Sports Leagues Try To Rectify Racism While Trump Fuels It

While people from NASCAR, the NBA, the NFL, MLB, the NHL, US soccer leagues, and more embrace Black Lives Matter, President Trump spews racist attacks.
NASCAR Driver Bubba Wallace (Zach Catanzareti/Creative Commons) and President Donald Trump (AP).

NASCAR Driver Bubba Wallace (Zach Catanzareti/Creative Commons) and President Donald Trump (AP).

Updated August 27, 2020: The NBA boycotted upcoming playoff games after the police killing of Jacob Blake, but players have agreed to resume the season overall. Below you’ll see our July article about sports leagues taking action to promote racial justice while President Trump does the opposite.

Today, President Trump attacked the only Black NASCAR driver, Bubba Wallace. In the wake of George Floyd’s brutal murder by now-former police officers, and the surge of the Black Lives Matter movement, Trump has made stoking racist hatred and divisiveness the centerpiece of his floundering re-election campaign. Meanwhile, a rising wave of support in the sports world for the Black Lives Matter movement offers a glimmer of hope.

Last month, the Department of Justice launched an investigation after a noose was found hanging in Wallace’s NASCAR garage.

Wallace has been an outspoken advocate of the Black Lives Matter movement and protests against systemic racism and police brutality. He wore an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt before one event, and repainted his car with “Black Lives Matter.” He called on NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag, which the organization agreed to do.

The DoJ, headed by Trump’s Attorney General William Barr, dismissed its investigation into the noose in Wallace’s garage last month after they discovered it was a pull rope that had been there for months. Barr’s DoJ said that “no federal crime was committed.”

Trump’s tweet today called for Wallace to apologize. The president deployed his tired and shady tactic, falsely referring to the noose as a “HOAX,” even though NASCAR confirmed Bubba Wallace didn’t put it there.

Bubba Wallace tweeted a statement in response to Trump, addressed, “To the next generation and little ones following my foot steps.” With the hashtag #LoveWins, Wallace wrote: “Last thing, always deal with the hate being thrown at you with LOVE! Love over hate every day. Love should come naturally as people are TAUGHT to hate. Even when it’s HATE from the POTUS.. Love wins.”

Later in the day, Trump tweeted criticism of professional sports teams:

Trump has repeatedly targeted Warren, hurling a racial slur, calling the U.S. Senator “Pocahontas.”

Trump’s attacks against Wallace and teams that are changing their racist monikers spotlight his re-election campaign strategy: Double down on racism, pander to the white supremacists among his base.

But Trump-brand racism is gravely out of sync with most Americans and business enterprises. FedEx, Nike, and PepsiCo investors have also been pushing for change: Last week 87 shareholders representing $620 billion in assets wrote a letter asking those companies to cut ties with the Washington Redskins if it didn’t change the name, AdWeek reported.

Undeterred, the president is persisting with his strategy to rally his racist supporters. Last week, Trump blasted New York City’s plan to paint a large “Black Lives Matter” street mural on Fifth Avenue in front of Trump Tower, calling it a “symbol of hate.” In his Mount Rushmore Fourth of July speech on Friday, Trump called protesters and Black Lives Matter activists “bad, evil people” for pushing to remove monuments to Confederate and racist figures in U.S. history.

Likewise, the president continues to tweet racist vitriol and threats aimed at athletes who take a knee during the national anthem to protest racial injustice. He tweeted last month about NFL players: “if they don’t stand for our National Anthem and our Great American Flag, I won’t be watching!!!” (Last month, I wrote for Rantt Media about how Trump has weaponized fake patriotism to disguise his real racism.)

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In 2016, Colin Kaepernick, then a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, first started taking a knee on the sideline during the national anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality against Black people. Other NFL players joined him, kneeling in protest.

The following year, at a rally in Alabama, Trump said of football players who took a knee during the anthem, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when someone disrespects our flag to say, ‘get that son of a bitch off the field right now.’”

Soon after taking a knee, Kaepernick was blackballed by NFL teams; he has been out of work despite a shortage of quarterback talent in the league. Last year, the NFL settled a lawsuit with Kaepernick and his former 49ers teammate Eric Reid. The players claimed the league’s 32 teams had colluded to keep them out of the sport. (Details of the settlement were not disclosed as part of a confidentiality agreement.)

More recently, other sports figures have joined the peaceful protest that Kaepernick inspired.

The National Women’s Soccer League was the first professional sports league in the U.S. to return in June after getting sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown. In an emotional display of solidarity, every player wore a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, and most kneeled during the playing of the national anthem.

Teammates Casey Short and Julie Ertz, who shared a tearful moment during the anthem, subsequently tweeted a statement, asking, “What is UNITY?” They wrote:

“This moment of hopelessness was overwhelming for many reasons including, frustration in not having a clear answer for change, the hurt in each other’s voices, and our black teammates and friends who have emotionally poured out every ounce of their hearts to us,” and, “Those tears were the first time we felt hope in a long time.”

