keyboard_arrow_uptop
Baseball Prospectus is looking for a Public Data Services Director. Read the description here.
Image credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

On July 5, Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle said in the middle of a press conference regarding the restart of Major League Baseball and what would later be known as summer camp, “sports are like the reward of a functioning society.” This sentence was amidst a much longer, thoughtful reply about the societal and health conditions under which MLB players were being brought back. It’s a very similar sentiment to one Jane McManus used on April 7, when she discussed the White House’s meeting with sports commissioners. She said “sports are the effect of a functioning society—not the precursor.” 

Both versions of the same sentiment spoke to a laudable ideal in the context of a country that was not addressing a rampaging virus, and opting instead to bring sports back for the feeling of normalcy rather than the reality of it. “Priorities,” as McManus said.

On Wednesday, the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks conducted a wildcat/political strike, refusing to come out for Game 5 of their playoff series against the Orlando Magic. The Magic refused to accept the forfeit, and shortly thereafter other playoff series were threatened by player strikes. Eventually the league moved to postpone that day’s games, folding to players leveraging their united power. 

The backdrop against which these actions took place was the shooting by police of Jacob Blake. Blake was shot in the back seven times by police, as he attempted to get into his vehicle. He managed to survive the assault, but is paralyzed from the waist down. 

***

The step taken to walk out, first by the Milwaukee Bucks, then subsequently by other NBA, WNBA, and MLB teams, was a step toward upholding the virtue of the sentiment described by McManus and Doolittle. But that sentiment does not align with the broad history of sports in this and other countries, a history that contradicts the core of the idealistic statement. 

Sports have been a significant part of American society for most of its existence, expanding in importance and influence in recent years. The idea that society was functioning in a way that was worthy of the reward of sports for most of that time is laughable. Much of America is not functioning and has not functioned for Black people, full stop. The oppressed people at the center of this political act by players, specifically Black players, in concert throughout the NBA and in fits and starts throughout Major League Baseball, have not known a society that functions for them rather than because of them. 

Politics has been part of the sports landscape since the inception of sport, but for just about as long people have bemoaned its presence. Sports are to be an escape, it is said. An escape from what, though? A functioning society? 

No, the presence of sports has never signified a cultural or political system that is on the up and up. Rather, the presence of sports reflect and reinforce the society that produces them. 

***

The Negro Leagues were born out of societal dysfunction. The need for entirely separate leagues, composed of Black and Latino players barred from the Major Leagues because of racism? That is not a functioning society, and yet there were sports. 

Even the integration of players from the Negro Leagues resulted in a transfer of power and wealth from Black-owned businesses and communities and into white ones, mirroring the dysfunction that had bled into every aspect of American society at the time. Japheth Knopp noted in the Spring 2016 Baseball Research Journal:

The manner in which integration in baseball—and in American businesses generally—occurred was not the only model which was possible. It was likely not even the best approach available, but rather served the needs of those in already privileged positions who were able to control not only the manner in which desegregation occurred, but the public perception of it as well in order to exploit the situation for financial gain. Indeed, the very word integration may not be the most applicable in this context because what actually transpired was not so much the fair and equitable combination of two subcultures into one equal and more homogenous group, but rather the reluctant allowance—under certain preconditions—for African Americans to be assimilated into white society.

To understand the value of a movement, though, is not to understand how it is co-opted by ownership, but to know the people it brings together and what they demand. When Jackie Robinson—the player who demarcated the inevitability of the end of the Negro leagues—attended the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, he did so with his family and marched alongside the people. He stood alongside hundreds of thousands to fight for their common civil and labor rights. “The moral arc of the universe is long,” many freedom fighters have echoed, “but it bends towards justice.” The bend, it is less frequently said, happens when a great mass of people place the moral arc of the universe on their knee and apply force, as Jackie, his family, and thousands of others did that day.

