Leagues speaking up about Black lives rings hollow

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New Orleans Saints’ quarterback Drew Brees deserves to be derided for somehow still not understanding what the protests that saw Colin Kaepernick blacklisted from the National Football League were even about, but he’s far from alone in who we should be judging in this moment in time. The various sports leagues themselves have released statements that read like they knew everyone was expecting them to say something about the protests against police brutality of Black Americans, but wanted to make sure they said as little of substance as possible in the process.

This compulsory form of statement-releasing and posting is essentially a call of “Please Like Me” to a wide array of fans. These teams, leagues, and even some of the athletes within them want to be recognized as not explicitly racist or tone deaf, but they also don’t want to actually do anything besides collect on that acknowledgement. Take a look at the NFL’s statement, signed by commissioner Roger Goodell, for instance:

Where to begin. Outside of every brand on the planet having “systemic” on their word of the day calendar in the last week, this is the same league that, again, blacklisted Colin Kaepernick for his peaceful protests against police brutality against Black people — the protests he performed through the power of his and the NFL’s platform that they themselves cite in this statement. What’s changed since then, other than that the NFL has realized that it could harm them in the long run to be so obviously on the wrong side of history? The same exact violence Kaepernick protested by taking a knee during the national anthem before NFL games is ongoing today: all that’s changed is that the NFL is more concerned about you liking them than they were before, when the number of leagues and brands as a whole that aren’t releasing pro-Black Lives Matter statements has shrunk considerably from when Kaepernick was doing his thing.

Outside of the hypocrisy that the NFL will never admit to, though, is the emptiness of this statement. “These tragedies inform the NFL’s commitment and our ongoing efforts.” Efforts to what? Commitment to what? What kind of “action” is there an “urgent need” for? How are you going to use that power in the community you cited? Will the NFL actually listen to its players, ones like Kaepernick and Michael Bennett and countless others who know exactly what the score is here, what being a Black person in America means, how violent society can be to you simply for existing, and how police brutality isn’t just a regular part of life, but is even more ingrained into the “fabric of American society” than the NFL?

People have to understand what it is the NFL is engaging with, not just so we know that they are actually engaging with racism and police brutality, but so that the NFL’s platform and its power are actually used in a way that can inform and educate and influence people, like they’re claiming they want to do. It’s not enough to just say, “This thing is bad.” There has to be a conversation explaining the why of it all. As this Vulture piece on anti-racist reading lists point out, you have to actually do the reading in order to learn. It’s in the reading and the discussions that spring from it that learning happens, and the NFL isn’t even telling us exactly what they’re supposedly combatting with their statement. The word police isn’t in it, for instance. “Incidents” is, though, that kind of word the cops love to see in a headline or statement, since it feels so accidental, and not deliberate as their violence against people, especially Black people, is.

Instead, here’s where we are so far:

To date we have donated $44 million to support hundreds of worthy organizations.  This year, we are committing an additional $20 million to these causes and we will accelerate efforts to highlight their critical work.

We know that we can and need to do more.

What organizations? What work are they doing, and why is it critical? If you know that you need to do more, $20 million more than usual ain’t it: the league earned over $15 billion in its 2018-2019 season, and that kind of money wouldn’t be possible without the NFL exploiting Black athletes. Out of $15 billion in profits, they found $20 million to send to organizations they’re already working with, to do work they aren’t revealing. Yeah, I’d say you need to do more, too. The players, as usual, are going to pick up the slack, but they won’t be able to do anything during the anthem like Kaepernick, Bennett, and others, since the owners voted to ban pre-game protests back in 2018.

It’s not just the NFL, of course. Major League Baseball put out a toothless statement of their own five days after the NFL’s:

Emphasis theirs: As my former colleague Harry Lyles put it, “they bolded words to let us know They Mean Business.”

What is the root of the problem, MLB? What does this collaboration look like? What kind of time and effort will go into it? Is it going to take as long to learn about what any of that is as it did for you to create this far-too-late statement that obviously exists mostly because you realized you didn’t have one out yet? Adam Jones, who once said MLB was a “white man’s game” because of who was in charge, and that’s part of what made speaking up about the injustices it perpetrated difficult since it made losing your job very possible, currently plays baseball in Japan because no one wanted to sign him to be more than a mentor or minor leaguer after the 2019 season. Do any of us believe MLB is going to put in the time and effort they claim, or collaborate with their players?

