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Racial injustice is too important an issue for Washington Nationals and other athletes to “stick to sports”

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“We’ve got to speak up...we’ve got to change, and we’ve got to change now. It ain’t going to get any better if these guys don’t speak up and we don’t speak up.” - Dave Martinez

New York Yankees v. Washington Nationals Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

“Sports are like the reward of a functioning society.”

Those were the words of Sean Doolittle as the Washington Nationals reported to Spring Training 2.0 before this pandemic-affected Major League Baseball season began.

Even though he was primarily talking about the country’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic at the time, his words ring true again as racial injustice continues to be at the forefront of national news following the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Wisconsin.

On Thursday afternoon, the Nationals and Philadelphia Phillies decided not to play their scheduled series finale, following the lead other sports teams across the country, as they used their platform to protest against systemic racism in America.

No, the two teams calling off Thursday’s game isn’t going to magically solve racial injustice.

The aim of postponing the game was for the teams to once again use their reach to raise awareness while promoting discussion and personal growth surrounding a nationwide issue that America should be ashamed is still prevalent in this country.

“We have a platform as athletes,” Josh Harrison told reporters during a joint-press conference with the Phillies’ Rhys Hoskins as a show of unity.

“We use our platform to go out there and show kids how to have fun doing what you do, give back to your community.

“We do all these things, but also with that comes the territory of standing up for what you believe in and doing what’s right. And at the end of the day, justice and equality for any and everybody that’s been done wrong.”

When it comes to issues of this magnitude, of which racism is one of the largest going, it’s impossible for the players, the staff, and everyone in the sports industry to “stick to sports.”

Often, fans can forget that these athletes and the team’s staff are humans too as they look at box scores with names and their batting averages, RBIs, and strikeouts. But racism is a much bigger problem than a hitless streak or an outing where a pitcher can’t record an out.

Numerous Black MLB players have been subject to racism at some point in their lifetime. By bringing awareness and focus to the issue, those same players hope that, in some way, it will begin to help make sure that their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so on and so forth, can grow up in a society where they are not judged by the color of their skin.

“This is a humanitarian issue,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez explained. “We’re all human beings. When I’ve got to go home at night and think about my grandkids and how they’re going to grow up, and my kids, the rest of their lives growing up, and not think about the game and whether we win or lose, and focus on what we do best, it hurts. It hurts a lot.

“We go through this day in day out, I hear from the players how they struggle, knowing that we’re trying to do our best to go out there and play this game, but there’s things going on in this world that they can’t put aside. It’s time to speak up. I think that’s the message we’re trying to send out.

“We’ve got to speak up...we’ve got to change, and we’ve got to change now. It ain’t going to get any better if these guys don’t speak up and we don’t speak up.”

This movement to call off games was led by the Milwaukee Bucks, who decided not to take the court for their playoff game with the Orlando Magic on Wednesday afternoon and made the following statement as a team outside their locker room following their decision:

“Over the last few days in our home state of Wisconsin, we’ve seen the horrendous video of Jacob Blake being shot in the back seven times by a police officer in Kenosha, and the additional shooting of protesters. Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball.

“The past four months have shed a light on the ongoing racial injustices facing our African American communities. Citizens around the country have used their voices and platforms to speak out against these wrongdoings.

“Over the last few days in our home state of Wisconsin, we’ve seen the horrendous video of Jacob Blake being shot in the back seven times by a police officer in Kenosha, and the additional shooting of protesters. Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball.

“When we take the court and represent Milwaukee and Wisconsin, we are expected to play at a high level, give maximum effort and hold each other accountable. We hold ourselves to that standard, and in this moment, we are demanding the same from our lawmakers and law enforcement.

“We are calling for justice for Jacob Blake and demand the officers be held accountable.”

Shortly after, the NBA announced that all of Wednesday’s games were postponed. Other sports teams followed suit, including the Bucks’ baseball neighbors, the Milwaukee Brewers, who decided against playing their game with the Cincinnati Reds for the same reason.

The powerful team statement from the Bucks’ players on Wednesday was another example of why the NBA, along with the WNBA who made a statement as a league, have generally been way ahead in terms of encouraging their players to speak out for what they believe in.

They helped pave the way for other sports and athletes to follow in their footsteps this week.

“I think it kind of set the precedent,” Harrison said. “Same thing as in Spring Training when the NBA was the first to cancel the rest of the season or postpone it due to COVID ramping up. Sports kind of followed suit.

“This is a little different topic, but at the same time it sheds light to know that yes we play baseball, we’re athletes whether you play basketball or football, but these are real-life issues, and these are issues whether you’re at the field or away from the field that we can’t run from.

“Conversations may be uncomfortable. But having those conversations, you can start to see things from other people’s point of view and whether you agree to disagree, that mutual respect of having that conversation is okay, I see where you’re coming from, you see where I’m coming from, how can we move forward to make sure that we do this collectively and show people that it’s not about differences, we’re all human at the end of the day.”

Though the Nationals now turn their attention to a trip to Boston — a trip that begins with the rearranged Jackie Robinson Day, which will serve as another chance to bring racial injustice to the fore — they won’t just forget the reason that they took a stand this week.

“This all goes through their mind,” Martinez said when asked about his team’s mental state moving forward. “It’s a hard situation right now that we’re going through starting with this whole pandemic and everything, and now what we’re going through now with this injustice and racism.

“It’s hard. It’s hard for everybody.”