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Mariners must offer more than words for Black players, community

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The Mariners currently have the largest group of Black American players in MLB. But being justifiably proud of the team’s diversity also means every member of the organization—from players, to front office people, to game day staff—has to confront hard truths about how Black people are treated in this country.

Shed Long on Twitter

Matthew Roberson: Lookout Landing has long held a “no politics” policy in regard to article content and comments. I will remind you that human rights are not a political issue. The recent events all across America are in response to Black people being killed by the police; Black people who, unfortunately, could have been any of the Mariners’ Black players. This is an uncomfortable truth. It should make you uncomfortable. But if you find yourself wondering why your favorite baseball players have been so vocal about societal issues recently, remember that the system does not care how many home runs you hit or how well your slider breaks. To be Black in this country is to live with the knowledge that you are often treated as a threat, as a second-class citizen, as someone who does not belong.

While players in the NFL and NBA have often spoken up about issues of societal injustice in recent years, MLB players have largely kept quiet. The population of baseball remains a majority white, as it has been since the sport’s inception, while the Black population has decreased over the years, shrinking to below 8% at the start of the 2019 season, and these demographics have largely informed baseball’s response to current social issues. While NFL and basketball players at all levels (WNBA, NBA, and college) donned shirts that read “I can’t breathe” after the December 2014 acquittal of the officer who put Eric Garner into a fatal chokehold, the baseball community was largely silent. For years, baseball’s response to civil unrest has echoed MLB’s response in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray, another Black man who lost his life while in police custody: the game played on, in silence. At the time, officials defended the decision to not allow fans at the game, stating that police forces were shorthanded after a week-long period of civil unrest, and thus unable to provide “sufficient security” for the game. The symbol of closing the gates to Camden Yards and playing on as protests raged outside the walls, however, is unmistakable; the physical embodiment of “sticking to sports.”

But the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis, MN, whose final words chillingly echoed Garner’s, revealed the specious naiveté of the “stick to sports” dictum. There are no sports to stick to, currently; no distractions, nothing to be seen once the gates are closed on the world outside. The world outside is inside, and has been for many months. This stilling of the outside world at the time that should be the height of the season has given MLB players an opportunity to lift their voices even higher and share their experiences to an audience that might, finally, be able to hear them, and attend to the pain, fear, and anger in those voices.

Dee Gordon shared his thoughts via his Instagram Story, including this story involving Seattle PD:

While the players led the way, MLB as a whole dragged its feet, with an official statement not being issued by MLB until Wednesday. On Tuesday, the Mariners joined several other teams in making an official statement, as well as participating in the #blackouttuesday social media trend:

This isn’t the worst team statement that’s been made, but it is disappointing to see the Mariners invoke Jackie Robinson, whose words, like those of Martin Luther King Jr., have been appropriated by brands as a “safe” message of unity that both obscures and ignores the radical background of both men. The Tampa Bay Rays also invoked Jackie Robinson in their statement, but earned the right to do so by at least gesturing to Robinson’s legacy by including the phrases “police brutality” and “Black Lives Matter,” as well as outlining concrete steps of action they are taking as an organization (three things conspicuously absent from the Mariners’ statement). The Mariners name victims of police brutality in their statement and acknowledge the disparate treatment of people of color; however, their statement commits both a grammar error and a failure of courage by dropping the referent in the sentence “What happened to George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor...” without naming what happened. George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, along with so many others, were killed for being Black. Floyd and Taylor were murdered by policemen, Arbery was stalked and shot by two white men while out for a run. Pretending otherwise is a gross obfuscation of the facts.

One thing the club has done right in their response thus far is elevating statements made by their players, including Crawford, Long, Walker, and the two white players who have spoken up most vocally on their social media platforms, Braden Bishop and Mitch Haniger. Without being backed by meaningful action, though, this rings hollow. The M’s have the highest percentage of Black American players in all of Major League Baseball, and it’s disappointing to see a tepid statement—specifically ducking mention of the role policing plays in the expression of “prejudice and bigotry”—from the club that employs the highest number of players likeliest to experience police brutality.

