I have been a devout Red Sox fan for decades. But for now, I’m done. It’s not because of the strange coronavirus pandemic-shortened season, or their dismal record. It’s because as a Black American, I cannot root for a team that misses almost every opportunity to stand up and lead in the face of the biggest civil rights issue of our time.
Given its history, no team in Major League Baseball has a greater obligation than the Red Sox to stand firmly against the ongoing brutality that continues to leave Black Americans dead, maimed, and traumatized in its wake. Yet, on Wednesday, as members of the sports world joined in collective protest to the police shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, in Kenosha, Wisc., the Red Sox played as if it were just another day.
Almost no professional sports team has a history free of racism. But the Red Sox don’t seem to have learned the lessons from holding the dishonorable distinction of being the last team in the league to integrate, after passing on signing Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays, or from the recent statements from players who were the object of bigoted slurs at Fenway Park, or for failing to stand with the Black and brown players and staff who last year refused to go to the White House for a ceremony with a president who makes a hobby of fanning the flames of racial division in sports and in the nation.
Hanging a Black Lives Matter banner on Fenway Park is not enough when the team passes on every other opportunity to stand as a leader in that fight.
Jason Reynolds, who coauthored “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You” with Ibram X. Kendi, director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, used a baseball metaphor in a June CBS News interview to describe the difference between just calling out racism and being a true agent of change.
“If you think about baseball, to be not racist is going for a bunt,” Reynolds said. “You’re not expecting to hit the ball hard. You just want to get the ball to connect with the bat so that you can attempt to make a play.
“To be antiracist is to swing the bat as hard as you can and go for the home run,” he continued. “You risk the strike, but you swing that bat as hard as you can every single time because you understand that that’s the way you win games. That’s the way you change things.”
The Sox keep bunting.
Wednesday, after the Milwaukee Bucks’ decision to sit out Game 5 of the playoffs in protest of the shooting of Blake rippled through the NBA and other professional leagues, WNBA, MLS, and MLB games were canceled, and the world took notice. Four years after Colin Kaepernick’s professional football career ended because of his protests of violence against Black Americans, athletes across leagues leveraged their collective influence to demand change.
The Red Sox did not. They played a game, lost badly, and missed the moment. It was only after the team’s lone Black player, Jackie Bradley Jr., made the decision to sit out Thursday night’s game in protest that the rest of the team got on board. For me, it was literally a day late.
They could have followed the lead of a beloved alum, Mookie Betts, whose departure not only left a hole in the Sox’s lineup, but also its heart.
“I think no matter what, I wasn’t going to play tonight, just because I have to stand by my heart here, my thoughts that changes need to be made,” Betts, now a Dodgers right-fielder, said of his decision to sit out Wednesday’s game, which led all his teammates to follow suit. “I need my platform to at least get the ball rolling.”
These weren’t the only disappointments I felt in my team this year. When only a handful of Sox players chose to kneel before the home opener at Fenway Park — a stark juxtaposition to the visiting Baltimore Orioles, whose players and staff knelt in unison — I recalled what Red Sox chairman Tom Werner told me and other reporters outside the White House after the ceremony with President Trump that most players of color skipped: “We don’t see it as a racial divide.”
“I think baseball is apolitical,” Werner added.
But sports has never lived in a political or social vacuum. It didn’t when Bill Russell walked out of an exhibition game and later marched on Washington in the 1960s; it didn’t when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists at the Summer Olympics in 1968; it didn’t when Kaepernick took a knee; and it doesn’t now.
I hope the recent events help Werner and others in the Red Sox organization begin to see the racism in the world, and the team’s role in standing against it, more clearly. Until then, I’m giving what was my favorite national pastime a pass.