Why Baseball Is Taking a Pass on Taking a Knee – Vanity Fair

History can be made quietly. The crowd was an anemic 11,278 when the Pittsburgh Pirates fielded the first all-black and Latino starting team in Major League history on Sept. 1, 1971. And the press didn’t pay much attention to the lineup at Three Rivers Stadium that night, certainly nothing vaguely close to coverage of Jackie Robinson’s arrival with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

Now it’s the Major Players themselves who seem to symbolize indifference—at least when it comes to the race-driven protests of pro football and basketball players over police brutality, Donald Trump and the national anthem. Catcher Bruce Maxwell of the Oakland A’s is the one MLB player to kneel.

What do journalists who know the sport and its history say? What’s up with the overt indifference of players, management and the league? And what about contorted rationalizations, such as that given by a Cubs announcer yesterday on Chicago sports radio that it’s all probably a “timing issue,” with teams and players just “too busy” as the season’s end beckons?

Dan McGrath, a former top newspaper sports editor in Chicago and San Fransisco, says the answer is obvious: “So few African Americans. Barely 8 percent of Opening Day rosters. Most teams have only one or two. A team with more than two or three is an anomaly.”

He pointed to another Pirates team, the World Series-winning 1979 so-called “We Are Family” (after the great Sister Sledge disco hit) club. Unlike that team, “You wouldn’t point to one current MLB team and say the culture is predominantly black. The NFL is nearly 70 percent black and the NBA is at

least 75.”

Jonathan Eig, a Chicago-based journalist-author-editor whose books include Opening Day: The Chronicle of Jackie Robinson’s First Season, finds unemployed quarterback Colin Kaepernick an echo of Robinson.

“Robinson wrote: ‘There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps, it was, but then again, perhaps, the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment. Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first World Series, I must tell you that it was Mr. (Dodgers boss Branch) Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.’”

Consider those words. And consider Bryant Gumbel’s closing commentary last night as his very good HBO Real Sports debuted its new season: “Many suddenly seem not just willing, but also eager to follow in the giant footsteps of Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Billie Jean King, Roberto Clemente, Arthur Ashe and many others who courageously used their athletic platforms to challenge authority in the pursuit of justice.”

Maybe. But, as Gumbel knows, as do most baseball fans, every Major League player wears the number 42 to honor Robinson each April 15. It is a simple and profound act. But, suggests Eig, there’s a disjoint is intertwined with that homage: baseball hasn’t embraced Robinson’s message.

“They’re in favor of integration, which is good, of course, but they have not taken up his spirit of rebellion and his willingness to risk unpopularity for a cause. Is it because African-American athletes make up a small and declining percentage of big-league rosters? That’s not a good excuse.”

“When you’re in the minority, that’s when it’s most important to stand up for your beliefs,” says Eig, a former Wall Street Journal reporter whose latest work is Ali: A Life. Robinson certainly wasn’t in the majority when he was the only African-American player in the majors. Maybe it’s time for baseball players to do more than read the numbers on their uniforms on April 15. Maybe they ought to read Robinson’s words.”

PolitFact’s daunting challenge

“This week, four staffers from PolitiFact — the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking project of the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times — are headed to Tulsa, Oklahoma, on the second leg of a tour of conservative America. Launched two weeks ago in Mobile, Alabama, and concluding with a visit to Charleston, West Virginia, in mid-October, the project aims to reach out to the 88 percent of Donald Trump supporters who, according to a September Rasmussen Reports survey, do not trust media fact-checking.”

It’s an intriguing question. How might one possibly repair the damage so obvious done by Trump in his press bashing? Pew Research has shown the precipitous decline among Republicans when it even comes to support the “watchdog” role of the press.

At the Mobile library gathering, the team discussed how they check political claims and their general strategies about showing new audiences about fact-checking. “But as PolitiFact learned after the Mobile forum, it’s hard to bring people to the table who fundamentally doubt your work.” (Poynter) Presumably that would includes many supporters of either Republican candidate in Tuesday’s Alabama Republican Senate primary.