***

Of course, taking the moral arc of the universe down from the mantle and bending it is not without risk. Perhaps the outsized influence of athletes is itself a mark of a dysfunctional society, but, nonetheless, hundreds of athletes woke up on Wednesday morning with the power to bring in millions of dollars in revenues. That very power, as we would come to find out, was matched with the equal and opposite power to not bring those revenues. That power, in hands ranging from the Milwaukee Bucks, to Kenny Smith in the Inside the NBA Studio, from the unexpected ally, Josh Hader, and his largely white teammates to the notably Black Seattle Mariners, would be exercised for a single demand: the end to state violence against Black people. Not unlike the March itself, it sat at the intersection of the civil rights of Black Americans and bold labor action. The March on Washington stood in the face of a false notion of integration—against an integration of extraction but not one of equality—and proposed something different. Just the same, the acts of solidarity of August 26, 2020 will be remembered in stark defiance of MLB’s BLM-branded, but ultimately empty displays on opening weekend.

Bold defiance like this can never be without risk. By choosing to exercise this power, the Milwaukee Bucks took a risk. They risked vitriol and backlash from those they disagreed with. They risked fines or seeing their contracts voided, as a walk out like this is prohibited by their CBA. They risked forfeiting a playoff game, one that, as the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, they’d worked all year to attain. They didn’t know how Orlando would respond. It wasn’t clear that other teams throughout the league would follow suit in solidarity. And it wasn’t known the league would accept these actions and moderately co-opt them by “postponing” games that would have featured no players.

If the league reschedules the games, some of the athletes’ risk—their shared sacrifice—will be diminished, in retrospect. But they did not know any of that when they took that risk. And it is often left to athletes to take these risks when others in society won’t, especially those of their same socioeconomic status and levels of influence.

It is athletes, specifically BIPOC athletes, that take them, though, because they live with the risk of being something other than white in this country every day. They are no strangers to the realities of police brutality. It seems incongruous then, to say that sports are a reward for a functioning society when we rely on athletes to lead us closer to being a functioning society. Luckily, our beloved athletes, WNBA players first and foremost among them, understand what sports truly are: a pipebender for the moral arc of the universe. 

Thank you for reading

This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.

Subscribe now
You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe
jssharo
8/27
Please stick more to baseball analysis.
Craig Goldstein
8/27
No.
David Xavier Marquez
8/27
Thank you, Craig.
jssharo
8/27
Perhaps you should start a site for this kind of article and call it Politics Prospectus. While I happen to agree with many of your points, I pay you for your baseball expertise, not your political opinions.
Craig Goldstein
8/27
Then consider them a free bonus.
Mac Guyver
8/28
Consider posting your social media banter on social media.
Cliff Mayo
8/27
Nobody's forcing you to read articles you don't want to read and/or disagree with. If I assume your motivation for posting such comments is that you simply don't want to read it, then you people would confuse me. I'm not confused, though.
jssharo
8/27
I open up the site. I am looking for articles about what the fine staff here thinks about how might the Red Sox rebuild their pitching staff, or is Sonny Gray an ace now. Instead I am confronted with an article that pops into my face from a guy who is very smart about baseball sharing his opinions about politics. Not really easily avoidable. Look, everyone has their opinions about politics. I do as well. Do you want to hear them? I would guess not. Although your comment "you people" suggests that you have already decided where I stand (hint: you are wrong). So THAT is my motivation for posting such comments. I am not some angry white person who refuses to engage with the history of their country (not you, I know). By the way Craig, could you please write about how the Sox might rebuild their staff or about whether Sonny Gray is now a legit top 10 NL starter?
Craig Goldstein
8/27
Sure, I can write about those things. But no one made you click on this article, which I don't think seemed like it was about something else. The reality is that the sport is being impacted by politics and Cory and I wanted to write about what we thought about that. You don't have to want to read it, but we're not going to stop expressing our thoughts or arguments. This didn't displace an article about baseball that would otherwise have been written.

You're welcome to keep asking us to focus on baseball but my answer will continue to be that baseball is everything that it touches. This is writing about baseball. It's not roster mechanics or pitching performances, but that doesn't make it less about baseball.

