly .300 and led the team in assists with the cannon slung over his shoulder…and on October 27, a night when the moon turned red, Kapler was one of nine players on the field when the Red Sox won the World Series for the first time in 86 years.
If you don’t follow baseball, however, Kapler’s name may have only recently crossed your screen. Today was the manager of the San Francisco Giants who announced that he would avoid the national anthem until something was done about the gun carnage in the United States.
Kapler informed the media of his intentions during a dugout press gag on Friday, where he Told reporters, “I don’t plan on coming out for the anthem in the future…until I feel better about the direction of our country. This will be the step. I don’t expect it to necessarily move the needle. It’s just something I feel strong enough to take this step.
Kapler channeled his feelings into a evocative blog post later that day:
Every time I place my hand over my heart and take off my hat, I participate in a self-congratulatory glorification of the ONLY country where these mass shootings are taking place. On Wednesday I walked out into the field, listened to the announcement as we paid tribute to the victims in Uvalde. I lowered my head. I defended the national anthem. Metallica riffed on City Connect guitars.
My brain said drop to one knee; my body didn’t listen. I wanted to walk inside; instead I froze. I felt like a coward. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. I didn’t want to take anything away from the victims or their families. There was a baseball game, a rock band, the lights, the pageantry. I knew that thousands of people used this game to escape the horrors of the world for a bit. I knew that thousands of others would not understand the gesture and would take it as an offense to the military, to the veterans, to themselves.
But I don’t agree with the state of this country. I wish I hadn’t let my discomfort compromise my integrity. I wish I could demonstrate what I learned from my father, that when you are unhappy with your country, you make it known through protest. The house of the brave should encourage this.
Kapler’s tribune wobbled almost immediately, however, in the face of monolithic Memorial Day patriotism. White Sox and baseball Ent manager Tony La Russa had previously slammed Kapler’s intentions with the same militaristic boilerplate rah-rah that NFL players have been hearing since Colin Kaepernick took a knee. “I would never defend the anthem or the flag” said The Russian. “Maybe just because I’m older and I’ve been around veterans more than the average. You have to understand what veterans think when they hear the anthem, or see the flag, and the cost they paid and their families paid.
Remembrance Day, Kapler job a new blog about the match of the day: “Today I will be up for the anthem. While I strongly believe in the right to protest and the importance of doing so, I also strongly believe in honoring and mourning the service men and women of our country who fought and died for that right.
Kapler and the Giants play in Philadelphia tonight; we will see where he is at the beginning of the hymn. I reserve my final judgment on this subject until then, but I confess to being disappointed. Kapler probably should have checked the calendar if Memorial Day was a concern. If it was just a long weekend, I’d be pretty disgusted…but I hope Kapler keeps his word, now that we’ve had the happiest day of the year this side of July 4th .
Kapler’s recurring activism this weekend probably sounds like light porridge to Kaepernick fans. The former 49ers quarterback hasn’t played since the 2016 season after leading a league-wide protest against police brutality, sparked by the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the shooting of Charles Kinsey and the acquittal of the officers who killed Freddie Grey.
For all intents and purposes, Kaepernick lost his livelihood because of his peaceful public protests (although the Las Vegas Raiders and Seattle Seahawks give him an active look, finally). In this, he shares a special status with Muhammad Ali, who lost the best years of his fighting career when he heroically refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War.
Athletes like Althea Gibson, Bill Russell, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Jim Brown, Billie Jean King, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Martina Navratilova, Arthur Ashe and others joined Ali in a time of athlete social activism, and all paid the price. That – and the huge amount of money athletes can make from corporate sponsorship today, as long as they don’t make waves (see: Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods) – is a big part of the reason. why the activism of modern athletes seems so lukewarm compared to what existed before.
It looks like that could change, thankfully. Kaepernick has been the most visible athlete to take an expensive stance on racial and social issues, but you can’t ignore the likes of professional soccer player Megan Rapinoe, whose ardent advocacy for equal pay for footballers recently won the day. Professional basketball player Britney Griner has been a strong advocate for LGBTQ rights and has also participated in several protests against the anthem. (Griner is currently imprisoned in Russia after being arrested on remarkably exaggerated drug charges.) The list doesn’t live up to the roll call of the previous generation’s hero, but it seems to grow longer every day.
This is potentially significant. These athletes mostly swim upstream against very strong currents. They are up against the league’s conservative ownership and the hyper-conservative corporate megastructure (which is also a license to print money) that has grown up around professional sports. Much of the public backlash against athlete activism comes from conservative fans, who facetiously lament the poisoning of their free time with politics, shouting “Stick to sports!” to any athlete or sports journalist who leaves their lane and swerves to the left.
The anthem is political. Military overflights are politics. Uniformed soldiers carrying flags on the field before the game is politics… any politics blessed by the powers that be in the game. You don’t hear “Stick to sports” when it comes to this deep-seated brainwashing bomb. Make a statement about police brutality, racism, sexism and equal pay, homophobia, or the horrors of an unjust war, and it gets loud real quick.
“Yelling STICK TO SPORTS is just a cowardly way of expressing yourself, in a very political way, that you can’t stand even the slightest exposure to other political ideas – even just other people – whose very existence you hate,” Drew Magary wrote for dead spin in 2019. “You side with leaders who prefer to keep their transgressions low-key and indulge in an easy sip; a way of buttering the mouths of the alt-right by promising, often hypocritically, to minimize politics, especially politics that make them uncomfortable. It’s an obvious way to demonstrate your contradictory political ideology by being like CAN’T WE ALL JUST ENJOY GOLF? »
Enter Gabe Kapler into the fray…maybe. I’ll be watching tonight to see if he puts action to words when it comes to guns and anthem. Warriors coach Steve Kerr on his backin the same way Ime Udoka, Celtics coach. I also have his back, and I hope he goes through with it. Big sports are a huge social influencer, and we need all the help we can get.