A Twitter death

Tuesday was surely an inspiring day for many editors, who can face the prospect that their journalists will take a frequent sense of self-importance to new and more time-consuming heights in the great Media Echo Chamber. Yes, they can write even longer about anything, as most do now, be it public policy, a baseball game or grand cultural insights gleaned while being driven to a TV studio.

“Twitter’s 140-character limit died today after a long battle with Facebook. It is survived by brands, publishers and personalities, who will miss its insistence on wit and getting to the point.” (Ad Age)

“That’s right: Twitter is expanding its character limit on text posts to 280 characters from 140, starting with a subset of users. The company is describing the move as a test, but the writing is on the wall for this succinct art form.”

This is a test for selected users, aimed at ultimately increasing those who tweet. But you can figure it’s prelude to change for everybody.

Fox remains No. 1

“With its internally calamitous year behind them, Fox News is now closing in on 16 years as the No. 1 cable news network. The streak is now 63 consecutive quarters as the highest-rated cable news channel.” (Adweek)

“But with a strong Q3 2016 performance, dominated by presidential politics, the network was actually down year-over-year in total viewers, down -3 percent in total day and down -12 percent in total viewers.”

Where the national anthem is played

I wondered what non-sports institutions regularly play the national anthem. So far readers chime in with the Chicago Symphony and Lyric Opera of Chicago, which both play it at the start of their new seasons (as the opera did Sunday).

Is the First Amendment Obsolete?

The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University offers a debate turning on the argument of Columbia Law School’s Tim Wu that we should scrap it.

“The massive decline in barriers to publishing makes information abundant, especially when speakers congregate on brightly lit matters of public controversy,” Wu writes. “The low costs of speaking have, paradoxically, made it easier to weaponize speech as a tool of speech control. The unfortunate truth is that cheap speech may be used to attack, harass, and silence as much as it is used to illuminate or debate. And the use of speech as a tool to suppress speech is, by its nature, something very challenging for the First Amendment to deal with. In the face of such challenges, First Amendment doctrine seems at best unprepared. It is a body of law that waits for a pamphleteer to be arrested before it will recognize a problem. Even worse, the doctrine may actually block efforts to deal with some of the problems described here.”

Then comes Geoffery Stone of the University of Chicago, who’s effective in rebutting Wu:

“One of the most vexing issues concerns the proliferation of intentionally false information on the Internet. On the one hand, it seems easy to say that government should have the authority to punish intentionally false statements that are designed to mislead others. Although the Supreme Court has rejected the idea that intentionally false statements are automatically unprotected by the First Amendment, and that such speech can be restricted only if it can be shown to cause significant harm—as would be true, for example, with defamation, perjury, and fraud—one might readily argue that widespread lies that are intended to distort public discourse rise to that level of harm. Even if that is so, however, there may be good reasons not to make such speech actionable. After all, putting the power to prosecute such statements in the hands of public officials is a recipe for potential disaster, because those officials will likely prosecute only those false statements that harm their own positions.”

Questioning New York City’s DNA data

“ProPublica is asking a federal court for access to the source code for New York City’s proprietary DNA software, which some scientists and defense lawyers contend may be inaccurate in matching a defendant to a complex sample of genetic material. Known as a pioneer in analyzing the most difficult evidence from crime scenes, the New York City medical examiner’s office has processed DNA samples supplied not only by local police, but also by about 50 jurisdictions nationwide.”

Maury Possley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Chicago newspaper reporter who reported honorably on criminal justice issues and is now in California, says, “From my perspective, as the senior researcher for the National Registry of Exonerations, every single step of any forensic analysis that is used to take away someone’s liberty should be available for public scrutiny.”

“‘Because we say so’ is not sufficient proof or sufficient validity. At the very least, appoint a group of independent experts.”

Sports Illustrated’s striking cover

Some internet pundits were chagrined that Sports Illustrated’s new cover, on all the new sports hoopla, includes images of lots of famous figures who have joined the protests but not Colin Kaepernick, arguably the inspiration for much of it.