High profile players, coaches, and officials from other sports leagues have joined in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

National Hockey League goalie Braden Holtby and his wife launched a “Get off the Bench for Racial Equality” auction to benefit Black Lives Matter DC. Holtby was part of the 2018 Washington Capitals Stanley Cup championship team, but he refused to join his teammates on their visit to Trump in the White House. At the time, Holtby said, “My family, myself, we believe in a world where humans are treated with respect, regardless of your stature or what you’re born into.”

Some sports figures have even reversed their previously held positions on protesting during the national anthem.

NHL coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets John Tortorella was one of the more outspoken sports figures against anthem protests in 2016. But Tortorella recently told The Athletic: “I have learned over the years, listening and watching, that men and women who choose to kneel during this time mean no disrespect toward the flag,” referring to the protest that Kaepernick inspired.

About the upcoming NFL season, set to kick off on September 10, Dave Zirin wrote for The Nation: “Many black players will be taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police violence and racial inequity.”

The NFL will reportedly play the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” in each stadium before the “Star Spangled Banner,” The Undefeated first reported last week. The league is also reportedly considering the possibility of putting names of Black victims of police violence on helmet decals or jersey patches.

Rev. Al Sharpton said of the century-old hymn, “You got to see people other than us appreciating our song, our anthem. This is just not a moment. This is a real movement.” As ABC News reported, Rev. Markel Hutchins said presidential candidate Joe Biden’s reference to the song and hearing white Americans singing the lyrics has given him “hope and confidence, although we’re in a dark place as a nation today.”

But athletes’ responses to the NFL’s plan to play the Black anthem have been lukewarm, at best.

NFL Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe called the playing of the Black anthem “another symbolic gesture.” He tweeted:

“By playing the Black national anthem, how much closer does this get us to economic equality, ending systemic/institutional racism? What is this going to do about the hiring practices for minorities in the NFL?”

NBA star Stephen Curry posted on Instagram about the Black anthem, asking, “Can someone please explain to me how this solves anything???????”

Jemele Hill wrote for The Atlantic, saying that the NFL can’t fight racism while team owners support Trump: “The owners’ millions have helped embolden a president who has shown his racism time and again. Trump delights in building his campaigns around white Americans’ racial anxieties.”

On cue, Trump surrogate U.S. Congressman Matt Gaetz (R-FL) tweeted on Friday: “America is one unified nation with one National Anthem.” Last month, Gaetz disingenuously told George Floyd’s brother, “God is working through you.” But last week, Gaetz tweeted this racist twaddle: “Black Lives Matter is a Marxist movement.”

Though invoking Marxism is a favored GOP fear-mongering tactic, Karl Marx died in 1883. That same year, baseball’s Cleveland Forest City team became the first professional ballclub to visit a sitting president in the White House, President Chester A. Arthur. Recently, a petition to remove a sculpture of Arthur in New York City said: “When you honor racists such as Chester A. Arthur, you show all minorities including Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and all of their allies where you stand, and you continue this cycle of hurt. You can’t change history, but you can change this.”

Long known as America’s pastime, Major League Baseball’s truncated season is slated for opening day on July 23. A look at baseball through the lens of the Black Lives Matter movement shows the league’s checkered history and current need for amends.

As the world watched in horror as video showed police officers crushing the life out of George Floyd, MLB was noticeably slow to make a statement. The last of the four major men’s American sports leagues to weigh in, MLB’s reticence reminded us of the league’s troubled history of racism.

Marc Carig wrote for The Athletic: “The league that celebrates Jackie Robinson has gone silent.”

“Robinson triumphed despite systemic racism – which flourishes to this day partly because of an unease about calling it out by name. Imagine, then, the statement that Major League Baseball has sent by not making a public statement at all.”

A group of MLB stars including Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Andrew McCutchen and Mookie Betts released a video in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, calling it “One Team. One Dream,” and used the hashtag #Players4BLM.

Eventually, MLB released a statement, saying the league “will take the necessary time, effort and collaboration to address the symptoms of systemic racism, prejudice and injustice, but will be equally as focused on the root of the problem.”

But the roots of baseball’s problem are old and deep. If the league is sincere about effecting change, MLB will need to shine a light on its dark history and focus on fixing its current brokenness.

Last week, Colorado Rockies outfielder and two-time MLB All-Star Ian Desmond shared a passionate Instagram essay, announcing he will opt out of playing this season. He cited concerns about the COVID-19 virus, but his outpouring of memories and reflections was spurred by this:

“The image of officer Derek Chauvin’s knee on the neck of George Floyd, the gruesome murder of a Black man in the street at the hands of a police officer, broke my coping mechanism. Suppressing my emotions became impossible.”

