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Entertainment

Why MLB Was the Last Sports League to Respond to George Floyd's Death

The NBA, NFL, NHL, MLS, NASCAR, and MLB have all posted statements about racism. But will anything change in pro sports?
June 5, 2020, 8:33pm

On Tuesday, West Bromwich Albion, a club that currently plays in the second tier of English soccer, tweeted a graphic that read "Together We Are Stronger," an anti-racism message that it punctuated with the #blackouttuesday hashtag. When one now-deleted Twitter nobody called the team's support of the Black Lives Matter movement "pathetic" and said he wouldn't be renewing his season ticket next year, West Brom didn't stutter. "You won't be missed," it wrote.

West Brom, an English soccer club that plays its matches more than 3,900 miles from Minneapolis, responded to George Floyd's murder before Major League Baseball did. So did England's Premier League, the SkyBet Championship, and League One and League Two.

By early Wednesday morning, the NBA, NFL, NHL, MLS, and NASCAR had all posted something about Floyd's death, to condemn racism, or a combination of the two. The Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) had also spoken out—as had many current and former players—and 28 of the 30 MLB teams had issued their own statements. (The Texas Rangers and Cincinnati Reds did not respond until later that afternoon.)

Most of the teams' responses were made of magnetic poetry-level platitudes and generic promises to be more inclusive. Only seven teams actually wrote the words "Black lives matter," and just two have shared evidence of direct action so far: The Oakland A's announced a donation of $100,000 to the Oakland African Chamber of Commerce, the Oakland NAACP, and 100 Black Men of the Bay Area; and the Tampa Bay Rays also pledged $100,000 annually to "supporting causes in the fight against systemic racism." (The Rays were also the only ones who condemned police brutality as strongly as an ice cream company did.)

At 10:29 a.m. on Wednesday morning, nine days after Floyd's murder and more than a week after the first protests against police violence began, MLB finally spoke up. It expressed its condolences to the families of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, said that it had "zero tolerance for racism and racial injustice," and said that it was "unacceptable" that the Black community lives in "fear or anxiety over racial discrimination, prejudice, or violence."

A representative for MLB says the league knows that its silence didn't go unnoticed, but it also had zero intention of writing something just to appease social media. "We didn't just want to be a brand putting our voice out there," Steven Arocho, Major League Baseball's Senior Director of Communications and Youth Engagement told VICE. "We wanted to develop what the next action was, so putting something out without considerable thought and being thorough, for us, fell a little short. We wanted there to be something intentional behind it."

Most of the brand statements that have filled our social media feeds this week have been built like 1940s movie sets: They look well-crafted and substantial until you realize that there's nothing but empty space behind them. But this is a time when we should expect more and demand more than the kind of performative activism that comes with a sombre color palette and a serious looking sans-serif font. MLB understands that.

"We want to be better, we need to be better, and this is our promise to do the work," MLB wrote, and according to Arocho, the league has established a multi-part plan for fulfilling that promise. It is already asking for input from all MLB employees, providing online resources that allow everyone to voice their ideas as both colleagues and as a community. The next step involves reaching out to all 30 teams to determine what actions they are taking at the local level to "heal communities and address race and injustice issues."

MLB will also continue to engage with young players through its diversity-focused youth baseball and softball programs, including Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) the high school-level Breakthrough Series, and the Dream Series, a five-day event for Black and minority pitchers and catchers. Through its Jackie Robinson Foundation, it will fund more than 150 college scholarships for students of color, and it will continue its support of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) with the annual Andre Dawson Classic and its newly launched HBCU Play Ball Series.

Continuing to find ways to make baseball both accessible and affordable to young Black players is increasingly important. In 1975, 18.5 percent of Major League Baseball players were Black, but that percentage has been falling ever since. The start of this season has been postponed due to coronavirus, but at the beginning of the 2019 season, Black athletes made up only 7.7 percent of the league's total number of athletes. Eleven teams had only one Black player, and three teams had zero. (MLB did have its highest-ever percentage of Latino players last season, according to the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport's most recent "Racial and Gender Report Card." MLB also received an A- overall for its racial hiring practices.)

"We're going to listen to and engage our current and former players on these issues," Arrocho said. "A lot of this is virtual right now, but we hope to pull something together where we can talk to the players and get their thoughts on where we need to go as a sport."

The league has promised a "continuation of the promotion of freedom of expression on the field," which should include actively supporting any player who speaks out or demonstrates against injustice when the season begins. In a 'normal' year, each team would've already played close to 60 games by now, and it's not difficult to imagine that some players would have been moved by what they've seen and felt to take a knee during the anthem, or to present some personal message of support for the family of George Floyd. It's also not difficult to imagine that there could've been repercussions for that. On September 23, 2017, then-Oakland A's catcher Bruce Maxwell became the first (and, to date, the only) player to kneel during the National Anthem to protest police brutality. Almost three years later, he says that he's still on the receiving end of hatred, racial slurs, and death threats, despite the fact that he currently plays in the Mexican Baseball League.

“Knock me if you want, but I think MLB finally came out and said something because so many people were hounding them to say something," he told the San Francisco Chronicle on Wednesday. “It doesn’t shock me they were the last sport to say something. When I did my thing, my team supported me at the time, but MLB didn’t really back me." (MLB did release a 'both sides'-ish statement after Maxwell took a knee, writing that it "has a longstanding tradition of honoring our nation prior to the start of our games" but that it also "respects that each of our players is an individual with his own background, perspectives and opinions.")

One thing that MLB hasn't done is to reach out to the families of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Brionna Taylor, even though it mentioned them by name in its statement. "Our condolences are genuine, but I don't know if this is really our place [to contact them]," Arocho said. "What we need to do is to show how we are going to take action, and we plan on honoring the condolences we put in the message by changing for the positive."

With everything that is happening in America right this second—a statement that seemingly applies no matter when you're reading this in 2020—it's hard to imagine that what an American League East team or a professional sports league says matters, but it's even harder to imagine that it doesn't. At a time when it feels like there's no actual leadership, we can turn to sports (or at least to Sports Twitter) for feelings of solidarity and belonging. And during a pandemic that seems to have been forgotten in favor of Bible-fumbling photo ops, the return of professional sports has been dangled in front of us as something to look forward to, something that will signal a return to 'normal.'

But 'normal' shouldn't mean going back to the way things were. There have been fundamental, systemic, institutional problems with 'normal' for decades, and sports leagues, with their boundless influence and seemingly bottomless resources, do have crucial roles to play in helping us move past what 'normal' used to be.

"We're not engaging with the Black community for the first time," Arocho said. "But I think this gives us an opportunity to recalibrate and really refocus and say 'What are we not doing enough of? What do we need to do more on? How do we make a greater impact?' That's our guiding principle, and what we're doing, moving forward."

It's also not unreasonable to want them to go full West Brom, and to move on without the support of those who fail to acknowledge the importance of keeping these promises and "doing the work." You won't be missed, indeed.