Opinion: MLB response to George Floyd killing exposes its limitations as a social institution

For nearly three-quarters of a century, Major League Baseball has steered into its role as a so-called social institution, rightfully celebrating Jackie Robinson’s 1947 integration of its league before many schools were integrated and sounding hopeful notes about progress and change and its role within that.

It’s a noble stance, important in practice and effective as a branding mechanism, and some results are tangible: Eleven urban youth academies have sprouted across the U.S. and Puerto Rico, and good-faith efforts to extend playing opportunities and uplift marginalized youth continue apace.

Occasionally, though, real life intrudes, providing a stress test that can only expose the vulnerabilities of institutions. And the killing of George Floyd while in police custody has laid bare some of baseball’s limitations as a vanguard of progress.

Above all, it is instructive to remember the dualities of Major League Baseball: Yes, it is a centralized organization that can set agendas and execute plans and ensure the health of the game. But at its core, it is a collective of 30 ownership groups, an amalgam of billionaires or a bunch of mega-millionaires or perhaps even an amorphous corporation.

Major League Baseball released a statement regarding the death of George Floyd and the ongoing protests across the country, (Photo: Eric Bolte, USA TODAY Sports)

When a touchstone moment such as Floyd’s killing arrives, and the country is burning in a figurative and literal fashion, the limitations of MLB’s construct are evident.

With COVID-19 shutting down most of the country and all major sports, leagues and teams and players have had little choice but to sit with the issues of systemic racism and police brutality brought to front and center by Floyd’s killing and respond in kind.

Some of it feels performative. Much of it feels pro forma. Occasionally, something resembling passion breaks through the heavily work-shopped messaging.

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Sunday, as a weekend of protesting in every major U.S. city crested, and a day after the NFL released its own statement, MLB’s social channels remained silent, save for a particularly ill-timed tweet touting a virtual home-run derby between Bryce Harper and Henry Aaron.

The league was mildly chided for its silence, though silence isn’t always bad. As brands and leagues and individuals aim for the perfect pitch, some get too caught up in chasing social-media clout without really saying anything. Sometimes, shutting up and creating space for those with far more at stake, whose voices deserve amplification, is the move.

But baseball has always fancied itself a leader in this space, so it was somewhat surprising that MLB did not find the words to address Floyd’s murder until Wednesday morning. A few hours earlier, Miami Marlins outfielder Monte Harrison – among the 8% comprising MLB’s dwindling African American player population – chided the league for its silence, tweeting that it “hurts to see the game I love and play with all my heart, blood, sweat & tears has not released an official statement on the matter.”

Dear @MLBpic.twitter.com/P38KjI92St

MLB’s statement straddled the median of concern and truth-telling, vowing that it will “take the necessary time, effort and collaboration to address issues of systemic racism, prejudice and injustice, but will be equally as focused on the root of the problem.”

And, ahem, what might that be?

We want to be better, we need to be better, and this is our promise to do the work. pic.twitter.com/2cI6pCBdVb

Uttering the words “police brutality” is difficult. It immediately puts the game at odds with its significant security apparatus, a many-tentacled amalgam of in-house, state, federal and local officials and law enforcement officers charged with keeping its players and their families, as well as fans, safe.

Yet if they can’t specifically call out bad actors in this moment in time, it’s clear that moment may never come. Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police is perhaps the most craven and chronicled act of police brutality. If you espouse the belief a certain segment of fans aren’t ready for such plain talk, does that not question why you’re in this business in the first place?

How far you’re willing to go is certainly a choice. The Tampa Bay Rays minced no words and laid out a specific call to action, stating that “the evils of systemic and institutionalized racism continue to plague our nation … Black Lives Matter. Police brutality is inhumane. We fully support the protestors exercising their civil rights. We stand with black families living in fear.”

Following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer, we have engaged in conversations with community leaders and our Diversity and Inclusion Committee.

The Rays and Rowdies are issuing the following statement: pic.twitter.com/FxCmKn8Jll

Not that hard, right?

Contrast that with myriad word salads from coast-to-coast, none perhaps more jumbled than the Washington Nationals’ statement that led with self-aggrandizing over their World Series triumph and status as a pillar of the community, made a vague plea for safety and unity and made no mention of the heavily militarized response to a peaceful protest that surely involved many of their fans in their city 24 hours earlier.

pic.twitter.com/ODdteIZ3mk

Or the Atlanta Braves, who beat their chests for “moving into the heart of the Civil Rights movement in 1966,” conveniently omitting that they scampered for a taxpayer-funded home in suburbia three years ago. And in refusing to quiet the Tomahawk Chop, it’s a little hard to, as they claim, “fervently stand in opposition to any and all discriminatory acts, racism and injustice.”

Enough! pic.twitter.com/BTpra83FoF

Certainly, it’s hard to find the right words right now. There’s no formula for grieving, listening, advocating and being an ally, especially for those confronting this systemic rot for the first time.

But Major League Baseball and all its franchises should know better. There is no risk in telling the truth and reinforcing the feelings of the most marginalized among us.

That’s also the very least that a social institution can do.

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