During a visit to his now dilapidated Little League field in Sarasota, Florida, Desmond recalled his high school teammates chanting “White power!” before games. Last month, Trump retweeted a racist video of his supporter in Florida chanting “White power!”

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About the current state of MLB, Desmond wrote: “In clubhouses we’ve got racist, sexist, homophobic jokes or flat-out problems. We’ve got cheating. We’ve got a minority issue from the top down. One African American GM. Two African American managers. Less than 8% Black players. No Black majority team owners.

“Perhaps most disheartening of all is a puzzling lack of focus on understanding how to change those numbers. A lack of focus on making baseball accessible and possible for all kids, not just those who are privileged enough to afford it.”

In 2018, I wrote for Rantt Media about the problematic history of racism In baseball. At the time I was covering the San Francisco Giants majority owner’s contribution to the campaign of Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith from Mississippi.

Hyde-Smith had come under fire for joking about public hangings and posing for a photo as a Confederate soldier. Facing widespread criticism and threats of a team boycott, the Giants co-owner, Charles Johnson, eventually requested a refund of his contribution to Hyde-Smith’s campaign. (Mississippi’s governor signed a bill last week to remove the Confederate emblem from the state’s flag.)

The Giants made political news again in 2020. The team announced in February that former player Aubrey Huff would be excluded from its 2010 World Series championship ten-year reunion because of his “unacceptable” tweets. Last month, Huff tweeted about the upcoming MLB season: “if one player takes a knee during the anthem I’m out.”

One MLB player did take a knee. In 2017, Bruce Maxwell, then a rookie catcher with the Oakland Athletics, was the first and only baseball player to take a knee during the national anthem to protest racial injustice. No other MLB players followed his lead.

When asked at the time about why he was taking a knee, Maxwell said:

“My hand was over my heart because I love this country and I have family members, including my father, who bled for this country, and who continue to serve. At the end of the day, this is the best country on the planet. I am and forever will be an American citizen and grateful to be here, but my kneeling is what’s getting the attention, and I’m kneeling for the people who don’t have a voice.”

He added, “This goes beyond the black and Hispanic communities because right now we have a racial divide that’s being practiced from the highest power we have in this country saying it’s basically OK to treat people differently. I’m kneeling for a cause but I’m in no way disrespecting my country or my flag.”

Maxwell’s protest was met with a flood of abuse and death threats aimed at him and his family.

In May, Dave Zirin tweeted: “[Maxwell] took a knee to protest racist police violence when a catcher for the A’s and next to no one in the sport had his back. He was an instant-pariah, blackballed and gone. Shameful and underdiscussed.”

In 2017, I interviewed Maxwell’s mother for Sports Illustrated. She texted me recently: “The only thing we can do is bring awareness and hope for change.”

MLB’s statement, an attempt to offer hope, is dilute because it seems the league is still cowed by Trump’s racist threats, rhetoric echoed by his base. League bosses and team owners need to support players who take a stand against racism — or who take a knee.

Last month, the MLB Network’s Harold Reynolds moderated a panel discussion, MLB’s Black Players Roundtable: Being Black in Baseball and America. Guests included Sharon Robinson, Jackie Robinson’s daughter and currently an educational consultant to MLB. Players on the panel, Pirates All-Star Josh Bell, Marlins pitcher Sterling Sharp and Diamondbacks pitcher Jon Duplantier, expressed concern about backlash for speaking out.

When the conversation turned to Kaepernick, Reynolds said, “We’ve all said baseball’s not ready for that [taking a knee],” and asked Sharon Robinson for her comment.

She responded, “I think baseball, like America, we have to help them be ready for that.” Robinson said she was thinking about Jackie Robinson Day: “That would be a time for us to make a statement,” and she asked the panel, “How do you see Jackie Robinson Day, could we use that in some way?”

On Jackie Robinson Day (April 15, 2021) and starting now, MLB should shine a light into the shadowy corners of its history. Educators say the history of systemic racism in this country and the contributions of Black people have been erased.

As Julian Hayter, a historian and an associate professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia told NBC News, the history of Black people and other minority communities has already “been completely whitewashed and erased” when it is taught in American classrooms.

To Professor Hayter’s point: MLB has disappeared Bruce Maxwell from baseball history, pretending his kneeling protest never happened. Players including Mark Canha (Maxwell’s former teammate) and Delino DeShields have voiced their regret that they hadn’t joined Maxwell in taking a knee.

Langston Clark, Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and Heman Sweatt Center for Black Males Alumni Fellow, emailed Rantt Media about Bruce Maxwell:

“He was a rookie! Think about the tremendous amount of courage it took to be the first and only person to take a knee in protest of racial injustice while participating in America’s past time, Major League Baseball. We cannot forget that Oakland is the birthplace of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, which makes Bruce’s actions even more historically significant.”

