MLB’s first foray into social justice activism was a disorganized mess – and that made it perfect


Randy Wilkins was frustrated and at 10:09 am on June 3 he purged his feelings. For 36 minutes, over the course of 16 tweets, Wilkins dissected with great clarity how Major League Baseball botched their response to George Floyd’s murder and how that pointed to deeper issues of racism in the sport. Wilkins is a baseball fan and a black man, and seeing the game he loves hurt him over and over again has become too much to contain.The MLB folks saw Wilkins’ thread. The frankness and lucidity of his argument were impossible to ignore. They also saw the opportunity to do what they promised: seek new voices, learn, not fall prey to the evils Wilkins wrote about.

So they asked Wilkins to collaborate. He’s a filmmaker, and he’s always been fascinated not only with how Jackie Robinson has integrated the sport and, in many ways, America, but also with Robinson’s post-career activism – his support for black companies, legal protections, civil rights.

“It was very important for me to tell this story,” said Wilkins. “I just didn’t imagine it would be with MLB. ”

This resulted in 87 scoring seconds – a short film released by MLB to kick off Robinson’s annual celebration in the sport. Around this time, Wilkins used the words of Robinson, the voice of Dodgers star Mookie Betts, and images of baseball and the causes adjacent to baseball to weave an informative tapestry, which tells a story that is both generational and contemporary. Alongside Henry Aaron and Willie Mays are clips and a photograph of Curt Flood, whose fight for free will has forged the golden path that athletes of all sports walk. Interlaced between photos and videos of past and recent protests, a woman holds a sign that reads: BLACK TRANS LIVES MATTER.

It wasn’t until this year that MLB allowed itself to say Black Lives Matter. By endorsing a video that does that and that includes the trans community, MLB has convinced Wilkins that the league is really at a point of evolution.

“I felt comfortable that there were people who really wanted to make a change,” he said. “Before I spoke to them, my perception aligned with the general public. Being able to talk to so many people, not just about business but on a personal level, I didn’t have any concerns. I thought it was genuine. I think they are determined to embrace the change. I think they understand that things need to get better, not just in the game but in the world. They understand their responsibility. ”

Otherwise, Wednesday and Thursday could have gone differently. MLB may have interfered in on-the-fly team-organized protests. The league could have demanded a coordinated response. Instead, the MLB pulled away just enough to allow players to find their way.

In the first 48 hours of most baseball players’ first legitimate foray into the world of social injustice and how to correct it, there were conversations, crying, hugging and shouting. It was a big mess, sloppy and disorganized. In other words, it was perfect.

Anyone who calls for some sort of organized MLB response to the Jacob Blake shootout doesn’t understand that moves don’t start from the top down. As much power as the institution of baseball has, it functions better as a support system for the players rather than an engine of change itself.

Imagine what would have happened if baseball had a day off for all teams. It would have been superficial, which not everyone did because they chose to do it, but because they were told to do it. Planned protests delegated by authority figures are not protests.

Here’s what the protest looks like: Milwaukee Brewers, inspired by the Milwaukee Bucks heading into a playoff game, wonder if they should do the same – and do it. Players from other teams plan to do the same and decide not to – then, a day later, admitting the mistake of their ways, learning from their choices. In some clubs, sources said, the strength of one or two votes prevailed. In others, solid discussions led to decisions.

With the New York Mets, the players’ decision to walk the field, take a 42-second break in tribute to Robinson, and then leave the field with a BLACK LIVES MATTER T-shirt on home plate was not unanimous. Some thought the symbolism was trite. In the end, the Mets and the Marlins dated and did it anyway.

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Jeff Passan says his hope is that the Mets’ display of unity with the Marlins is what is taken out of Thursday’s walkout, not Brodie Van Wagenen’s blunder about Rob Manfred.

Across the sport there were angry players who felt intimidated into participating in the protests. It was to be expected. The policies of the majority of baseball players run counter to the strength of social justice movements. Black players need to stand up at meetings and go into the details of racial injustice to enlighten their teammates. It takes conversations. It takes all the elements that a planned day off would eliminate.

That’s not to say the teams were entirely supportive. Several owners strongly oppose protests against police brutality against blacks, according to players who spoke with ESPN, and suggested their teams wanted them to play. Then there was the allegation over the microphone by Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen that Commissioner Rob Manfred suggested a symbolic demonstration in which the Mets and Marlins would leave the field, only to return an hour later. and play. As Van Wagenen reconsidered his comments and absolved Manfred, in a clarification he said the idea came from Mets COO Jeff Wilpon. Whatever the origin of the idea, it was clear at some levels that management was not automatically supportive.

The intervention did not spoil the effect. Ten games have been postponed. Twenty teams have not played. On the eve of Jackie Robinson’s day, baseball players were following in his namesake’s footsteps. They were starting to realize that in baseball the most powerful thing isn’t your arm or your bat. It’s your voice.

Over the past two days, as he prepared for his film to air on Friday, Wilkins balanced his excitement with the sadness that accompanied the filming of Jacob Blake, the death of George Floyd, the deeds that pile up and remind him of what it’s like to be black in America today. He sees the annoyance thrown at players who have chosen to postpone their games, the idea that just because they don’t know where that movement is taking place doesn’t mean that it dulls the impact or lessens the import. Change takes time. Organization takes effort. NBA players did not become who they are – a group with clear, defined and achievable goals outlined in their return to play plan on Friday – overnight.

“It’s the era of the player agency,” said Wilkins. “The past 48 hours – especially for baseball – is a clear indicator that a paradigm shift is happening before our eyes. It’s a long process. It is a difficult process. But we’re seeing professional athletes recognize their power and translate it into action and force conversations that demand change. In a way, it must be complicated. It is not easy. If it were that simple, we would have found all the answers. We learn in real time. We all learn in real time. I’m still learning. How do I use my voice? ”

The voice, for his film, was important, which is why Wilkins was elated when he heard Betts agree to participate. His role in Wednesday’s Dodgers game against San Francisco being postponed cannot be oversold. Betts said he wasn’t playing. The rest of the team followed. Out of respect for who Betts is, what he stands for and the strength of his belief. “It’s fortuitous and fortuitous,” Wilkins said, “that Mookie is at the forefront. ”

Among Betts and Flood and the Black Trans Lives Matter sign, Wilkins said he tries to “represent the stories and communities that need to be at the forefront of these conversations. I’m proud of it. And I’m glad MLB is okay with that. If you look at the history of things, MLB is taking a risk by showing these pictures and I really appreciate that they decided to do so.

“The last few days have been very confrontational,” he said. “On the one hand, the events unfolding are frightening. They are terrifying. They remind people that others see people who look like me as a threat when I am not such a thing. It made me hyper aware of where I am, how I behave, how people look at me, how they perceive me.

“On the other side, I have this film where I had the opportunity to tell this story that needs to be told. As a filmmaker, my responsibility is to tell stories that document the stories of our time with an honest perspective. ”

This story in baseball has only just begun. There are more conversations to be had, more actions to take, more allies to join. The systemic racism that Randy Wilkins saw in baseball two months ago is far from being eradicated and will not be for years to come. But change starts with a player. A team. One day of protests, then two. With 87 seconds of goal which shows that the past and the present are not that different and that the gains made at the time were just the beginning.


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