It was a garden-variety fuck up.
Mets General Manager Brodie Van Wagenen was caught on a live video feed doing what sports types are famous for, which is gossiping like hens. Brodie asserted that MLB commissioner Rob Manfred was trying to tone down player protests in the wake of yet another police shooting of an unarmed Black man, this time in Kenosha, Wisconsin, this time paralyzing Jacob Blake.
“He just doesn’t get it,” Van Wagenen told his off-camera confidant.
But lo, quelle horreur! Van Wagenen got it wrong! The scandal wasn’t that Manfred had tried to tone down the protest by suggesting players sit for an hour and then play, it was Mets owner Jeff Wilpon. Egg on Van Wagenen’s face. Huge walk back. Edict forthcoming that all cameras henceforth are to be covered with a heavy black cloth when not in use.
The story has somehow morphed into a cautionary tale about being caught being honest, but then also getting something very wrong, and the ambulance-gawking that comes from seeing a powerful underling be forced back in line by an even more powerful boss.
But this is actually a story about whether or not this revolutionary moment in sports will find permanent echo, or whether leagues and owners will allow players a few moments of silence before getting back to business. Whether it’s Manfred or Wilpon, the point of this story is whether meaningless appeasement will do more to undermine players in this moment than a rally full of presidential invectives.
Remember, Jerry Jones kneeled with his players in 2017. It made a nice picture.
Celtics forward Jaylen Brown even used the term “incrementalism” in discussing the NBA owners and how players feel strung along with little concessions, while Black men continue to be shot by police without accountability.
This is the moment we are in. Players want actionable items. This spring we witnessed the evolution of a protest that has existed as long as we’ve had sports. Whether it is having Black jockeys forced out of horseracing once the money got good around the turn of the century, to Jackie Robinson swallowing a lifetime of slights and abuse in order to be the first Black man in baseball, to John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising their fists in Mexico City, to Colin Kaepernick and the functional end of his career over the smallest of gestures… a timeline that carries the weight of generations of disappointment.
The sports calendar meanwhile, actually paused to note the injustice. It’s hard to quantify that, something that usually only happens for hurricanes and acts of terrorism. Where our ancestors once watched the night sky to know when to plant their crops, in our modern society, the rhythm of training camps and playoffs has been a way of marking the passage of time. Now, the NBA playoffs are in September and who even knows when to go back to school. It all just feels disorienting.
Yet if this moment is to be truly different, players will have to get through their owners first.
Owners like Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler, who owns 49 percent of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream and said Black Lives Matter is a group that seeks to “destroy American principles” and somehow undermines “nuclear families.”
The Dream’s players, to their everlasting credit, later warmed up on the court wearing T-shirts in support of Raphael G. Warnock, Loeffler’s opponent in the upcoming race.
Seven NFL owners gave over $1 Million to President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee. Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said he now regrets a Hamptons fundraiser he held for the former owner of the New Jersey Generals of the defunct USFL.
Owners often tell players to watch what they say, whether implicitly or explicitly. It can be as subtle as telling players not to do something that makes the organization look bad, a grab bag that includes an angry tweet or a political belief, with DUI or attempted murder.
It’s a way of making things that aren’t at all like each other fit into one category.
It’s a familiar tactic — you may have seen it over the last few nights of the Republican convention, when peaceful protest was conflated with left- or right-wing violence against peaceful protest, and in which police violence was disappeared.
Two people at a recent anti-violence protest were killed, allegedly by a 17-year-old shooter who traveled across state lines to get to the Kenosha protest, and who has been praised in conservative circles.
“I want him as my president,” right-wing nutjob Ann Coulter tweeted.
Which is how a protest can end up meaning violence in a particular ecosystem, an ecosystem designed to silence the well-intentioned and agents of change. The Intercept has done a comprehensive job on the right’s public response to and in some cases justification for the murder of two protesters in the wake of the Blake maiming.
These are all landmines that players will have to disarm as they escalate from advocacy to action. But the worst of it might be the “there-there” of owners who don’t want to be challenged, who don’t want to upend the economics of professional sports or offend their largely white audiences not to mention the members of law enforcement they lean on for security, and who may deep down conflate the idea of protest with the fear-mongering montages of Fox News.
So back to actionable items.
With voter disenfranchisement an issue in communities of color, and with primary voting in many neighborhoods so inefficient for so long that people know to bring lawn chairs for hours of waiting, the NBA players found a way to act. They secured a pledge from owners that, where arenas are in the control of owners, that teams and the league will work with authorities to make arenas voting locations.
The Bucks sought a meeting with the Wisconsin Attorney General and asked for the state legislature to return from a break to address the issues stemming from the Blake shooting.
The WNBA, NBA, NHL, professional tennis and MLB each facilitated the work stoppages when sought by players to address the issue of racial violence.
The Vikings’ owners Mark and Zygi Wilf put out a late Friday afternoon statement that they were going to address issues, such as making voting accessible. “These are not political issues but rather societal issues, and they cannot be transformed through sports alone,” it reads.
Since the pandemic began, I’ve advocated that leagues use their collective political power to argue for more than tax breaks on stadium construction and pandemic bailouts. Think of how different things might have been if leagues put out massive PSAs on mask use and helped fund and implement civic testing strategies.
Back in April as the coronavirus was devastating the northeast, Trump held a conference call with the commissioners of many American leagues. He demanded they get back to playing. They demanded… it’s not clear.
Sports commissioners have the ear of the president, or their governors, their mayors and the police commissioners who authorize the multitudes of police officers who facilitate game day traffic and security.
It’s time to use that influence for more than tax breaks.
Things aren’t normal at the moment. Many players are starting to see that systems designed to keep them safe — both within the facility and outside— are not working. We’ve seen players and coaches diagnosed with this strange virus, and communities agonized by systemic police violence that some in power refuse to hold accountable.
The players are realizing the system isn’t broken, the system is functioning as intended, and it will require the help of the ones that benefit from it to change it.
In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. speculated that moderate whites had done more to keep the Black community from full equality than Bull Connor ever could. Those who suggest half-measures, don’t want to upset the status quo. People who suggest to players that they leave the field for an hour and then come back and play a game.
“That leadership level doesn’t get it,” Van Wagenen said in a hushed tone.
About that, his facts were perfect.