Just a Bit Outside: Jones, Kaepernick, Robinson, Ali and Issues of Race in America’s Pastime

by Sam Stockton | 9/26/16 12:00am

Since Colin Kaepernick first knelt during the national anthem before a San Francisco 49er preseason game on Aug. 14, his protest has prompted a national referendum on social injustice in the United States.

Thirteen NFL players, including teammate Eric Reid and Seattle Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane, have joined him in protesting during the anthem through kneeling, raising a fist or locking arms.

Kaepernick’s movement is not exclusive to the NFL. U.S. women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe knelt during the anthem while playing for Team USA and may face discipline for continuing to do so. College and high school football players have also been seen and documented performing similar protests.

While Kapernick’s intention was to start a conversation about race and police brutality, much of the dialogue surrounding the 49er quarterback’s protest has been centered on the platform athletes have when it comes to discussing social issues and whether they deserve it.

Many opined after Kaepernick began his protest that his thoughts were irrelevant on the grounds that he is a back-up quarterback. A popular take on Kaepernick rapidly became that he is not good enough at playing quarterback for his thoughts on race in the U.S. to matter. His performance did not merit the same platform enjoyed by his peers who are more successful on the football field.

The issue of platform is very relevant to Kaepernick’s movement’s relationship with America’s national pastime.

As protests break out across various sports, the MLB has remained protest free. No baseball player has opted to kneel, sit or protest in any form during the Anthem. However, while no on-field protests have occurred, Baltimore Orioles centerfielder Adam Jones in an interview with USA Today has tweaked the scope of the discussion Kaepernick started.

“Baseball is a white man’s sport,” Jones said. He pointed to the relatively low number of African-American baseball players as a key cause in why more players have not spoken up, saying “We already have two strikes against us...so you might as well not kick yourself out of the game. In football, you can’t kick them out. You need those players. In baseball, they don’t need us.”

Jones’ assertion holds a strong statistical basis. The NFL is composed of 68 percent African-American players; the MLB: 8 percent. There are just two black managers in the MLB, one black general manager and not a single black MLB team owner.

Jones, a star center fielder playing in a city that has been heavily involved in the national discussion of race, believes that African-American players in the MLB lack the same platform as their NFL or NBA peers because they are dispensable within the league.

To him, outspoken African-American players will not last long in a league where the majority of stars are white. To be sure, the MLB has many excellent African-American players, but, as of the 2016 All-Star break, not one of the 10 bestselling jerseys in baseball was that of an African-American player. What is perhaps more concerning is that the league does not appear to be doing anything to correct clear inequalities within the sport.

Whether most fans like it or not, American sports have long been tied to political protest. In 1968, at the Summer Olympics in 1968, the podium of the 200-meter became an iconic image of the Civil Rights Movement.

Gold-medalist Tommie Smith and bronze-medalist John Carlos, both American, each raised a fist for the entire playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Smith later wrote in his autobiography that the gesture was not one of Black Power, as many believed at the time, but one of human rights.

The late Muhammad Ali famously refused to fight in the Vietnam War despite being drafted one year prior to Smith and Carlos’ protest, citing war’s incompatibly with his Muslim faith.

At the time, Ali was vilified, but his actions changed what it meant to be a star athlete. His greatness did not lie merely in his aptitude in the ring but in his willingness to use his platform to advance a political stance in which he believed.

By the time of his death last spring, Ali’s protest and willingness to use the platform of athletic stardom were as big a part of his legacy as his dominance in the sport of boxing.

Change in baseball, more so than in any other major sport, is glacial. It is a sport deeply rooted in tradition and history. Baseball’s agreed upon gold standard, the 1927 New York Yankees, played exactly 20 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier on April 15, 1947. Robinson, a baseball and civil rights icon, seems to have more in common with Kaepernick than you might think. In his 1972 autobiography, Robinson wrote: “As I write this..., I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”

In 2016, the world Robinson described appears strikingly similar to the league in which Jones plays. Jones is a black man in a white league, and it is time for Major League Baseball to speak out and to encourage all of its stars to express themselves.

The fact that Jones feels that black players’ views are being suppressed should be enough for the league to take action to ensure that this suppression ends immediately.

If the league does not take action, it will only augment the growing void in popularity between baseball and other American major sports and prove even more devastating that perhaps Jones is right.