Athletes forcing difficult discussions in hopes of systemic change

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TORONTO – The mistake in dismissing protests in baseball and the rest of the sporting world as a signal of virtue or a hollow wake-up call is that the broader meaning of what is happening now is being missed.

“Stick to the sport” is a pejorative that is too often thrown at everyone in and around this industry, and there is certainly a solace in doing just that. For athletes who are creatures of habit and slaves to routine, disrupting the careers they have worked and sacrificed to make the general public aware of racial injustice and police brutality is far beyond the realm of law. comfort zone.

Remember that there are professionals in governance, legislation and sociology whose training and expertise should lead the way in repairing the damage in our societies. Yet here we are, with athletes suddenly at the forefront of the tortured discourse around systemic racism and inequality.

As we debate what sports can do, what sports should do, and what motivates athletes, the best question is why there is such a leadership vacuum that they feel compelled to jump in.

“Our role is first and foremost to make sure that the dialogue continues and that the players feel supported and that they have what they need,” Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said Thursday when he was asked what his baseball team should do in these troubled times. “And then I think the second potential aspect of that is how can we as an organization help? How can we improve the situation internally, externally? What we focus on is learning. We are focused on how we can do a better job. “

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In a functioning society, that seems fair to a public institution whose business is to entertain. But if you listen to what black people are saying, if you are prepared to take a holistic view of the harsh realities they faced long before George Floyd died below a cop’s knee three months ago, you will understand that our system is not serving everyone as it should.

Given the abdication of leadership in this regard, particularly in the United States, it is incumbent on citizens at large to form consensus and demand change. In the world of sports, athletes who have long been used as vehicles to sell everything from sneakers to orange juice can rally an audience and amplify a cause in ways the general public can’t.

When “there are a lot of guys going through things like that, I really like them to express themselves,” said Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo. “They have a great platform to talk to, they use it and I support it.”

As a Puerto Rican who has been playing professional baseball since 1987, Montoyo himself has “been the victim of racism”, citing the taunts of “Mexican, come home” as a mere example of the bigotry he faces. “I know that some players have also been victims of racial discrimination,” he added, which is why “if a player wants to use their platform to make a statement on racial injustice, I fully support them. ”

Still, he left the conversation the Blue Jays had on Thursday about whether to participate in the protests started by the Milwaukee Bucks, which partially spilled over into baseball Wednesday night, to his players.

They met in the afternoon and figured out what was going on in the league, deciding as a team that they were ready to play. But the Boston Red Sox, following outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr.’s decision not to participate in the game in protest, was not a decision the Blue Jays players fully respected and led to a postponement of protest. historical.

“Initially they were ready to play,” Montoyo said of his players, “but once we found out that JBJ and the Red Sox made their decision not to play, we fully supported them. ”

Whether the Blue Jays would have made the same decision as the Red Sox if Anthony Alford, the beloved and respected outfielder claimed the Pittsburgh Pirates waivers on Thursday, was still on the list is an interesting question. He was instrumental in directing the kind of uncomfortable conversations needed to open unconscious minds, and had been the only black player on the club’s big-league roster this year.

Things might have been different too if Taijuan Walker, the right-hander acquired Thursday in a trade with the Seattle Mariners, had been there to share his thoughts. Walker was among the Mariners to help make the decision not to play Wednesday’s game against the San Diego Padres.

That’s why, even as the Blue Jays extended the internal discussions about systemic racism that began during the pandemic halt and continued with roundtables hosted under Anima Leadership, a consulting firm hired to guide their efforts, much remains to be done. Atkins said he realized he didn’t think about issues often enough, and while it might sound trite, his reasoning underscores why athletes use their platform.

“If I get absorbed in my family and my job, I can often sometimes lose sight of this heartbreaking feeling – and what I’ve learned is that I can’t,” Atkins said. “As an organization and as a team, we cannot lose sight of what is happening in our company, what is happening in North America and how tragic it is. Things don’t change. Things are not improving. It’s interesting to see the difference between talking to our black players and our white players versus our Puerto Rican players versus our Dominican players, and how different the interaction is with our black players.

When asked how, he replied, “I think you understand how. I mean, look across North America now. It’s just heartbreaking, the situation. We need to continue the dialogue and continue these discussions and ensure that we create opportunities for change. ”

In a touching media session, Red Sox manager Ron Roenicke took it a step further, saying, “This is truly an important moment in our country” and urging parents who ask why they are not playing ” have a serious talk with their kids and say explain to them what’s going on, explain what’s going on because we need to discuss these things more, we need to listen more and that’s the only way we’re going to change.

Baseball players force these kinds of discussions. Athletes from other sports force these kinds of discussions. People who otherwise wouldn’t listen. Hopefully some, if not many, will even change their mind.



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