In an online Sports Illustrated video interview, executive editor Steve Cannella explained the decision-making and how Kaepernick “looms over” the cover even if not literally on it.

Bill O’Reilly returns

The onetime King of Fox News, who exited (and seems unbowed) amid the sexual harassment scandal, was back as a guest of Sean Hannity. The host led him down a fairly predictable the media-is-the-most-corrupt-institution path, replete with the warning of  “they” wanting only to “destroy” Trump (this from two guys who spent eight years trashing Barack Obama).

O’Reilly intoned about major metro dailies now being all “left-wing journals…and they coordinate,” whatever that means. The two longtime seven-figure entertainers portrayed themselves as victims of nasty, privacy-inading liberals who “want to take freedom of speech away from their opponents” at a time of ultimate peril for the nation.

They also plugged O’Reilly’s latest book, Killing England. The money-losing, fake news, left-wing, unpatriotic New York Times says preorders have been low.

The Morning Babel

Trump & Friends went heavy with Taliban attack at a Kabul airport not long after Defense Secretary James Mattis had arrived. It was then that it turned to the Alabama Republican U.S. Senate primary victory of insurgent Roy Moore over incumbent Luther Strange. “Apparently the president’s endorsement didn’t work,” said co-host Steve Doocy.

Morning Joe and CNN’s New Day went heavy with what they deemed at least a short-term loss for Trump, Chris Cillizza put it about a win by a guy who’s ideologically in sync with Trump, anyway. Breitbart called it a “Bama Blowout.”  Birmingham’s AL.com led with an AP story: “Roy Moore’s 9-point victory over Sen. Luther Strange, backed by the White House and Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, ranks as a miscalculation and temporary embarrassment for the president; it’s a more consequential rebuke for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whom Moore said should step aside as GOP floor chief.”

Meanwhile, CNN again far outpaced morning rivals with serious coverage of Puerto Rico’s tragedy, with good work by correspondent Bill Weir who noted the disjoint between a seeming strong FEMA presence and citizens’ anxiety-ridden sense of being actually helped given a “cascade of material needs,” like medicines.

Calling Trump a racist

ESPN’s Jemele Hill didn’t have trouble using the notion (prompting a reprimand from her employer). But use of “racially charged,” “racially loaded” and “racially divisive” are rather more prevalent.

“When it comes to Donald Trump’s political approach in the context of his criticism of NFL players protesting during the National Anthem, journalists have no problem identifying the underlying issue, despite the president’s insistence to the contrary.” (CJR)

“What they’re having a harder time with is the use of the word ‘racist’ to describe those comments.”

Newspaper digital numbers

As CNN’s Brian Stelter writes, The Washington Post said it’s now north of one million digital subscriptions, which would put it at third behind the so-far runaway leader, The New York Times at 2.3 million, and The Wall Street Journal, at 1.27 million.

The anemic performance of local and regional papers continues, though there’s been improvement for some. The Los Angeles Times says it’s at 105,000, which would easily lead the Tronc papers, whose performance has been dismal and, says industry analyst Ken Doctor, are now stand at a total of 220,000. That’s the grand total for a group that includes Los Angeles and the Chicago Tribune, as well as the big papers in Baltimore, Hartford, Ft. Lauderdale and Orlando. It presents one of several obvious challenges for Tronc boss Michael Ferro, who believes he will revolutionize the industry, not just do the easy thing of cutting, cutting, cutting.

Is Facebook’s ad scandal really a scandal?

“Facebook is under a lot of scrutiny these days over its advertising and content moderation systems, especially since the high-profile revelation of Russia-backed ads during the election. But are things being blown out of proportion? And what, exactly, is to be done?” TechDirt’s podcast debates what it all really amounts to.

Headline of day

“Man Partly Wakes From 15-Year Vegetative State—What It Means”

Is this National Enquirer or National Geographic? It’s the latter.

Corrections? Tips? Please email me: jwarren@poynter.org. Would you like to get this roundup emailed to you every morning? Sign up here.

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