And certainly I'm happy to hear about your thoughts on these issues. Others have expressed theirs. I might not agree and we might have a discussion about it. If you'd rather not share it, that's fine too -- but I do want to share mine. And I'll continue to do so.
jssharo
8/27
Your site, can't stop you. I registered my opinion, thanks for engaging.
Craig Goldstein
8/27
Likewise!
Mac Guyver
8/28
You have a position of privilege and you are abusing it to further your own agenda. Your opinion piece had little to do with MLB baseball. The forum for this kind of discussion is social media - these people (myself included) don't come here for their fix of social media. We deserve the right to be able to avoid social media although it gets more difficult every day when people do things like this. Social media makes the world a worse place. It could be different in another reality or at a different time but in this time we can see a society falling apart largely because of the lack of logic and healthy discussion that is social media.
Craig Goldstein
8/28
No, it's going to stay here. Avoiding issues you don't like isn't a right, and you can avoid them by not reading the article. It's pretty easy.
Jen Mac Ramos
8/28
How does it have little to do with MLB if it is about a movement happening within MLB itself?
tctx
8/27
Thank you, Craig
Mac Guyver
8/28
Seconded. There is a better place for this and it is called Twitter. What makes you qualified to preach about social justice? I don't think that you do a great job of connecting several disjointed points.
Craig Goldstein
8/28
What are the qualifications required to preach about social justice, exactly?
Steven Goldman
8/27
This is happening in baseball right now. The piece reflects on this baseball event through the lens of a comment made by a baseball player. Four entire rosters functionally went on the 24-hour IL, if that makes it easier for you. This is analysis of the injury that prompted that.
Adrock
8/27
Thank you Steven, Craig, and everyone who is refusing to shut up and dribble, shut up and write about baseball, shut up and pitch.

I am sorry that so many angry white people refuse to engage with the history of their country and their sport.

This article is essential, and clear, and the people braying for a return to worrying only about XWOBA are a disgrace to the memory of Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Eddie Stanky, Branch Rickey, Hank Aaron, and too many others to name.
dennis paulik
8/27
We do live in a functioning society. It is not perfect. To suggest that we do not have a functioning society is a false narrative. Where else on earth could people riot, destroy private and public property, and threaten others without being arrested except the United States. Oh yeah, one other thing, where else on earth do athletes get paid millions to play a game. Go ahead boycott some more.
cfrontin
8/27
France, for instance.
Craig Goldstein
8/27
Spain
cfrontin
8/27
Japan, too
Ben Carsley
8/27
UK
cfrontin
8/27
totally forgot Ghana as well, silly me
James Rodgers
8/27
Germany
Patrick
8/27
Canada
Shaun P.
8/27
Italy.
Matt Provenzano
8/27
The planet is very literally dying.
batts40
8/27
Appreciate the sentiment but it's hard to arrest them here because the people doing the things you described are the police. Hope this helps!
Cliff Mayo
8/27
China
Mac Guyver
8/28
I don't think that we have a functional society. Schools are closed. Public services are barely functioning. There are riots in the streets. That is what dysfunctional looks like. Don't worry, talking about it with a complete disconnect from logic is the solution. The more inflammatory the better!
schlicht
8/27
Unlike the above commenters, I appreciate your analysis. I especially like your point: "Sports are to be an escape, it is said. An escape from what, though? A functioning society?" Perhaps "functioning" was the not the precise term to apply - a car belching smoke and crawling at 15 mph could still be considered functioning - but your point is precisely that it is not functioning in the way we might hope.
We need to face the serious issues that confront our country, and one of those issues is the loss of a sense of responsibility for the communities around us, alongside the increasing notion that everything is about "me", my right to carry a gun, loot, not wear a face mask, denigrate anybody who disagrees with me.
One can choose to spend their extra dollars/time on sports or art or movies rather than on entities that promote the common good. At some point there is a tradeoff, and I suspect that we are seeing its effects now on our society.
Patrick
8/27
I appreciated this article, too. I think your car analogy is a good one and would expand it to an entire highway - some cars are running well, but when some are crawling along as you describe, the entire system slows down. (I will, however, disagree with you about art - it can be a vital way of exploring and communicating these very issues.)
Craig Goldstein
8/27
Thanks, both of you. I tend to agree with Patrick that art might be a bit of a separate discussion, and I'm open to the idea that sports can promote the common good, too! There are a lot of ways to address and support our communities, local and national. Anyway, I appreciate your comments and further thoughts. Much obliged.
David Yeager
8/27
Just wanted to say I appreciated the article.
Shaun P.
8/27
We need these articles and more like them. I appreciate them and the perspectives they bring, and the conversations they help spur.
Cliff Mayo
8/27
Hear, hear!
Wyomissing
8/27
full stop? really?
Jen Mac Ramos
8/27
Yes, full stop.
Wyomissing
8/27
Having this article written by 2 white guys is peripheral to the actual typical victims of excessive police force- brown skinned people. But, then to write this "essay" in such a sanctimonious way is really hard to absorb. Full stop.
Craig Goldstein
8/27
We're not both white.
Wyomissing
8/27
My mistake. I sincerely apologize.
hufnagel
8/27
One might consider that sports—the professional versions—are simply a tool for the rich to become richer, by taking the public's money. It also serves the purpose of diverting people's attention from seeing ways in which the rich are deceiving the rest of society.
Mac Guyver
8/28
You just described politics.
Jon Crate
8/27
yay article
lschnapf
8/27
I remember the time when sports was a way to escape our problems for two-hours. it was entertainment. Athletes certainly have a platform to express their opinions before and after games. who does not go to work because they are upset about what is going on in their community?
Jen Mac Ramos
8/27
Sports have always been political, though. Sports aren't strictly entertainment. We've seen it throughout history, and history is happening right now. I can imagine that there are also folks who didn't go to work to participate in the Black lives matter protests, especially if there was an instance of police brutality in their communities. As Cory and Craig said in their article, sports reflects and reinforces society. This is no different.
Steven Goldman
8/27
Who would be so cruel as to ask an entertainer to entertain them when they are in mourning?
gobobbygo
8/27
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_flu
Maureen Mielke
8/28
I think the problem many have with some of these pieces is the dictatorial tone and that no dissenting opinions should be possible or will be considered.

