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Pro Athletes Can Amplify Social Justice Movements — If They Follow Through

Today’s activist athletes are, for the most part, swimming upstream against very strong currents.

San Francisco Giants Manager Gabe Kapler watches from the dugout during the fifth inning against the Miami Marlins at Oracle Park on April 9, 2022, in San Francisco, California.

It is the professional responsibility of journalists to highlight any conflict or bias that could tilt their objectivity. You see it in The Washington Post whenever there’s a story about Jeff Bezos; somewhere in the body of the piece there is a parenthetical (“he’s my boss, owns this paper”) to inoculate the writer against accusations that they’re trying to get away with something. In that spirit, let me be as plain as I can be: My bias is that I love Gabe Kapler.

My love affair with Kapler began in 2004. Sharing right field with human plow Trot Nixon, Kapler hit nearly .300 and led the team in outfield assists thanks to the cannon dangling from his shoulder… and on October 27, on a night the moon turned red, Kapler was one of nine players on the field when the Red Sox won the World Series for the first time in 86 years.

If you don’t follow baseball, though, Kapler’s name may have only recently crossed your screen. Today, he’s the San Francisco Giants manager who announced that he will be shunning the national anthem until something is done about the gun carnage in the U.S.

Kapler informed the media of his intentions during a dugout press gaggle on Friday, where he told reporters, “I don’t plan on coming out for the anthem going forward… until I feel better about the direction of our country. That’ll be the step. I don’t expect it to move the needle necessarily. It’s just something that I feel strongly enough about to take that step.”

Kapler channeled his feelings into an evocative blog post later that day:

Every time I place my hand over my heart and remove my hat, I’m participating in a self congratulatory glorification of the ONLY country where these mass shootings take place. On Wednesday, I walked out onto the field, I listened to the announcement as we honored the victims in Uvalde. I bowed my head. I stood for the national anthem. Metallica riffed on City Connect guitars.

My brain said drop to a knee; my body didn’t listen. I wanted to walk back inside; instead I froze. I felt like a coward. I didn’t want to call attention to myself. I didn’t want to take away from the victims or their families. There was a baseball game, a rock band, the lights, the pageantry. I knew that thousands of people were using this game to escape the horrors of the world for just a little bit. I knew that thousands more wouldn’t understand the gesture and would take it as an offense to the military, to veterans, to themselves.

But I am not okay with the state of this country. I wish I hadn’t let my discomfort compromise my integrity. I wish that I could have demonstrated what I learned from my dad, that when you’re dissatisfied with your country, you let it be known through protest. The home of the brave should encourage this.

Kapler’s stand wobbled almost immediately, however, when confronted with the monolithic patriotism of Memorial Day. White Sox manager and baseball Ent Tony La Russa had already criticized Kapler’s intentions with the same boilerplate militaristic rah-rah NFL players have been hearing since Colin Kaepernick took a knee. “I would never not stand up for the anthem or the flag,” said La Russa. “Maybe just because I’m older, and I’ve been around veterans more than the average person. You need to understand what the veterans think when they hear the anthem, or they see the flag and the cost they paid and their families paid.”

On Memorial Day, Kapler posted a new blog regarding the day’s game: “Today, I’ll be standing for the anthem. While I believe strongly in the right to protest and the importance of doing so, I also believe strongly in honoring and mourning our country’s service men and women who fought and died for that right.”

Kapler and the Giants are playing Philly tonight; we shall see where he is when the anthem begins. I reserve final judgment on this until then, but I do confess to disappointment. Kapler probably should have looked at the calendar if Memorial Day was a concern. If this was just some long-weekend grandstanding, I will be pretty grossed out… but I hope Kapler will follow through on his word, now that we have passed the most flag-happy day of the year this side of the Fourth of July.

Kapler’s on-again, off-again activism this weekend probably feels like thin gruel to fans of Kaepernick. The former 49ers quarterback hasn’t played a snap since the 2016 season after leading a league-wide protest against police violence, motivated by the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the shooting of Charles Kinsey, and the acquittal of the officers who killed Freddie Gray.

For all intents and purposes, Kaepernick lost his livelihood because of his peaceful public protests (though the Las Vegas Raiders and Seattle Seahawks are giving him an active look, finally). In this, he shares a special status with Muhammad Ali, who lost the best years of his fighting career when he heroically refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War.

Athletes like Althea Gibson, Bill Russell, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Jim Brown, Billie Jean King, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Martina Navratilova, Arthur Ashe, and others joined Ali in an era of athlete social activism, and all of them paid a price for it. That — and the massive amount of money athletes can earn from corporate sponsorship today, so long as they make no waves (see: Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods) — is much of the reason why modern athlete activism seems so tepid compared to what came before.

It feels like that may be changing, thankfully. Kaepernick has been the most visible athlete to take a costly stand on racial and social issues, but you cannot overlook people like pro soccer player Megan Rapinoe, whose fiery advocacy for equal pay for women’s soccer players recently won the day. Pro basketball player Brittney Griner has been an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ rights, and participated in several anthem protests as well. (Griner is currently incarcerated in Russia after being arrested on remarkably overblown drug charges.) Tennis star Venus Williams, hockey great Patrice Bergeron, many more… the list does not match the hero’s roll call from the prior generation, but it seems to be growing stronger every day.

This is potentially significant. These athletes are, for the most part, swimming upstream against very strong currents. They face conservative league ownership and the hyper-conservative corporate megastructure (which is also a license to print money) that has grown around professional sports. Much of the public pushback against athlete activism comes from conservative fans, who facetiously lament the poisoning of their leisure time with politics as they shout “Stick to sports!” at any athlete or sports journalist who leaves their lane and swerves left.

The anthem is politics. The military fly-overs are politics. The soldiers in dress uniform carrying flags onto the field before the game are politics… all politics blessed by the game’s powers-that-be. You don’t hear “Stick to sports” in regard to this deeply embedded indoctrinating bombast. Make a statement about police violence, racism, sexism and equal pay, homophobia or the horrors of an unjust war, though, and it gets loud real quick.

“Screaming STICK TO SPORTS is just a cowardly way of voicing, in a highly political manner, that you cannot abide even the mildest of exposure to other political ideas — even just other people — whose very existence you resent,” Drew Magary wrote for Deadspin back in 2019. “You are siding with leaders who prefer their transgressions remain discreet and you are indulging in an easy sop; a way to butter up alt-right mouthbreathers by promising, often insincerely, to keep politics to a minimum, in particular politics that make them uncomfortable. It is an obvious way of demonstrating your conflicting political ideology by being like CAN’T WE ALL JUST ENJOY SOME GOLF?”

Enter Gabe Kapler to the fray… maybe. I’ll be watching tonight to see if he matches action with words when it comes to guns and the anthem. Warriors coach Steve Kerr has his back, as does Celtics coach Ime Udoka. I have his back, too, and I hope he follows through. Big-time sports are a massive social influencer, and we need all the help we can get.

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