Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Aug. 22, 23 or 24
Celebrities aren’t leaders, but they can grab people’s attention, and some grievances are so bad, every voice adds to a chorus for change.
It’s not that controversial to oppose trigger-happy cops, that tiny minority of police who shoot African Americans. People ranging from progressive labor leader Richard Trumka to conservative broadcaster Glenn Beck have sympathized and expressed concern about the troubling trend, as have celebrities including athletes.
But Major League Baseball players seemed to have benched themselves.
The National Pastime is quiet about this national disgrace.
Elsewhere, many taking the platform for the first time, are recording artists Alicia Keyes, Beyonce, the Game, Jay Z, John Legend, Snoop Dogg, T.I., Tidal and music entrepreneur Russell Simmons. Others include actors Samuel L. Jackson, Jesse Williams, the “Broadway for Black Lives Matter” effort and Matt McGorry.
In sports, NBA figures who’ve spoken up include Michael Jordan, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, the Miami Heat and the Wizards’ Bradley Beal (who said, “When does it come to an end? We aren’t getting justice.”), and the WNBA’s New York Liberty demonstrated. Also, tennis great Serena Williams and Heisman hopeful Leonard Fournette spoke out.
Some observers parallel this year’s tumult to 1968, when the late, great St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood said, “This country was coming apart at the seams.”
Active in the Civil Rights movement – appearing at an NAACP event with boxers Archie Moore and Floyd Patterson – Flood said, “To think that merely because I was a professional baseball player I could ignore what was going on outside the walls of Busch Stadium is truly hypocrisy.”
True, sports usually exist apart from the Real World, but there were shattering events that year, too: Eugene McCarthy’s insurgent campaign for president, the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War and fruitless peace talks, urban and campus riots, and the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.
On the 1968’s radio, music ranged from the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” the Rascals’ “People Got to Be Free” and Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild,” to the Four Tops’ “For Once in My Life,” Smokey Robinson & the Miracles “I Care about Detroit” and the Supremes’ “What the World Needs Now.” On TV, the world saw Olympic champions Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising fists in black gloves, with white Australian Peter Norman standing with them, wearing the same Olympic Project for Human Rights badge as they did.
“The point is not to be a star athlete,” Carlos said decades later. “The point is to stand up wherever you are, [and] athletes have a critical role.”
Flood’s teammate Bob Gibson said, “There was no escaping the pervasive realities of 1968. Dr. King’s killing had jolted me; Kennedy’s infuriated me.”
After Kennedy’s murder, many MLB players refused to take the field, including Maury Wills, Milt Pappas, Rusty Staub, and the New York Mets. The Dodgers wore black armbands. The late Roberto Clemente said, “The disturbing thing to me was the indifferent attitudes of some of our players. This is one of the things wrong with our country: too much indifference.”
There’s a proud tradition of brave athletes who spoke up: the NFL’s Jim Brown, the NBA’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the greatest, Muhammad Ali. But baseball – the sport of Jackie Robinson! – has too much indifference. Ballplayers’ statements or stances can make a difference. Even millionaire athletes taking a side, maybe taking a risk, could reach people. Raising awareness and legitimizing concerns is a vital role.
In Major League Baseball, the exception to the wall of silence is the Angels’ Huston Street, a white pitcher who said, “Demand justice. My nephews are young black men and their future depends on it.”
Standing up may be initially uncomfortable, unlike charities that fight hunger or cancer (since those admirable endeavors don’t face pro-cancer lobbies or hunger supporters). Nevertheless, standing up should be unavoidable.
If athletes feel their black teammates are family, shouldn’t that – or respect or empathy – extend to fans, the community and country?
Retired NBA player Craig Hodges conceded, “There is a disconnect between professional athletes and the black community. Athletes are scared that they will be blacklisted. That’s why it is always better to do things in groups.”
Doing nothing implies that winning is the only end; nothing else matters.
Silence is a problem if its effect is to ignore or deny a crisis.
“To not act is an injustice, itself,” said Seattle BLM activist Aretha Basu.
Baseball players must step up to the plate.
[PICTURED: Curt Flood (top) and Huston Street.]