(NEW YORK) — Look north from the upper deck of Nationals Park in southeast Washington, D.C., home of the 2018 MLB All-Star Game, and through the construction cranes dotting the skyline, the ivory dome of the U.S. Capitol looms, one mile away on the horizon.
It’s an all-too-perfect symbol for the encompassing presence of politics in popular culture in recent years, including, of course, within the world of sports.
History is replete with athletes who voiced opinions about wars and peace, endorsed candidates or run for office themselves, but President Donald Trump’s election and his vociferous criticism of the Colin Kaepernick-led national anthem protests have intensified political discourse among some professional players and sparked a new level of activism on and off the fields and courts.
While the NFL, in particular, has drawn the ire of the president, and the majority-black rosters of the NBA became a natural setting for discussions of racial inequality, the ranks of Major League Baseball have been largely quiet on such issues of social justice and politics.
It’s not even something that I talk about that much with my teammates — the guys that I’m around every day,” said Washington Nationals closer Sean Doolittle at the All-Star Game’s media session Monday.
Despite Doolittle’s reservations within the clubhouse, he can be counted as one of the more outspoken players in the league on topics of social activism. While a member of the Oakland Athletics in 2015, Doolittle and his now-wife Eireann Dolan purchased tickets from fans perturbed by the team’s Pride Night promotion and donated them to a local LGBTQ youth center. Last year, in the midst of the national anthem debate, the pair wrote an op-ed in Sports Illustrated seeking to shift attention towards honoring the military by promoting mental health care for veterans.
And when violence broke out during a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last August, Doolittle, who played college baseball for the University of Virginia, tweeted his disgust with the event.
“It’s 2017. Actual Nazis just marched on #Charlottesville. We have to come together & drive this hatred & domestic terrorism from our country,” Doolittle wrote, launching a thread on the topic that concluded with a post that appeared directed towards Trump:
“There is only one side,” he posted.
But the pitcher acknowledged Monday that there was a time and place for when he felt his activism was appropriate, and that it wasn’t necessarily within the confines of the notoriously private clubhouses during the grind of the 162-game MLB season.
“I’m a big believer in letting my actions, the stuff my wife and I do in the community, speak for itself,” Doolittle said. “Every once in a while we will speak out on Twitter, but that kind of stuff doesn’t find its way into the locker room too much.”
Tony Clark, the executive director of the MLB Players Association and a former All-Star first basemen himself, explained that the locker room could, at times, be a place where players held debates and hashed out broader issues, given the trust that players built among themselves in such close quarters.
“In a good locker room, common ground is always found,” he said. “Particularly when the end game and the goal is the same. In other words, trying to achieve a particular goal or trying to affect a certain type of change in the climate that you happen to be in.”
Several players agreed Monday that there were no impediments necessarily precluding their fellow major leaguers from speaking out, either internally or externally, but unlike in the NFL, on-field displays of protest have been rare.
Last September, Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell became the first, and thus far only, MLB player to kneel during a pre-game performance of the national anthem. At the time, Maxwell, who was born into a military family, said that he believed that the ideas of racial inequality were being perpetuated by Trump.
“It’s being practiced from the highest power that we have in this country, and it’s basically saying that it’s OK to treat people differently,” Maxwell said at the time, according to ESPN. “My kneeling, the way I did it, was to symbolize that I’m kneeling for a cause, but I’m in no way or form disrespecting my country or my flag.”
Maxwell’s teammate Jed Lowrie, an All-Star this year, said that the catcher’s decision didn’t cause division within the clubhouse.
“There were guys who had questions for him and wanted to understand why he did it, but I think the general consensus was support for him and why he chose to do it,” Lowrie said Monday, adding, “I think if a player has a specific issue they feel passionate about then I think it’s fair for them to use their platform to direct their message.”
Such a sentiment was echoed by Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Lorenzo Cain. Cain, who is African-American, viewed the NFL protests in the name of racial injustice as instances of the players “standing up for themselves” and said he respected their decision.
“From afar, I definitely understood why they were kneeling,” Cain said, while explaining that there was nuance to the debate. “I agree with some of the stuff they were doing, [but] for me, [during] the national anthem, I think of our troops fighting overseas and that’s why I stand for it. But the other guys were kneeling for entirely different reasons — we all know why — and I definitely understand where they were coming from.”
A popular theory raised as to why the MLB has lagged behind other leagues in public displays of activism has been the racial makeup of its players. While the NFL and NBA are both majority-black, as of Opening Day, the MLB noted only 8.4 percent of major leaguers were African-American — down from a high of 18.7 percent in 1981, according to the Society for American Baseball Research. An additional 30 percent, as of 2016, were either Latino or Asian, the organization determined.
Clark predicted that the MLB’s activism could catch-up however, particularly given the multitude of avenues in which players can now deliver messages.
“In the past, there may have been a platform or two that guys had access to and now you have far more,” Clark said. “They view it as an opportunity to have their concerns heard and hope that leads to effecting the kind of change that they want to see.”
Colorado Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon agreed, adding that he was “thankful” to be in a position to be heard, should he wish to be, but showed respect for the responsibility that accompanies such power.
“Before I use that platform to influence the way others think, I need to make sure that I have all the facts and I know what I’m talking about and truly believe that what I’m saying is right,” he said, cautioning that some of the responsibility falls on the consumers of public discourse to weed out fact from fiction.
“I’m not going to blindly follow what Beyonce says because I really like her music,” Blackmon noted as an example.
A common thread among the All-Stars who commented on the topic of activism and protest was that of respect, be it between persons with opposing points of view, among teammates, or between fans and players with whom they disagree.
“I don’t really like how some fans don’t like guys [who] speak out about what they believe in,” said Seattle Mariners outfielder Mitch Haniger. “I think everyone comes from different places on Earth, different countries, and I think the way you grow is to learn from other people’s backgrounds and to see where they come from, [and] how and why they think about the things they believe in.”
Haniger, who said he enjoyed talking politics but avoids it on social media, argued that it was the disagreements, even with some of the teammates he considers his best friends, that could be most valuable.
“I think at the end of the day, I kind of learn from why he feels that way and why he thinks and believes in the things he does,” he said. “That’s how you progress and get better.”
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