Last Friday, following a year-plus of controversy regarding athletes, most famously former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, kneeling during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner before sporting events, President Donald Trump sharply criticized NFL players who protest during the American national anthem before a crowd of supporters, saying that when a team owner sees a player “(disrespecting) our flag”, he should “get that son of a bitch off the field”.
Relative to several other sports leagues, notably the NFL, NBA, and WNBA, Major League Baseball has mostly avoided anthem controversy. Seemingly, this is demographic related: the majority of these protests have been related to treatment of African-Americans in the United States, and while the majority of players in the aforementioned leagues are black, just 7.7% of MLB players on Opening Day of 2017 were of African-American or African-Canadian descent.
On Saturday, however, rookie Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell became the first MLB player to kneel during the national anthem. Maxwell was overwhelmingly supported by his teammates, but the heated national conversation about such protests led to new questions about how MLB teams would and should handle players who protested the anthem.
MLB.com’s Jenifer Langosch, the site’s St. Louis Cardinals beat reporter, asked Cardinals manager Mike Matheny on Sunday about anthem protests, in light not only of Maxwell’s protest, but increased prevalence of and focus on protests in the National Football League. Matheny stated that he had not (yet) had any individual conversations about players protesting the anthem but that he would “support freedom of expression”, before adding, “Unfortunately, what our president said hurt a lot of people.”
Good for Mike Matheny.
Viva El Birdos is not a website known for being particularly rosy in its analysis of the Cardinals manager. But Sunday was an example of Mike Matheny demonstrating the quality for which he is most praised: managing people.
A fundamental necessity to understanding why the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner is controversial is to consider differing perspectives. To some, it is a song which conjures deeply-held beliefs of patriotism; a song which, in conjunction with imagery connected to the American flag, is a meaningful metaphor for those who have served (and died) in the armed forces. To others, it is a poem written by an avowed anti-abolitionist slave owner whose oft-neglected third verse openly dismisses slaves; a war-glorifying, jingoistic prop used to distract people from progress in the name of an ultra-passive form of patriotism.
“Stick to sports” has been a popular mantra for years, usually as shorthand for “don’t say controversial things.” There is a reason that the “stick to sports” treatment is applied to national anthem protesters such as Colin Kaepernick far more often than it is applied to, say, Yadier Molina organizing Hurricane Maria relief efforts in Puerto Rico.
But to argue that players do not have a right, independent of their on-field performances, to express their political opinions implies that athletes ought to not be regarded as people, but rather as robots devoid of the basic attributes of humanity. Just as Yadier Molina is trusted to be an activist for his home territory while also devoting himself to the cause of winning games for the St. Louis Cardinals, political protests independent of in-game actions do not diminish one’s ability to play games at the highest level.
At least publicly, the current St. Louis Cardinals roster seems to be largely apolitical (at least in terms of partisan American political issues; otherwise, Jose Martinez would be a major exception). But in any group of twenty-five people, there is likely to be diversity in opinion. With the groundswell of focus placed in recent days on protests of the national anthem, it is likely that at least one player on every team is privately sympathetic to such protests, and has perhaps given consideration to participating in anthem protests himself.
While such a protest has not happened with the Cardinals, Mike Matheny preemptively supporting his players shows a willingness to address controversy. Aside from the societal benefits of having an open dialogue about the underlying issues which those protesting the anthem are attempting to highlight, it is beneficial from a purely utilitarian standpoint to welcome players of all ideologies into one’s clubhouse. Requiring all players to meet a certain criteria, aside from “be an exceptional baseball player”, artificially reduces the pool of available players for teams.
It is not the obligation of any player nor any manager to speak on a given political issue: just as one has the right to be political, one has the right to be apolitical. But it is an essential duty of a manager to organize his team to maximum efficiency. The chest-pumping of United States men’s hockey coach John Tortorella vowing to bench any player who refuses to stand for the national anthem made for an interesting quote for the press, but would ultimately have been disastrous had a prominent player tried to call his bluff (as it turns out, one of his World Cup of Hockey players, Blake Wheeler, did weigh in on the latest round of anthem protests on Saturday).
It is far more beneficial for a team to embrace diversity of opinion—there is a such thing as an opinion that goes too far, but taking a knee or not standing on the field during a song does not qualify as going too far. Even players who disagree vehemently with protesting the national anthem can look at Mike Matheny and see a man who views them not as subordinates but as grown men capable of independent and rational thought. And while there will be plenty of time in the future for criticizing Mike Matheny’s tactical acumen, his quotes on Sunday show that he is willing to treat players like people.