Remember, too, that this is a league that told former Angels’ outfielder Torii Hunter to keep quiet about the time the police invaded his home and held him at gunpoint, then asked him to leave tickets for an Angels’ game after they recognized him. The same league that marketed Hunter during his playing career because of his infectious smile and obvious charisma didn’t want him as anything but a symbol of the positives of Blackness in sport: any negative would just be a distraction, you know? The league that effectively kicked the one player who took a knee in solidarity with Kaepernick, Bruce Maxwell, out. And, as Hunter pointed out in his talk with The Athletic, that also likely forced Gary Sheffield out earlier than he needed to go because he was “militant.” The league that posts a photo of Jackie Robinson on social media every April 15, and then says, “Well, that’s enough activism for today.”

The best activist work MLB does is their Police Appreciation Nights, because at least on those nights the cops are off the streets, away from the people they brutalize.

Like with the NFL, you wouldn’t know the police have anything to do with this statement. Who killed George Floyd? Who killed Breonna Taylor? Who killed Ahmaud Arbery? Who, while dressed up in full riot gear, shoots peaceful protestors in the eyes with “non-lethal” rubber bullets? Who sprays children with pepper spray and tear gas until their skin burns? MLB and the NFL apparently can’t tell you, and that’s by design. These leagues, like all of the other brands that will offer up empty platitudes so they can’t be called out for their silence or their lack of work, mostly just don’t want you to be angry with them. If they actually cared about any of what these statements are related to, they would have bothered to tell us what they’re even talking about. Even that’s too much work and self-reflection for these leagues to handle.

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Minor League player pay isn’t guaranteed past the fast-approaching May 31

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The dispute between Major League Baseball and the Players Association has loomed large over the sport essentially since the 2020 season was postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s not the lone story out there. Minor League Baseball players aren’t sure if they are going to have a season, either, and the temporary pay solution put in place to help get them through their own postponed 2020 is set to come to an end… with no real sign that it will be extended, either.

Said temporary solution — $400 per week — came in the wake of MLB being criticized for essentially forcing their minor leaguers to pack up and go home, but stay in game shape to be recalled at a moment’s notice, and all without any financial support from the league. Minor League players, still under contract, couldn’t apply for unemployment, and with no idea of when they were coming back, couldn’t necessarily apply to other part-time or temporary jobs, either. That’s still the case, and yet, after May 31, their $400 per week will come to an end.

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MLB’s teams need to pay their concession workers, too

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On March 17, Major League Baseball announced that each of its 30 teams would set aside $1 million to pay stadium workers during the postponement of the 2020 regular season. With the COVID-19 pandemic here for an indefinite stay, it’s unknown when America, never mind MLB, will be able to return to business as usual. That $1 million is a start toward making sure those sports workers impacted by the postponement of the season — who usually make less than $15 an hour — are taken care of.

The emphasis there, though, should be on how this is a start. That $1 million per team isn’t going to last very long, not with the sheer volume of employees needed to run a stadium on an administrative level and to keep its grounds in order. Outside of that, though, are also tens of thousands of concessions workers. While MLB and its teams pulled in positive press for the headline-worthy assistance package worth $30 million, it doesn’t even begin to cover all of the workers that make live baseball possible.

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MLB can leak all the return plans they want, but they won’t work

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On Tuesday, ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported on the discussions Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association have been having about starting the currently postponed 2020 season. Nothing within is promising, even if it’s, as Passan put it, the “likeliest to work, and has been embraced by MLB and MLB Players Association leadership, who are buoyed by the possibility of baseball’s return and the backing of federal officials.”

“Likeliest to work” could mean anything, mathematically, and as evidenced by MLB themselves even admitting they don’t have a plan within a plan here to restart baseball amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s good to remember that “likeliest” probably means MLB could state that this improved plan has a non-zero chance of working, unlike some of their other plans, which are at zero percent.

Here’s the quick rundown, again via Passan:

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MLB, MLBPA both benefit from COVID-19 agreement, but MiLB will suffer

Difficult decisions were necessary for Major League Baseball and the Players Association to hammer out a deal while working with so many unknowns in what is now, officially, a postponed regular season. If Jeff Passan’s reporting on the situation is any indication, then both parties made sacrifices, but came away with key measures that will help them weather a shortened, or even potentially fully canceled, 2020 regular season.

