Heyward: ‘This is different than any other Jackie Robinson Day’ originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
As protests raged into the summer coast-to-coast over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police last May, “inflection point” became a buzz phrase in an increasingly outspoken professional sports landscape.
That baseball was part of the movement might have been the most newsworthy part of a very loud and publicly unified pushback in American sports against the “shut up and dribble” crowd.
“I wish I could stick to sports,” Cubs right fielder Jason Heyward said then.
But barely nine months later, one look up from the field shows history repeating itself in a Minneapolis suburb, where another unarmed Black man was killed by another police officer.
And video released this week in Chicago has stoked more anger and national headlines over the police killing of 13-year-old Adam Toledo.
Where did the inflection point go? In the country? Or even in sports — where the stenciled Black Lives Matter MLB logo was replaced on the back of the Wrigley Field mound by an ad for trash bags almost as soon as Opening Day ceremonies were concluded?
“In 2020, when you saw a lot of people bringing more awareness, bringing more unity on these topics, everyone in our culture, being African-American, knew that that wasn’t the end,” Heyward said. “We knew there would be more bodies. We knew there would be more casualties, more heartache.
“It was just the beginning. We weren’t planning on seeing it stop right then.”
Heyward spoke to media via Zoom on Friday because it was the Cubs’ day to celebrate Jackie Robinson Day and all wear the baseball Hall of Famer and civil rights icon’s No. 42.
He’s right, of course, that nobody should have expected systemic racism to be fixed in a few months no matter how big the movement, how loud the protests, how hot the flames of outrage.
But these issues have been a plague on America for centuries, with the same fight being waged by multiple generations, certainly since Robinson’s debut more than seven decades ago — with enough setbacks along the way to go with modest gains to infuriate the battle weary.
But Heyward — a founding member last year of the already influential Players Alliance — sees a difference this year from the ground, even if a lot of things look the same from the cheap seats.
“As far as baseball goes, I feel like we have more inclusion now,” he said. “We have more conversations. You look at the All-Star Game. …”
MLB pulled the All-Star Game and draft out of Atlanta this year after Georgia passed a state law that critics have called Jim Crow 2.0 for its voter restriction elements.
“This feels different than any Jackie Robinson Day I’ve been a part of,” Heyward said, “in the sense of just the Players Alliance, bringing more people together, trying to rally more troops. And that’s just on the baseball side.
“In other sports, you talk about the NBA, WNBA, soccer, hockey, NASCAR, all those things, all that unity — to me, that’s the new. We know what the old has been, we know what the negative stuff’s been. But I think that’s the new that we have to look forward to.”
Moving the All-Star Game to Colorado was an especially bold move for a sport that has been considered especially steeped in white culture in this country — a sport that has, perhaps consequently, seen a steep decline in African Americans participating since Black players accounted for more than 25 percent of the league in the 1970s.
Heyward and other members of the Players Alliance — which was founded by dozens of current and former Black MLB players as a response to the events of summer — donated their salaries for the day again this year on Jackie Robinson Day.
Last year that money — plus donations from teams and the league office — helped fund a nationwide tour involving baseball outreach and community assistance, including COVID-19 safety supplies.
“I think what we were planning on was continuing to build, continuing to be positive, continuing to bring awareness and continuing to fight the fight,” Heyward said.
Even if it looks sometimes like it’s the same fight that needs to be fought again even after battles have been won.
“Don’t get it twisted though: We’ve come a long way from where this all started. So there’s a lot of positive in there,” Heyward said.
“But there’s still work to be done. There’s fights to be had, in our arena as athletes with our platforms, but also off the field and spreading unity in communities and bringing more awareness, and not always accepting the hard ‘no’ and saying that’s OK.”