More than 70 years after Jackie Robinson was told he had to shut up and take it, the Cubs’ Jason Heyward chose not to take it anymore — along with the Cardinals’ Dexter Fowler, all of the Brewers and Mariners, Dodgers and Giants, and the entire NBA and WNBA.
It was a moment never before seen in American sports history, voices across the entire major league sports landscape rising up to shut down the games on Wednesday over racism in the aftermath of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in the back this week in Kenosha.
Powerful individual voices in sports have been part of social change in past generations but never so many united at once across so many sports as on Wednesday.
“I feel like I need to be part of this, or I’m going back on my word,” said Heyward, one of 124 current or former Black players comprising the Players Alliance — formed after the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police to seek equity and change in baseball and Black communities.
Whether the growing cultural and economic power of professional sports provides enough leverage to their voices to finally force those changes within centuries-old norms and systems, this much seems certain: The days of “shut up and play” are over.
The new message from many of America’s most powerful athletes to those who want to “stick to sports” or cling to old norms:
Turn off the game and listen.
And in case nobody was listening Wednesday?
NBA teams reportedly are considering boycotting the rest of the playoffs.
And nobody in baseball seems sure of what’s coming after three games Wednesday night were postponed.
The Cubs’ next game is scheduled for Friday in Cincinnati, on the day MLB is scheduled to recognize Robinson in ceremonies postponed by the COVID-19 shutdown.
“I can’t tell you what’s going to happen next,” said Heyward, who took himself out of Wednesday's lineup in solidarity with others.
Whatever it is, it’s about time. As NBA broadcaster and former star Chris Webber said Wednesday, “if not now, when?”
“This has never happened before,” Webber said during a broadcast Wednesday against the backdrop of an empty court after playoff games were postponed. “But I’m sure Dr. Harry Edwards, John Carlos, Arthur Ashe, Jackie Robinson and others have been praying for this day.”
We’ve been doing little more than taking roll call for far too long: Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Martin Luther King Jr., Amadou Diallo, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd.
It’s long past time to stop taking roll and start taking names.
“It’s been an eye-opening few months,” Brewers star Christian Yelich said after the Brewers voted not to play. “We’ve talked about what these shirts mean we’ve been wearing. There comes a time where you have to live it.”
Heyward posted a picture himself wearing one of those Black Lives Matter T-shirts Wednesday afternoon before taking himself out of the Cubs lineup.
If anything was more surprising than whole MLB teams choosing not to play Wednesday, it was that the Cubs were not one of them, after all the talk of unity and “family” last month as the season opened with Black Lives Matter ceremonies.
Heyward said he encouraged teammates to play.
“Just seeing the pain, man, it’s so real,” teammate Anthony Rizzo said of listening to Heyward before the game. “It’s tough. It kind of felt weird, but J-Hey wanted us to play.”
Maybe their decision to play changes Friday. Or another day.
Whatever day necessary. Whatever means necessary.
MLB issued a statement of support for players and teams that chose not to play Wednesday as emotions ran ragged and raw in a sports world already stressed by coronavirus risks and its role in the nation’s social and economic turmoil.
Rizzo, who lost friends in the Parkland school shooting at his alma mater two years ago, got angry when considering the persistent, systemic racism that devalues Black lives and directly impacts teammates and friends such as Heyward.
“I’ve gone through a lot with my high school, and s**t doesn’t change,” Rizzo said. “It’s just the fact of the matter. Politicians don’t give a f**k about us. All they care about is their own agenda. This is just the way it is, and it’s upsetting.”
Cubs manager David Ross, a former Heyward teammate going back to Heyward’s rookie year, started to choke up when asked about listening to and sympathizing with Heyward.
“I can’t imagine what he’s going through,” Ross said, ending the interview.
It was Ross who had asked Heyward into his office Wednesday to discuss the events of the day and whether Heyward felt he could play. And then he listened.
It’s a lead the rest of us should follow.
Because it is a conversation too many have not bothered to hear for too long.
And if it takes turning off the games to hear the uncomfortable truth, then maybe it’s time to turn off the games.
“I would say this is not the end of this conversation,” Ross said.