On Tuesday night, just after the Washington Nationals held a moment of silence for the victims of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Tex., a middle school choir sang the national anthem at Nationals Park. And that’s when Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle says he “broke,” thinking about how the children killed in Texas were younger than those singing America’s song and about how this country “can’t even guarantee enough safety in schools to make it so kids can reach that age.”
Two days later, Natasha Cloud, a member of the Washington Mystics, urged members of the Nationals and Washington Capitals to use their platforms to discuss recent mass shootings and the persistence of gun violence. Doolittle says her message “snapped” him out of a funk, leading him to tweet a thread of thoughts before asking The Washington Post to meet him in the Nationals’ dugout Friday afternoon. Here’s what the 35-year-old said upon sitting down:
“I think it’s important to say that Natasha was right,” Doolittle said. “I think she is a really important leader in the D.C. community, and whenever she talks I listen. I think she was right to essentially call for backup, especially here in D.C., where Congress is in our backyard. We might not have representation ourselves as D.C. residents, but maybe we can force some change and at least some conversations.
“... It just feels like we’ve reached a point where if not now, when? We should have done something after Sandy Hook; we should have done something after Vegas; we should have done something after Pittsburgh; I mean, you can go down the list. We should have done something after Virginia Tech. How far back do you want to go? And then the conversation inevitably always changes to mental health or bulletproof backpacks. We’re talking about ballistic blankets. We’re talking about renovating schools so there is only one entrance and one exit. We’re talking about arming teachers.
“You’re describing a prison, and you’re bargaining and negotiating with people’s lives instead of just addressing the common denominator in every single one of these issues. It’s really frustrating, and I would like to think that in this country we’re capable of some common-sense reforms that a majority of Americans support that don’t infringe on your Second Amendment rights."
While Doolittle spoke, his hands kept shaking in his lap. He raised his voice more than once. He seemed on the verge of either screaming or breaking down in tears.
“Just watching the stories on the news of these innocent people and their families, the survivors that have to carry on ... yeah, we can try to compartmentalize as athletes. Natasha talked about it in her press conference yesterday,” Doolittle continued. “When you’re here, when you’re at your job, when you put a uniform on and you’re around your team, you’re 100 percent focused on what you’re doing. ... But there are only so many hours that I can actively rehab my elbow. There are only so many hours I can actively prepare for a game and then play the game.
“We’re still members of our communities, and we want our communities to be safer, and it’s really frustrating that Congress is taking a 10-day recess right now after people were peacefully protesting outside Supreme Court justices’ homes, and two days later they had an emergency session to increase their protection. Two days after Uvalde and they’re taking a 10-day recess? It doesn’t make sense.
“... And, yeah, we do need to address mental health in this country, but the only time we talk about it can’t be after a mass shooting. There are so many other things we have to address to reduce the frequency of these kinds of events, like income inequality and better resources in communities and at schools. That’s the longer game, and we’ll probably never be able to stop these attacks from happening. It’s part of our society. It just feels like a disgusting and gross price that we pay for freedoms. It doesn’t really feel like freedom when every two weeks this is happening.”
Why did Doolittle agree with Cloud’s assertion that more local players — and more Nationals — should use their platforms right now?
“I guess, cynically, you could say that you’re overinflating the size of your platform and the influence that you have and it’s just self-indulgent to say these kinds of things. Maybe it is on some level. Who am I? I’m on the injured list. I’m a middle reliever on a team that unfortunately is in last place right now,” Doolittle answered. “But we’re still members of societies and our communities, and there are people who look up to us as athletes, who listen to what we have to say as athletes.
“And I think if you could start some of these conversations, or you can participate in some of these conversations and maybe get people to listen or put pressure on elected officials to do something, the reality is that you have a little bit more sway than the average person. And when it comes to making changes in your community, you can help move the needle on any number of issues that are important to you.
“... Guys here have been talking about it. Guys in here have kids that age. Guys in here have kids that go to school. We don’t have kids, but I think about my 5-year-old niece. The other day I asked my wife if our niece’s school does active shooter drills. I was like, what the [expletive], man. Like what a question to have to ask. We’ve normalized it so much.
“We need to have more conversations about better regulations around assault rifles. I don’t think people need them. I don’t think that weapons of war should be on the street. But, like, I respect the right to protect your home and to go hunt and to have a gun, and I know a lot of guys that I’ve played with are gun owners.
“... There is a way here to protect people’s Second Amendment right but also protect people who are just going to the grocery store, who are going to the movie theater, kids that are going to school, people who are going to church or a synagogue. It doesn’t feel like a controversial opinion to have, but I find myself really policing my speech right now. It’s really frustrating.”
Doolittle stopped, kept his eyes on the ground and then cut off the next question, talking louder than at any other point of the conversation.
“The kids called 911,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking. It’s absolutely heartbreaking."