An ongoing referendum is taking place in America, a trial in which we, the people, seem to be both plaintiff and defendant. The same questions are being asked that have always been asked, especially in an election year, but the consequences of those answers no longer seem to result merely in a difference of opinion. Today, they either confirm that our people, institutions and beliefs are the allies we thought them to be, or they serve as sudden, irreparable proof that our friends and neighbors were never quite friends or neighbors. We assumed too much about the progress we thought we made, believed we were closer than we actually were.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick didn't start this referendum, but he has become, like Crispus Attucks or Curt Flood or Rodney King, the flashpoint of a reckoning much larger than himself and long overdue. He stood up by kneeling down, and not only has he yet to move, but others -- many black men and at least one white woman, soccer player Megan Rapinoe -- are now kneeling with him.
These are the gestures we say we respect: the tough, uncompromising American virtue of commitment and conviction, of making it plain in the face of opposition and being right. Adam Jones, the brilliant Baltimore Orioles center fielder, also made it plain that baseball, the original civil rights sport with the deepest connection to the American story of sports and social justice, won't willingly be one of the fronts where the battle is fought. Baseball, Jones said, is not the black-dominated world of football or basketball, saying that the game lacks the untouchable wealth of black superstar power, and even a reputable volume of rank and file for it to support a similar form of protest. In demographic and attitude, Jones said baseball is "a white man's game."
If the current pattern of behavior toward the truth applies, Jones will suffer the type of misdirection and distortion that Kaepernick has experienced. The substance of his words will be mauled, chewed and twisted beyond recognition, in ways like how tennis players John Isner and Ryan Harrison, neither of whom had uttered a single word of knowledge about the history of police-community relations, of African-American history in baseball or otherwise, now feel emboldened to talk while saying nothing, to pander to the public about just how dedicated they are to patriotism, whatever that means. Jones will have to listen to the wounded protestations from baseball executives, colleagues and writers who, faced with the impossible task of refuting him, will instead simply express "disappointment" or "outrage" at his comments. In this case, patriotism, disappointment or outrage should mean knowing what one is talking about.
Instead, the baseball industry has essentially confirmed Jones' suspicions through a deafening silence of incuriosity that further severs it from its groundbreaking past, and the truth of the matter is sinking into the soil: Baseball is a white man's game, and is so by the specific design of the people who run it. In a country full of world-class black athletes, baseball cannot seem to attract many. Nothing Jones said is statistically, factually or anecdotally remarkable except for that he took the remarkable step of actually saying it.
Major League Baseball is 8 percent African-American and more than 30 percent Latino, signed in large numbers for pennies on the dollar. Economically, Latino players are treated as far more disposable than Americans or players from the Asian market, and have been treated with second-class attitudes for just as long.
Baseball has never been very good at evolution or change. The game has two black managers, no black owners and one black general manager. It has one Latino owner, no Latino managers and one Latino general manager. Only within the past two years has Major League Baseball mandated that clubs hire actual professional translators instead of using the backup shortstop to speak English for Chicago Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman.
"It's all right there," Red Sox star David Ortiz told me. "The opportunities, they speak for themselves. Compare the number of Latinos with the number of Latino managers, you know what I'm saying? Sometimes I get so frustrated about it. But you can't wait for anyone to give you something. Sometimes I tell the young guys, 'Be smart. Save, because there won't be anything here for you when it's done. Make as much money as you can in the game, and get your black ass out.'"
The game has cultivated the front-office posture of a Fortune 500 company, placing another barrier to advancement for people of color by preferring young, often unproven Ivy League talent over people of color who have deep institutional knowledge of how baseball works and is played but now lack the graduate degrees that have become the new prerequisite. This undermines any chance that veteran baseball people will be promoted, as they once hoped, into the front office. Baseball's front offices don't have many black or Latino executives in their upper reaches because, simply, they don't want any enough to actually try to compete for them.
"Sometimes I get so frustrated about it. But you can't wait for anyone to give you something. Sometimes I tell the young guys, 'Be smart. Save, because there won't be anything here for you when it's done. Make as much money as you can in the game, and get your black ass out.'"David Ortiz on the lack of managerial options for Latino baseball players.
Since the 1950s, baseball has had at least a trio of African-American players who were Mount Rushmore-level Hall of Fame players. No such trio exists today, and the last time one did was likely the late 1990s, when Barry Bonds, Frank Thomas and Ken Griffey Jr. were all considered, at one point, the best player in the game. That was nearly 20 years ago.
Jones' critique of his industry is particularly withering because of the game's lineage. Baseball's whiteness in 2016 is so starkly in contrast to baseball's postwar roots, where not only did the giants of the game like Jackie Robinson, Henry Aaron and Willie Mays share its face along with Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle and Sandy Koufax, but also because it was in baseball where the Kaepernick moments occurred, from Robinson's fighting for integrated hotels to Aaron and the Braves' demanding integrated seating as a condition for moving from Milwaukee to Atlanta. The black heritage has disappeared along with its progeny.
During its most integrated, baseball has never known quite what to do with its black players, or any players, for that matter. The game is rooted in its anachronisms. Even its coded language -- play the game the right way -- repels the stylish flairs of a modern player, kids raised in a time of selfies and TV highlights. Unlike football and basketball, which have better adapted to the people who play, making it more attractive to younger players, baseball forces its strict, traditional culture on kids born in the 1990s and 2000s. Griffey took batting practice with his hat on backward, and the old guard treated it as if he had sworn in church.
These rickety old conventions were problematic in attracting black talent long before Ferguson, but the overlay of explosive national politics only exposes the game and buttresses Jones' point further. Last month, I asked Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia whether he thought he expected baseball to follow in the steps of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony in the NBA. "No," he said. "You can't do that in this sport."
Jones spoke. Now it is baseball's turn. The clichés of "family" and "going to war out there" will be tested in a time of national protest -- not only by the Orioles trying to catch Boston and Toronto in the American League East but also by the real stuff in the clubhouse, of sitting side by side with a star teammate eight months a year, during the most polarizing time in a generation, knowing how one of your family members thinks, especially in Baltimore where Freddie Gray died in police custody a year ago. And with all of that, deciding whether to reach out and say something. Or continue to say nothing.