Also in Oakland, while Maxwell was taking a knee in the stadium next door, NBA star Klay Thompson was playing basketball for the Golden State Warriors in the adjacent arena.

Last month, Thompson posted an Instagram message, decrying the murder of “Elijah McCain, A gentle soul who played violin to lonely kittens in his spare time.” McClain was a 23 year-old Black man who was killed by police in Aurora, Colorado, last summer as he was walking home from a store, wearing a ski mask. McClain routinely wore masks when he was outside because he had anemia and became cold easily.

Thompson wrote:

“There is no debate that men, woman [sic] and children of color are ‘policed’ to a much harsher and catastrophic standard than white america. Waking up to the news of another murder of an unarmed brother, sister, mother, father or friend is so mentally draining and demoralizing and sometimes feels like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. But there is….it will take so much work and effort from conscious citizens across the globe. So many institutions need restructuring (voting rights, police procedures, minority representation in politics).”

Historically, NBA players and coaches have been more outspoken against racial injustice than have their MLB counterparts.

In 2018, LeBron James was infamously told to “shut up and dribble” by Fox News host Laura Ingraham after he criticized the president. King James clapped back, taking aim at Trump, saying, “The No. 1 job in America, the appointed person is someone who doesn’t understand the people,” calling some of Trump’s comments “laughable and scary.”

Likewise, NBA coaches like Steve Kerr of the Warriors and Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs have pulled no punches. In a recent interview with The New York Times, Popovich dressed down NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for caving to Trump’s criticism of players who kneel. Goodell has more recently condemned racism, apologized, and affirmed that Black lives matter.

Popovich said, “A smart man is running the N.F.L. and he didn’t understand the difference between the flag and what makes the country great — all the people who fought to allow Kaepernick to have the right to kneel for justice.”

The NBA and its Players Association are planning to paint “Black Lives Matter” on the court inside both sidelines in all three arenas the league will use when it resumes the 2019-20 season.

Meanwhile, Bruce Maxwell, the only MLB player to take a knee, has been playing Triple-A ball in Mexico. He led his team, Acereros de Monclova, to win the Mexican League championship last season. (The Mexican Baseball League, along with its Minor League Baseball affiliates in the U.S., has announced the cancelation of the 2020 season due to the spread of the coronavirus.)

That MLB teams have shunned Maxwell underscores the larger problem. As The Undefeated reported: “On Opening Day of the 2019 season, just 7.7% of MLB players were African American, down from its zenith of 18.5% in 1975. Fewer African Americans are playing baseball. Even fewer are being encouraged to be catchers.”

Despite Maxwell’s prowess as an offensive and defensive catcher, “Numerous baseball executives told The [San Francisco] Chronicle last winter [2018] that they had no interest in the free agent because of the political baggage associated with him.”

And Maxwell’s detractors have invented a straw man argument to justify blacklisting him. They distort the facts of a 2017 imbroglio with police to fit their racist narrative, labeling Maxwell a “thug.” It’s a familiar tactic.

Trump has repeatedly called Black Lives Matter protesters “thugs.” He tweeted about Minneapolis protesters: “These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Twitter slapped a warning label on Trump’s tweet for violating rules against glorifying violence.

Monte Poole wrote for NBC Sports: “Maxwell dared to make a highly visible but inarguably peaceful protest for a cause any human must consider just. He did it on a baseball field, which takes monumental courage. Bruce Maxwell should be remembered. Forever. As will Colin Kaepernick.”

In an interview last month, A’s shortstop Marcus Semien suggested to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic that we may see more MLB players take a knee when baseball opens its season. Semien said:

“Bruce Maxwell, my teammate, took a knee. At the time, a lot of people didn’t like it. I wonder what people would have thought this year if they saw Bruce Maxwell do that. That has kind of made me mad, the way that Bruce was screamed at by fans. It was hard for me to see.”

As for the 2020 season, Semien said, “Now that we have a platform with the season starting, we’ll be on TV every day and every night, I think you’ll see a little bit more.” He concluded, “But when you see people dying in your own community, the Black community, in Oakland or somewhere else, it’s time to shine a light on that, figure out why this is happening and change that.”

(AP Photo. Rantt Media contributor Nancy Levine, 2017)

(AP Photo. Rantt Media contributor Nancy Levine, 2017)

Sharon Robinson said, “Now is the time for us to voice our opinions and be able to talk openly about race, racism, police brutality.”

Now is the time. No more erasing Black history, no more appeasing Trump, caving to his racist threats and toxic invectives.

Just as 1968 Olympic track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos have been iconized in history as American heroes for raising their fists in a Black Power protest during their medal ceremony, we should exalt athletes who are taking a stand against racism. More than 50 years later, sports figures are illuminating the darkness. They are beacons of hope.

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