While the ranks of NFL players protesting racial inequality by kneeling during the playing of the national anthem now numbers in the hundreds, and with dozens of athletes from other sports speaking up in the wake of President Trump’s incendiary comments over the weekend regarding athletes and the American flag, Major League Baseball can still count on one hand — or actually, one finger — the number of players making a similar show of protest before its games.
On Sunday, Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell took a knee during “The Star-Spangled Banner” for the second straight day — the first baseball player to do so — with teammate Mark Canha, while standing, showing his support by resting his hand on Maxwell’s shoulder. Maxwell, 26, has described himself as “highly patriotic”; he grew up in a military family and was born on a U.S. Army base in Germany when his father was stationed there. Though he knelt, he rested his cap across his heart as the anthem played.
“I’m kneeling,” Maxwell told reporters Saturday night after his first anthem protest, “for the people who don’t have a voice.”
It is perhaps not surprising that it took baseball nearly 13 months to see its first player do what then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first did by taking a knee before a preseason game in August 2016, and that it is still waiting for a second player to join Maxwell. On Sunday, Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Chris Archer, one of only 62 African Americans on Opening Day rosters this season, gave voice to why it may be a long time before baseball sees other players lining up en masse to join Maxwell’s protest.
“From the feedback I’ve gotten from my teammates, I don’t think it would be the best thing to do for me at this time,” Archer told reporters in Baltimore following the Rays’ loss there Sunday afternoon. “I agree with [Maxwell’s] message. I believe in equality. [But] I don’t want to offend anybody. No matter how you explain it or justify it, some people just can’t get past the military element of it, and it’s not something I want to do, is ruffle my teammates’ feathers on my personal views that have nothing to do with baseball.”
In part, the issue in baseball is one of sheer numbers. African Americans made up just 7.7 percent of MLB players this season, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, the sport’s lowest percentage since 1991. White players make up 57.5 percent, with Latinos at 31.9 percent and Asians (1.9) and “other” (1.1) accounting for the rest. The NFL and NBA, by comparison, are majority African American.
“It did take a while in baseball” for someone to kneel in protest, Archer said, “I think mainly because the other sports … are predominantly black. Our sport isn’t, so I think the criticism might be a little more harsh. It took somebody really special that had a unique background to take that leap.”
Archer is not the first baseball player to express the viewpoint that there would be a bigger and more dangerous backlash to such protests in their sport, compared with football and basketball. Baltimore Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, in an interview last fall with USA Today, called baseball a “white man’s sport” and said a player who takes a knee during the anthem would risk “kick[ing] yourself out of the game.”
“In football, you can’t kick them out. You need those players,” Jones told the newspaper. “In baseball, they don’t need us. Baseball is a white man’s sport.”
But it isn’t only the racial disparity, as expressed in numbers, that is at play in baseball. There is also a generations-old culture of conformity within clubhouses that traditionally has discouraged personal expression. Most seasons, debate over that culture is mostly limited to pitchers throwing fastballs at hitters who show too much emotion following home runs. But it may also be a factor in deterring African American players from joining Maxwell in protest.
“With all of the unwritten rules in baseball, there’s certainly this concept of how to act when you’re in a major league clubhouse and when you’re on a major league baseball field,” Oakland’s Canha, who is white, told reporters. “I think involved in all of that is a feeling of not wanting to rock the boat, so to speak. And I think people are a little bit hesitant to speak their mind all the time, which I think is kind of a disappointing part of baseball.”
Canha said he considered whether it was worth risking his job to show support of Maxwell. “I was hesitant to do it,” he told reporters. “I thought about Colin Kaepernick. … The fact I hesitated about making the smallest gesture of putting my hand on Bruce’s shoulder says we’re not where we need to be.”
But Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle, a former teammate of Maxwell’s in Oakland, said baseball clubhouses are more accepting of divergent viewpoints and experiences than some would imagine.