Between some of the writers here and at fangraphs it really does like an echo chamber.
Shaun P.
8/28
I have read a lot of the "sports only, please" comments - not all, but a lot - and this is the first time I have read that particular criticism.

There is a huge difference between an article discussing my favorite ice cream flavor versus yours, or whether Sonny Gray has pitched better this year than Clayton Kershaw - those are things on which reasonable people can disagree and thus discuss and offer differing views - and stating that treating other human beings in evil ways, as something less than human beings, is in appropriate. That's simply not up for discussion. If you think that is dictatorial or that it is a position worthy of dissenting from, that's your choice, but, I don't see it.
Craig Goldstein
8/28
We write essays from a point of view, sometimes a strong point of view. They're just words on a screen. I'm not sure what is "dictatorial" when there is no lever of power, here. As for dissenting opinions, there are a great many and they're in the comments every time, so I'm going to disagree with you there.
Maureen Mielke
8/28
Appreciate the replays to the comments section. Always good to know the writers and their audience can have a civil discourse. I certainly agree with many of the points in the articles here.
Maureen Mielke
8/28
Reply's*
Craig Goldstein
8/29
Likewise! Appreciate your thoughts and commentary.
Maureen Mielke
8/28
Hypocrisy is also prevalent in many of these stances. For example corporations like Nike with their labor practices in off shore factories but many in the NBA and other sports have no problem accepting millions in endorsements from them. Also when Daryl Morey spoke out on China although it was pretty innocuous he was censured and sternly admonished by the NBA power players including Lebron.
Craig Goldstein
8/28
I agree, I do wish they'd do more to speak out against the conditions for workers from Nike and other companies. And I found the fealty to China and their business rather embarrassing during that whole fiasco.
Mac Guyver
8/28
Our society is completely dysfunctional so they are not, right?