How else to explain the current polarization of public discourse three months after the murder of George Floyd under the knee of a white police officer? When Rayshard Brooks, back in June, and Jacob Blake, last Sunday in Kenosha, Wisconsin, are then gunned down by cops despite being unarmed, the latest additions to a terrifically long list of victims, it takes a willful ignorance to always insist on it. is not a systemic problem.
Yet the root causes are so easily manipulated these days that the wave of protests that followed Floyd’s death has turned into political water, preventing meaningful progress. Criticizing the protests while ignoring the violence against blacks that instigated them in the first place is a standard diversion tactic, familiar to anyone who has watched Colin Kapernick kneel down as the anthem highlighting police brutality turns into a debate about loyalty to the flag.
Against this backdrop, the Milwaukee Bucks’ refusal to go to court for their playoff game against Orlando Magic, a decision that led to the shutdown of other scheduled NBA competitions on Wednesday with wider fallout pending, is a watershed moment. for the power of sport. .
Not only did the Bucks use their platform to reorient a conversation that was going in circles, but they demanded specific action with a collective statement that directly applied pressure to the levers of power and governance.
“We demand justice for Jacob Blake and demand that officers be held accountable,” they said. “For this to happen, it is imperative that the Wisconsin state legislature reconvene after months of inaction and take meaningful action to address issues of police accountability, brutality and police reform. criminal justice. We encourage all citizens to educate themselves, take peaceful and responsible action, and remember to vote on November 3. “
This is how you do intelligent and strategic advocacy, and it is a significant evolution from education and awareness that has largely been the contribution of the sports world to the justice movement. The bar has been raised for everyone.
In baseball, the Milwaukee Brewers quickly followed the Bucks’ lead, agreeing with the Cincinnati Reds to also miss Wednesday’s action, while the Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres, as well as the Dodgers. Los Angeles and the San Francisco Giants have also done the same.
This dramatic step was a radical departure for baseball, which, despite decorating its parks with large Black Lives Matter banners, remains tied to a hidden culture that discourages bold proclamations and actions.
Consider that until this season, kneeling for the anthem was such a negligible factor in the sport that when Anthony Alford – the Toronto Blue Jays outfielder now in designated limbo for the assignment – fell to his knees on opening day he felt “nervous.” ”
“I think anyone who knelt during this whole movement during the anthem was nervous, to a degree,” he said.
Still, he did, 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, much of baseball had reverted to lurking in the Jackie Robinson legacy and eye-washing gestures designed to fit the moment.
Once the Bucks said enough was enough, and it was time to draw a line in the sand after Blake was shot seven times in the back, baseball and other sports had to decide if they were actually fighting. for justice too, or was it just good messaging for the brand?
Through this lens, something Alford said last month really resonates.
Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering all the latest news with opinions and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.
“People have come to me and say a lot of encouraging words, letting me know that they are with me and that they know that I am a good person,” he said. “But my question to them is, ‘OK, are you with the people who are in these situations of poverty? Are you with the people who have been oppressed? People you don’t know – are you ready to fight for them? I know you are ready to fight for me. But are you ready to fight for them?
“And that’s the goal of this fight. Not just me or anyone else in the big leagues or in the NFL or the NBA. We need to be a voice for these people in our communities.
The Bucks have decided to be a voice for these people in their community. The same was true for the Brewers, bringing the Reds, Mariners, Padres, Dodgers and Giants for the ride.
“There are serious problems in this country,” Dee Gordon of the Mariners said in a statement. “For me, and for many of my teammates, injustices, violence, death and systemic racism are deeply personal. It impacts not only my community, but very directly my family and friends. Our team voted unanimously not to play tonight. Instead of looking at us, we hope people will focus on the things more important than the sports that are happening.
The Blue Jays were batting practice when the NBA pulled up for the day. They were just taking the pitch for pre-game warm-ups when the Brewers and Reds made up their minds and didn’t have time to discuss a similar move between themselves or with the Red Sox, which they have. beaten 9-1.
Manager Charlie Montoyo has said his players are “going to discuss it and see where we go”, while slugger Rowdy Tellez, who put his hand on Alford’s shoulder on that opening day, kneels because “I would give my life for this man,” added that “we have a great platform and a great voice and that’s something we’re going to be using throughout. “
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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 hard to just sit there and try to say, ‘Hey, I know what you’re going through, I get it.’ Because we don’t. We have no idea what it is, ”Tellez said. “They see adversity day by day, second by second, every day. And for us to say, ‘Hey, yeah, we can get it, we get it,’ we’re listening so we don’t have that awkward conversation – I had it with Alford. We spoke on the phone during quarantine for about 2.5 hours on June 17th and I learned a lot.
“I’ve told him every time I’ll never understand what it’s like to be an African American in America, but if I can be as knowledgeable as I can, that’s the best I can. do for you as a brother to me. So we are leading this as a team, we are leading this organization, we are leading this as a sport and sports from all over the world have a strong presence there.
Tellez and the Blue Jays have listened and learned willingly, but too many others are unwilling to do so. Sport, but can serve as a practical distraction from life’s problems, but now is not the time to distract.
Encounters with the police should not be life-threatening experiences for black people. Too often they are, and the rationalizations of people too stubborn or too fanatic to consider another point of view must stop. NBA players have grabbed the stage and are going beyond words to try to force change. Baseball players should climb up there with them.