“It makes me sad to think that Archer feels that way,” said Doolittle, whose father was in the Air Force and was deployed to the Middle East after 9/11. “I say that because clubhouses have the ability to be some of the most accepting and supportive places. You look at some of the most successful teams, and it’s the ones who have that sort of environment. I wish that every player in the league had the same clubhouse experiences that I have — where if you are … true to yourself, even if your teammates don’t agree with you, there is still room to respect you and have a dialogue.
“So it’s tough to hear that any player might not have that experience in this league.”
As with the explosion of NFL players taking a knee this weekend, it was President Trump’s comments in a speech in Huntsville, Ala., on Friday — in which he labeled an athlete who refuses to stand for the anthem a “son of a bitch” and encouraged team owners to “fire” them — that spurred Maxwell to take action.
“This is beyond race,” Maxwell told Yahoo Sports on Sunday. “This is about our president speaking out in a vulgar, negative way against people exercising their rights in a peaceful manner. It’s about mankind. To call people who are protesting ‘sons of bitches’? He feels like he’s untouchable. We’re not dogs. We’re not animals. We’re people. And people in this country need to understand that we are not going to sit around and let a man call us that, no matter how powerful he is.”
Before taking a knee for the first time Saturday, Maxwell spoke to his teammates in the A’s clubhouse, informing them of his plans and encouraging questions and comments. Those teammates uniformly supported him in their public comments in the aftermath.
But Nationals pitcher Edwin Jackson, a veteran of 15 big league seasons, said concern over disrupting the clubhouse atmosphere is one reason more players haven’t taken the same sort of stand.
“Some people don’t feel comfortable doing it,” said Jackson, an African American whose father served 23 years in the Army. “Some people don’t want to bring attention to the clubhouse. Because once you do it, it goes beyond you. It’s a team thing — because everybody on the team is going to get questioned about it. … There may be some teams that don’t want to deal with it.”
Within minutes of Maxwell’s initial kneeling Saturday night, the team’s ownership and management released a statement in support of Maxwell, saying, “The Oakland A’s pride ourselves on being inclusive. We respect and support all of our players’ constitutional rights and freedom of expression.”
A spokesperson for MLB said Monday it would not be appropriate for league officials to discuss “how or why/why not the players should express themselves.” In a statement released Saturday, the league said it respects that “each of our players is an individual with his own background, perspectives and opinions.”
But others in leadership roles across the game have spoken out against the type of gestures Maxwell made this weekend. Last September, in the wake of Kaepernick’s protests, Arizona Diamondbacks chief baseball analyst Tony La Russa, a Hall of Fame manager, said he would not have permitted a player to protest the anthem.
“I would tell [him], ‘You’re not going to be out there representing our team and our organization by disrespecting the flag,’ ” La Russa said on ESPN’s “The Dan Le Batard Show.” “No sir, I would not allow it. If you want to make your statement, you make it in the clubhouse, but not [on the field]. You’re not going to show it that way publicly and disrespectfully.”
On Saturday, Chicago Cubs Manager Joe Maddon equated anthem protests with disrespecting the presidency, saying, “It’s dangerous when folks in our country stop respecting the White House and the seat of the president. It’s not a good situation. With all due respect to everybody, I just believe that we need to get our acts together collectively, all of us.”
In a telephone interview, Orioles Executive Vice President John P. Angelos said baseball’s issues regarding culture and dissent are reflected in society as a whole. Asked whether the sport does enough to create an atmosphere where players feel comfortable expressing their views, he said, “I don’t think the country does enough. … I guess people could say it’s particular to baseball. But I look at it more broadly as a dynamic in all issues of dissent.”
Nationals Manager Dusty Baker, one of only two current African American managers in baseball (the other being the Dodgers’ Dave Roberts), has been outspoken in the past regarding baseball’s checkered racial history. Asked Monday about the smaller number of players protesting in baseball, as compared with football and basketball, the 68-year-old turned the question around:
“Why do you think that is?” Baker said. “… I’ve got my feelings. [This] ain’t changed anything I’ve said in the past anyway. I tell you, we do need to listen to the youth of this country.”