The Mariners’ statement mentions that the team will “utilize our voice and resources to join with all those working to end systemic racism”. This comes from the same statement in which the team failed to utilize its voice to even mention the words “police brutality” or “Black Lives Matter.” The Mariners seem to be experiencing the same problem that much of the country has right now, which is believing that aligning with the “no racism” side is adequate activism, while blatantly ignoring the reasons these statements are being made in the first place. Instead of vaguely referencing doing more locally to end systemic racism, the Mariners need to be specific about the ways they value and want to improve the community they inhabit. One of the ways they can do that is by examining their relationship with the Seattle Police Department.

Even before protests have erupted throughout Seattle, SPD was under federal scrutiny following a 2011 DOJ report that found officers too often resorted to the use of force and were biased in their policing. Following a week of protests in which SPD received over 12,000 complaints of undue force, that federal oversight will remain in place for now, as Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes announced yesterday that the city would be withdrawing a motion to end federal oversight of SPD.

The Mariners organization donates to the Seattle Police Foundation and their Director of Security, Jessica Reid-Bateman, sits on the Seattle Police Foundation board. When the Mariners play in front of fans again, the fans will enter T-Mobile Park through gates that are staffed with uniformed, off-duty Seattle Police Department Officers and King County Sheriff’s Deputies. Fans will roam the concourses alongside these officers, and traffic will be directed by them at the game’s end. These officers will stand guard in the bullpens and dugouts, protecting the players from unruly fans. They’ll guard the parking lots where the player’s expensive cars are parked. And once a Black player leaves the protected environs of T-Mobile Park, there’s little to stop an officer from pulling them over for the crime of being a Black man driving an expensive car.

Speaking out and taking action does matter, and both citizens and businesses like the Mariners have agency in pushing for needed systemic reforms and shaping the future of public policy. Pushing back against police presence at a sporting event is no longer without precedence. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, the University of Minnesota announced they will not use the Minneapolis Police Deparment for sporting events, among other duties. The University sent a clear signal that they value the lives of their community members over a relationship with the police department. In Seattle, the Mariners have a community that goes to games and buys merchandise; a community that has embraced the Black players on the team. This community is protesting police brutality and a system that has been built upon and protects racism. The Mariners need to decide whether they support the status quo of law enforcement over the safety and security of their fans. The lives of Black people must be equally valued inside and out of the gates of T-Mobile Park.

As a nation, we’re trying to figure out how to turn the unrest from these protests into concrete societal improvements. The Mariners can, and should, help lead this process locally by backing up their words with actions. The Seahawks have already announced $500k in donations from their “Seahawks Players Equality & Justice for All Action Fund,” and they even highlighted a list of community organizations that are directly addressing racial inequality and injustice. Perhaps the Mariners could expand their already-impressive Mariners Care foundation to support organizations like the ACLU or the NAACP; perhaps they could even partner with the Seahawks, Sounders, Storm, and unnamed NHL team on this. Regardless, it’s vital that the Mariners do more than simply issue a statement and amplify positive, passive rhetoric.

Internally, the Mariners have work to do as well. They could start by diversifying the infamous “book club” to include works by Black authors. Resources on anti-racism can be distributed to white players. Players can be encouraged to donate to causes that support anti-racist work, or to use their time, money, and talent to help close the racial gap in baseball by sponsoring majority-Black Little League or high school teams or donating baseball lessons to groups that serve communities of color. Crucial conversations need to be had, and the players who haven’t spoken up need to be called to account for their inaction. If the Mariners want to take credit for the most diverse clubhouse in baseball, they must do the difficult work of making that space not just passively non-racist but actively anti-racist. Having the largest number of Black players in baseball means the Mariners have a responsibility to actively demonstrate Black Lives Matter. So far, they are coming up short in that responsibility.