- A's rookie catcher Bruce Maxwell became baseball's first player to kneel during the national anthem on Saturday. In doing so, he put his relatively short career on the line by following in the footsteps of several other professional athletes and their national anthem protests.
Since the night of Sept. 1, 2016, when then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to call attention to racial injustice, observers have waited to see which athletes across professional sports would follow suit. The NFL saw plenty of players join the movement, either by taking a knee themselves or by raising a fist or placing a hand on the shoulder of a fellow protester. In the NBA, no one kneeled or sat for the anthem, but a number of players—including the league’s biggest stars, most notably LeBron James—made their support for Kaepernick and his stance clear.
But across Major League Baseball, there was no sign of protest. The end of the 2016 season came and went without a single player kneeling; nothing changed this year, either. Even the election of Donald Trump as president—a man who ran on a campaign of white nationalism and who has courted the support of white supremacists—did little to shake MLB out of its non-political stupor. Baseball, for all its talk of diversity and inclusivity and its promotion as America’s national pastime, seemed content to let the moment pass without saying something—anything—about racism or police brutality.
No longer. On Saturday night, as Trump’s latest incendiary comments on Kaepernick and protests, as well as the Golden State Warriors and Steph Curry, precipitated an outpouring of condemnation on social media and in the press, the Athletics’ rookie catcher Bruce Maxwell went to one knee during the national anthem before a game against Texas. MLB finally had its first anthem protester. It’s about time.
Trump’s angry screed about Kaepernick at a rally in Alabama (in which he referred to him and fellow anthem protestors as a “son of a b----”) and his comments about how NFL players should be forced to stand for the anthem or be “fired,” as well as disinviting Curry and the Warriors from the White House, drew anger and mockery from countless basketball and football stars, and even some NFL owners. But across baseball, there wasn’t much outcry. CC Sabathia told reporters that he would “never” visit the White House while Trump was president, adding, “I don’t believe in anything that is Trump.” Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle, who was outspoken against Trump’s refugee ban and the white supremacist-led rally in Charlottesville, tweeted about athletes no longer sticking to sports. But otherwise, few players spoke out.
That’s not a surprise. The demographics and culture of baseball could hardly have been designed to make something like an anthem protest more of a non-starter. According to a race and gender report card released by University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the beginning of the season, the league is majority white, at 57.5%. Only 7.7% of MLB players are African-American—the league’s lowest total since 1991—and although the percentage of players of color is 42.5%, most of that group is comprised of Latinos who are not originally from the United States. Professional baseball players are, by and large, a politically conservative group. And perhaps more than any other sport, they are encouraged—or at least cautioned—not to speak their minds about politics and the world beyond the diamond, as Jayson Stark noted for ESPN in February. To talk about social issues is to become the dreaded “clubhouse distraction.” As Adam Jones so succinctly put it in an interview with USA Today last September: “Baseball is a white man’s sport.”
It’s easy to understand why players don’t want to throw themselves into the maelstrom that is talking politics in 2017. But it’s also been disheartening to see the league of Jackie Robinson go so silent on social and racial issues, especially when NFL and NBA players are so outspoken. In a country where people of color are being regularly disenfranchised, where the president defends neo-Nazis as “very fine people” and where his Department of Justice targets Hispanic immigrants and Muslim refugees as enemies of the state, how can anyone afford not to speak up? Worse, how could comments like Joe Maddon’s—that it’s “dangerous when folks in our country stop respecting the White House and the seat of the president,” a line of thought that ignores the substance of what Trump has said and done—be the representative for baseball in this day and age?
Maxwell is changing the narrative. In some ways, he is the perfect person to lead the way in MLB: An African-American from Alabama—he went to high school just 20 minutes away from Huntsville, the site of Trump’s rally, and to college in Birmingham—he is also the patriotic son of an Army veteran. That last fact is a welcome shield against the tired accusations that Kaepernick and others are “disrespecting the troops,” an argument that fails to reckon with the true purpose of kneeling during the anthem. On Saturday, Maxwell criticized Trump on Instagram and Twitter (though he also made time, as any true Alabamian would, to tweet about the Crimson Tide’s win over Vanderbilt), and he made it clear why he did what he did. As he told reporters after the game, "I'm kneeling for the people that don't have a voice." And in doing so, he put his career potentially on the line; as a rookie with little to no job security, he has a lot he could lose. (Although the A’s were supportive of him in a statement released on Twitter, as were his teammates.)
What remains to be seen is whether his actions will inspire others to join him.
As Maxwell knelt in front of his home dugout, teammate Mark Canha laid a hand on his shoulder in a show of solidarity. Maxwell will need all the support he can get as he continues his protest in the coming days, when the same people who attacked Kaepernick will take aim at him. He will be attacked on social media, booed by fans, labeled a traitor and worse by right-wing carnival barkers. For demonstrating against injustice, he will face the slings and arrows of racists for the rest of the season, if not longer. He is a brave man. For the sake of his sport, his league and his country, I hope that he isn’t the only one.