However, the parties not at the table are the ones that fared the worst: Minor League Baseball now looks like they’re in a position for MLB to force the disaffiliation of dozens of clubs on to them by way of coronavirus fallout, while current and potential MiLB players would then face a lack of both jobs and even opportunities to be signed.

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MLB is forcing MiLB players to leave spring training, without pay or hope

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Spring training is officially over, and the Major League Baseball Players Association sent out a memo to its members telling them they could stay at the spring training facility, go home, or head to the city that their team plays in. The allowances teams give to players during spring training, like for housing, are still in effect. The on-field facilities players use to prep for the regular season will remain open to those who stay, as well, and teams will assist in flying out the families of any players who had their families with them in Arizona or Florida, to boot.

According to minor-league players spoken to under the condition of anonymity, MLB’s response was much more terse and disconcerting: go home. It was left up to each individual team to craft their own message to their minor-league players that said as much, but that was what had to be relayed from above. Go home, whether you’re a domestic or international player. Go home, because you, as minor-league players, don’t have the protections and rights to negotiating an exit as unionized players.

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American sports’ response to coronavirus is still lacking

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Despite the growing threat of coronavirus — which the World Health Organization is close to calling a pandemic, which now has over 1,000 confirmed cases in the United States despite America failing to test for the virus at the same rate as other afflicted countries — American sports leagues, for the most part, are going about business as usual.

Yes, the media is now barred from locker rooms and clubhouses across four major active sports (MLB, NHL, NBA, MLS), but fans are still attending those games. Media members can’t get within six-to-eight feet of a player to interview them, but 20,000-plus people still get to sit elbow-to-elbow, eating food from a concessions worker who can’t afford to take the day off if they have a cough, and then those 20,000 people disperse into the world once more, potentially carrying COVID-19 with them into their next interactions.

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MLB’s planned pay raise for MiLB players is severely lacking

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One of MLB’s excuses for attempting to disaffiliate 42 minor-league teams following the 2020 season has been the need to increase pay for minor-league players. Obviously, players need to be paid more, but MLB tying these two events together is disingenuous: MLB’s owners can afford to keep every team in Minor League Baseball going and pay every minor-league player far more than they do now, and it would still be a drop in the proverbial bucket for them.

As has been said before, the average minor-league salary could be $50,000 per year, and it would cost each team about $7.5 million. That’s it! MLB is tying the disaffiliation of teams together with increasing pay as a threat to the thousands of minor-league players who will remain: this is what could happen to you and your team if you make too much noise about your pay.

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John Buck learned about Curt Flood, and made sure other players would, too

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Gerrit Cole signed with the Yankees for a massive nine-year, $324 million deal that gave him the largest annual average payout of any deal in MLB. It’s the kind of contract that’s only possible because free agency, as an institution, exists: Cole was allowed to go into the open market, freed from the initial deal he inked when the Pirates drafted him in 2011 and then brought him to the majors in 2013, and agreed to sign with the team he wanted to, for the immense money they had to offer in order to show it wasn’t a one-way desire.

It feels like a given these days that this order of operations exists, but Cole didn’t forget that the existence of free agency is what brought him to this point, and during his press conference introducing him as a Yankee, he thanked the first Executive Director of the Players Association, Marvin Miller, and Curt Flood, who challenged MLB and its longstanding reserve clause, for what they did to allow the moment Cole was in to even exist. On its own, it was an excellent gesture, the kind of thing Miller himself said didn’t happen often enough in his own time guiding the players’ union, but the backstory makes it an even better moment.

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MiLB players speak on MLB’s idea of “waste”

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Part of Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball’s plan to shrink the minor leagues revolves around the concept of “waste.” Per a report by Bill Madden, “waste” was an important reason to agree to this plan to disaffiliate 42 minor-league teams: you can see my reaction to that reveal as well, as it published here in mid-November. This time around, though, the focus is on what minor-league players think of this idea, that any player who doesn’t make it to the bigs was a “waste” of resources for MLB teams.

I spoke with three players — two former, one active but anonymous to protect them from any blowback from MLB — for a feature that published at TalkPoverty earlier this month, titled “Major League Baseball Wants to Crush 42 Minor League Teams — And Their Hometowns.” I asked them a wider range of questions than what was used in that one piece, however, including on the subject of “waste.”

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