San Francisco Giants manager Gabe Kapler was feeling that all-too-familiar mix of anger and depressed helplessness after a gunman killed 19 children and the police stood mostly inactive in Uvalde, Texas, last week. Kapler was feeling the pain of knowing that our country’s malignant obsession with guns guarantees that such carnage will occur yet again. The manager wanted to showcase his dissent with the direction of the U.S. and, thus, told the media Friday: “I don’t plan on coming out for the anthem going forward until I feel better about the direction of our country. That’ll be the step. I don’t expect it to move the needle necessarily. It’s just something I feel strongly enough about to take that step.”
Gabe Kapler was feeling that all-too-familiar mix of anger and depressed helplessness after a gunman killed 19 children and the police stood mostly inactive in Uvalde, Texas, last week.
Earlier Friday, Kapler had written on his blog about feeling like a true poltroon for not protesting the day after those 19 children and two teachers were slaughtered at Robb Elementary School. He wrote: “My brain said drop to a knee; my body didn’t listen. I wanted to walk back inside; instead I froze. I felt like a coward. I didn’t want to call attention to myself. I didn’t want to take away from the victims or their families. There was a baseball game, a rock band, the lights, the pageantry. I knew that thousands of people were using this game to escape the horrors of the world for just a little bit. I knew that thousands more wouldn’t understand the gesture and would take it as an offense to the military, to veterans, to themselves. But I am not okay with the state of this country. I wish I hadn’t let my discomfort compromise my integrity. I wish that I could have demonstrated what I learned from my dad, that when you’re dissatisfied with your country, you let it be known through protest. The home of the brave should encourage this.”
Kapler’s stance is already being criticized by some and supported by others, including Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr. But there are several aspects of his decision to protest worth discussing, especially considering that a prominent figure of another San Francisco sports team chose the playing of the national anthem as the time to protest the direction of this country and was frozen out of his league because of it. Thus far, there’s been more acceptance of Kapler’s announcement and less of an uproar than when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick fatefully took a knee during the playing of the national anthem in 2016. One reason for the less hostile response is that Kapler is white. Historically, white athletes have been granted more of a pass for this form of protest than Black athletes. (Although, reportedly, anti-Jewish rhetoric toward Kapler on Nazi and far-right chat sites is thrumming at a predictable pace.)
However, there are other differences to consider. On the positive side, stronger gun laws are a step that the majority of the country believes in. That means getting people to care is not as heavy a lift as taking on racialized police violence. Kapler is receiving as much praise as he is largely because it’s easier for the public to accept protests of guns than protests of cops who misuse their guns.
That having been said, in the blog post announcing his decision to not participate in the national anthem, Kapler is critical of the police in Uvalde, writing, “Parents begged and pleaded with police officers to do something, police officers who had weapons and who receive nearly 40% of the city’s funding, as their children were being murdered.” He added: “We weren’t given bravery, and we aren’t free. The police on the scene put a mother in handcuffs as she begged them to go in and save her children. They blocked parents trying to organize to charge in to stop the shooter, including a father who learned his daughter was murdered while he argued with the cops.”
While normally any criticism of the police is met with a backlash led by police unions, Kapler will likely be in for a smoother ride than Kaepernick because the archetype of the “hero cop” took a major blow in Uvalde. (I would argue that the “hero cop” archetype should have died with Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, George Floyd, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Botham Jean, Terence Crutcher and all the other names of the unarmed who were killed at the hands of police, but the inaction in Uvalde could prove to be a more powerful puncture of this particular balloon. It’s hard to foist blame on bad apples when an entire battalion chooses to be bystanders during a massacre of children.)
Baseball is a very conservative sport. It’s home to a lot of conservative athletes.
Yet Kapler also faces a greater challenge than Kaepernick. When the quarterback took a knee, there were players who had his back, some of whom were even willing to replicate his stance and get involved with grassroots activism to curb police power. In baseball, we have seen teams like the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays speak out against gun violence over social media, but no players have been taking the anthem off in solidarity with the people of Uvalde or Kapler himself. That’s because baseball is a very conservative sport. It’s home to a lot of conservative athletes.
Those conservative athletes may agree with basic reforms like the need for age requirements, a waiting period or background checks before someone buys an AR-15 over the counter at the corner store, but it doesn’t mean they’re willing to stand up to the gun lobby, either. That’s why Kapler’s protest will be a lonely endeavor, at least for the time being.
We can hope that Kapler keeps it up, however. Sports figures have the ability to amplify popular sentiment, especially when politicians are unable or unwilling to act. Kapler has put himself in the proud history of sports figures who have dared to do exactly that. But it will matter only if his colleagues — as well as the general public — join him.