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

Journalists are responsible for highlighting biases and conflicts that might affect their objectivity. It is there. 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 this spirit, let me say as clearly as I can: I love Gabe Kapler.

Kapler was the first player I fell in love with. He was traded to my Red Sox in 2004 to strengthen the defense. He 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 wonThe World Series returns for the first-time in 86 year.

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 told the media about his intentions during a Friday dugout press gaggle. 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 emotions into an evocative blog postLater 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. As we remembered the victims in Uvalde, Wednesday was Wednesday. I walked out onto Uvalde Field and listened to the announcement. I bowed my head. I stood for the national anthem. Metallica performed on City Connect guitars.

My brain said drop to a knee; my body didn’t listen. I wanted to go back inside, but 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 and a rock band. There were lights, pageantry, and a rock band. I knew that thousands were using this game to escape from the horrors of the real world for a few moments. 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’m not okay with the current 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. This should be encouraged by the home of the brave.

Kapler’s stand wobbled almost immediatelyWhen confronted with the monolithic patriotism and fervor of Memorial Day, he reacted in a different way. 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.”

Kapler celebrates Memorial Day. 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.”

Tonight, Kapler and the Giants will be playing Philly; we’ll see where he is before the anthem starts. I will not make any final judgments on this until then. However, I have to admit that I am disappointed. Kapler should have looked at the calendar to see if Memorial Day was an issue. 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, Philando Castile, the shooting of Charles Kinsey, and the acquittal of the officers who killed Freddie Gray.

Kaepernick’s peaceful protests, though they were a success, cost him his livelihood. Las Vegas Raiders Seattle SeahawksHe is finally getting an active look. This is where he shares a special relationship with Muhammad Ali, who lost his best years fighting for his country when he refused to be drafted into Vietnam War.

Althea and Bill Russell are just two examples of the many athletes who have made it big. Tommie Smith and John CarlosBillie Jean King and Billie Jean King joined Ali in a time of social activism for athletes. All of them paid a price. 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 tepidComparative to what was before.

It seems like that is 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 GrinerShe has been a strong advocate for LGBTQ rights and participated in many anthem demonstrations. (Griner is currently incarcerated in RussiaAfter being arrested on overblown drug charges. The list does not match the hero’s roll call from the prior generation, but it seems to be growing every day.

This could be very significant. These athletes swim upstream against very strong currents. They are confronted by conservative league ownership as well as the hyper-conservative corporate structure (which is also a license for printing money) that has grown around professional sport. 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 political. The military fly-overs constitute 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. But, it’s loud when you make a statement about police violence or sexism and equality pay, homophobia, or the horrors associated with unjust war.

“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 wroteFor DeadspinBack 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. Steve Kerr, Warriors coach has his back, as does Celtics coach Ime Udoka. I am there for him, and I hope he does the same. We need all the support we can get from big-time sports to be a major social influencer.