Andrew Wegley mug

Andrew Wegley

Major League Baseball’s season-opening slate of games that stretched from last weekend into the start of this week brought with it plenty of surprises, of course, and even more foreseeable happenings. 

Opening Day in July, just four months ago, would have sounded more like the advertising campaign for a series of baseball movies broadcast on MLB Network during the All-Star Break. But two months ago, as MLB’s Player’s Union and the league itself warred and stalled through salary negotiations, the thought of Opening Day at all would have been welcomed. 

The notion of a slate of Miami Marlins games getting canceled due to a COVID-19 outbreak would have raised more than a few questions back in February. But after it happened this week, it felt more like business as usual, like the fruition of a worst-case scenario — yet one we all saw coming. 

What we couldn’t have seen coming, though — at least not for much longer than the last few months — was the league-wide stance taken on every field over the weekend, in front of cardboard fans in some markets, as players and coaches took a stand by refusing to stand at all. 

Four years after Colin Kaepernick first knelt along the sideline at a football game, and three years after Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell joined him in protest, becoming the first player in MLB to kneel for the National Anthem, players from across baseball joined the two. Outside of Maxwell, none of the league’s near-thousand players had kneeled for the anthem until 2020. 

Kaepernick went out on a limb four years ago. He risked his career for a cause bigger than himself in opposition of police brutality, and now, after the killing of George Floyd under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer in late May sparked more than 60 days of protests, the rest of the sports world has caught up with him. 

The NFL implemented an anti-kneeling policy in 2018, one that largely stemmed from the protests Kaepernick started. The league walked back that policy in the wake of Floyd’s death. Commissioner Roger Goodell even said verbatim, “We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong …” 

MLB — which issued a lukewarm statement in 2017 when Maxwell first kneeled, emphasizing respect for the anthem while acknowledging each player’s right to their own opinion — tweeted photos last weekend of some of the league’s brightest stars wearing shirts with three words plastered across them: “Black Lives Matter.” 

While the league was slow to join the movement, it has now put its full weight behind it. When a fan tweeted back to the MLB, suggesting they “keep politics out of baseball,” the MLB responded with a statement that feels obvious to those with empathy but would have been controversial coming from a major sports league’s account just three months ago: 

“Supporting human rights is not political.” 

For this moment, ignore the irony of that tweet coming from a league that had the chance to fully support Maxwell in his protest three years ago as the NFL cowered across the Bay. Every major sports league had a similar chance at one point or another over the last four years. None took it until now, until it was popular. 

But the point here is not what each major sports league and what thousands of professional athletes failed to do in the last half-decade. The point, now, is that it is popular to care about black lives. It is popular for athletes to use their platforms to call for social change. It is popular to scrutinize police departments for the disproportionate use of force toward people of color nationwide. Calls for change won’t be drowned out by the “stick to sports” crowd that seems to finally be in the minority. 

It’s popular now. And it’s possible this renewed round of protesting and amplified calls for progress from the mouths of hundreds of professional athletes might be the most effective engine in a widespread ideological change in the country. That’s not to discredit the work of grassroots protesters who have been demonstrating tirelessly in cities across the U.S. for more than two months now — but these calls, from America’s most visible figures, are unavoidable. 

People who do everything they can to circumvent these conversations — the kind of talks that make white people confront their own biases and acknowledge their privilege —  are now being forced to have them, or at least witness them, ahead of every sporting event and on every nightly sportscast and in every newspaper’s sports column. 

Sports for a while have been an escape from politically charged conversations, a unifying force in an increasingly divided world. That is not an option anymore — a fact that should be celebrated. 

The sports industry’s identity as a sort-of escape for fans was one built on privilege anyway. Simply tuning in to a sporting event to avoid the real-life consequences of ballots cast and the deadly results of seemingly routine traffic stops and the crushing weight of daily injustices faced has always been a luxury only afforded largely to white people, even if that’s gone unrealized. 

We don’t ask ourselves about systemic racism as the Kansas City Royals take on the Cleveland Indians for an Opening Day matchup that features zero black starters in a league where less than 70 of the 882 players on Opening Day rosters in 2019 were black. 

And we don’t ponder why it’s harder to be black in America — in fact, we rarely even acknowledge that it’s still hard at all to be black in America — while we tune into the NFL every Sunday each fall to watch a league made up of 70 percent black players compete with three black head coaches among 32 teams. 

For the most part, we don’t consider these injustices, or any racial injustices at all, until we’re forced to. And the major sports leagues were complicit in that for much of the last four years, enablers of a blissfully ignorant fanbase intent on staying that way. We could watch sports and avoid listening to what players were saying, avoid witnessing the horrors of the nightly news, avoid acknowledging the systemic racism plaguing our country, avoid admitting that there are issues with American law enforcement. 

But that, thankfully, is not an option anymore. We can watch sports, and we can listen — like we should have all along.

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