On September 23, Oakland Athletics rookie catcher Bruce Maxwell made history as the first Major League Baseball player to protest racial injustice by taking a knee during the national anthem. He has continued his protest, finishing out the season by kneeling in Arlington, Texas. Maxwell, who comes from a military family, has left no doubt as to why he’s protesting — “I’m kneeling for the people who don’t have a voice… because right now we’re having an indifference and a racial divide in all types of people… I’m kneeling for a cause, but I’m in no way or form disrespecting my country or my flag,” he told reporters.
Maxwell deserves all the credit he’s been given for being brave enough to break tradition in a league that’s steeped in it, especially as a rookie. But often overlooked in the conversations around his protest is the role that teammate Mark Canha has played in it. While Maxwell kneels, Canha stands next to him with his hand on his shoulder. After the anthem, the teammates hug. Canha’s visible support, as well as his comments about why he stands with Maxwell, are a glimpse into what white allyship can look like in this movement for Black lives.
Canha told the press that he thought about kneeling himself, but that he wouldn’t feel right doing it, just because Maxwell was doing it. However, he wanted to support his teammate. “I’m fully supportive of my teammate, and it was coming from a place of agreeing that there has to be change in our social environment in this country, and also mainly from a standpoint of supporting my teammate,” he told SF Gate about his decision to stand with Maxwell. “I didn’t want to leave my brother on that island by himself… I don’t want him to feel like he’s an outsider on this team. When you’re on a team, nobody should feel like an outsider.”
It was also noted that the reaction from the A’s clubhouse when Maxwell told the team what he planned to do was generally positive. The team itself released a statement via their Twitter account that said, “We respect and support all of our players’ constitutional rights and freedom of expression.”
This support cannot be discounted, and likely contributed to an environment that made Maxwell feel he would be safe and supported if he decided to protest. Contrast Canha’s statements with Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Chris Archer’s. Archer told USA Today that he agrees with Maxwell’s message and purpose for protesting. However, “From the feedback that I’ve gotten from my teammates, I don’t think [kneeling] would be the best thing to do for me, at this time,” he told the press.
Archer also offered thoughts about why it’s taken longer for baseball to see anthem protests than other sports have. “I think mainly because the other sports that do that are predominantly black. Our sport isn’t, so I think the criticism might be a little more harsh,” he said. “It took somebody really special [Maxwell] that had a unique background to take that leap.”
Maxwell is indeed special, but he also plays in the Bay Area, where Colin Kaepernick’s protests began last season. It’s a fanbase with more liberal leanings than many other markets, though Maxwell prepared himself for the backlash he may face from fans in other stadiums. While the Oakland crowd gave Maxwell a standing ovation the first time he stepped into the batter’s box following his protests, crowds in Texas booed him. “I grew up in Alabama. I might get more boos than cheers. It’s nothing I’m not used to,” he said.
But the reaction of his clubhouse might be more important than the reaction of the crowds. Crowds are fleeting; an athlete has to play with his team on a daily basis. It’s the other players and coaches and managers that have the ability to make a player’s experience on a team a positive — or a negative — one. Which is why it matters that Canha and the Athletics as a whole have stood behind Maxwell. His teammate Khris Davis called him “very courageous.” None of his teammates told him they thought it was a bad idea, according to Canha.
Major League Baseball, a league saturated in conformity and tradition, where ruffling feathers is seen as a bad thing, should be asking itself what kind of impact that atmosphere has on players, particularly players of color. In a game where old white men seem obsessed with “playing the right way,” more often than not, that attitude serves to stifle how free players of color feel to be themselves, speak openly about what they experience, or even exercise their constitutional right to protest.
Because it’s true that Black and Latino players experience racial profiling and racism when they are out of uniform. But it’s also true that they experience racism in the league and on their teams. And until the league is willing to take a long, hard look at that, it’s going to remain rare to see players speak out the way that Maxwell did. But allies like Canha and the rest of the Athletics staff can help make it possible for Black and Brown players to speak their truth.