Last week, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, along with three other members of the Minneapolis police department, murdered George Floyd. Chauvin crushed Floyd’s neck into the ground for over eight minutes whilst he begged for his life until he died of asphyxiation. Floyd’s murder was merely the latest in a long line of police killings of Black people in the United States. In March, Black nurse Breonna Taylor was killed when police shot her whilst she was in bed in her own apartment. Tallahassee police killed Black transgender man Tony McDade, then misgendered and deadnamed him whilst blaming him for his own death. A day after Louisville barbecue owner David McAtee served free food to police officers, he was killed by those officers during a protest and his body was deliberately left on the street for twelve hours; none of the officers had their body cameras turned on.
This series of brutal murders by police has touched off a series of protests across the country. But this is not a new problem, with unjustified police killings of unarmed Black people being recorded in New York since at least the 1940s. This piece in 2009, about an unarmed Black man named Oscar Grant being shot by police whilst offering no resistance remains disturbingly relevant. In 2015, police killed over a hundred unarmed Black men, a rate five times higher than unarmed white people. On a per capita basis, American police kill more people each year than police in the dictatorships of Egypt and Pakistan, at a rate comparable to Rwanda, Iran, and Sudan. Being killed by police is the sixth-leading cause of death for Black men in the United States. No state in America meets international minimum standards for the use of lethal force by police.
What does this have to do with Major League Baseball? Actually, a whole lot. In the wake of Floyd’s murder, as protesters took to the streets across the country to demand, at long last, an end to four centuries of state-backed racist violence, Major League Baseball remained silent for days on end. Twins right fielder Max Kepler posted an Instagram picture of himself with a “Blue Lives Matter” mask before offering a mealy-mouthed pseudoapology saying he doesn’t like politics. The Dodgers hid behind the memory of Jackie Robinson and said nothing else of any note. Most of those teams which did weigh in did so via half-measure, as Bill Baer noted.
And as for the league itself, Commissioner Rob Manfred weighed in with word salad.
Here's the memo Rob Manfred sent out internally to MLB employees: pic.twitter.com/oKoGyy5SEU— Hannah Keyser (@HannahRKeyser) June 2, 2020
Here’s the reality: in the United States, the police are part of a state-backed and -enabled policy of violence towards people of color and queer people, with Black people bearing the brunt of that oppression and paying for it, over and over again, with their lives. This is not a political contention. This is not an opinion. This is a fact. The inability of Major League Baseball to state what should not be a controversial opinion - that Black Lives Matter - is simply unacceptable.
But whereas it is unacceptable, it is understandable. MLB owners want governments to pay for their stadia, to provide their security, to give them tax breaks. It is those same governments which furnish police with military equipment they use to murder people in their own cities. And so year after year, we see “police appreciation nights” and promotions dedicated to lionizing police officers unquestioningly. Major League Baseball benefits more from the police than they do from Black people, and so they side with the police or - at best - try to remain neutral. In MLB’s calculus, money is the highest law there is.
But unless your morality is solely a profit motive, there’s really no neutrality here. The institution of policing is rotting from the inside out, and has been since its inception. In fact, armed municipal police forces evolved from eighteenth-century slave patrols, and have been using the same brutal tactics against unarmed Black people since the 1700s. But even if that weren’t the case, these carefully worded statements saying nothing of any great important besides platitudes like “racism is bad” are ignoring the enormity of the moment. There is no morally or ethically acceptable reason - none - that Black people should die at the hands of the police at disproportionate rates. If we choose to ignore this, or “both sides” this, or make this a complex issue where it really, actually, isn’t, we are just as complicit.
As I wrote for BaseballFYI this weekend, we owe the people of color in our community enough respect to at least be aware of what their daily struggle is. Not knowing what Black people experience at the hands of law enforcement is, at this point, a willful refusal to engage with or accept reality. When enough of us make that choice, the result is what happened to Floyd, for a refusal to take a side in a dispute is always a tacit agreement or acquiescence to the side with more power - and in this case, that’s the police. If you think racism and its victims are a political issue from which you intend to abstain, you have already chosen a side.
Major League Baseball is, therefore, choosing a side - and it’s not the anti-racist one. But that’s not surprising, really.
why do you think they should? serious question.— sugar shake (@curlyfro) June 2, 2020
mlb is historically and actively racist. they love using Black culture to promote things, and love constantly using jackie robinson’s name, but honestly, they’re not for Black people in any way. https://t.co/9MCMJQmql8
“The sport has not decided that this is worth addressing,” Bryant said — and he’s unfortunately right. The underlying question Bryant asks is this: “How willing are you to improve your economic model for Black people?” Baseball’s unwillingness mirrors that of society generally, to the detriment not only of African-Americans but of the sport as a whole. Bryant is correct; in baseball, as in American society, economics, it seems, is far too often more important than racial equity. The result is what Bryant calls “a white suburban game under-girded by foreign labor.” Again, he’s right; even MLB ballparks are moving into the suburbs.
Want more proof? Here’s MLB’s executives list. Every single one of them is a white male. Every. Last. One. They benefit from societal racism, as all white people do - myself included. They profit from societal racism. And so they have no incentive to do anything other than make the most performative of nods in its general direction. That, in the end, is all we’ve gotten.
Let’s be honest: if white people and institutions really opposed the killings of Black people by the police, if we really decided that Black Lives truly mattered, we have the power to stop it. Major League Baseball has an army of lobbyists at its disposal. It could support repealing qualified immunity for police officers. It could divest from police forces with a history of racist violence. It could support alternative programs to law enforcement which don’t endanger lives. It could donate to a bail fund to support protesters.
But instead, the league invokes Jackie Robinson as some kind of talisman. But the fact is that the Black community owes MLB nothing whatsoever for the most limited steps imaginable towards righting a generations-long wrong SEVENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO. Major League Baseball, however, owes the Black community a hell of a lot more, for all it is offering right now is complicity with their murders by the state.
You can find a local bail fund and donate to support protesters in your area here.
Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and Legal Director at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author’s. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.