Editor’s note: This was originally published in July and has been updated to reflect recent events.
As Major League Baseball players join other professional sports leagues in protesting the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Wisconsin — the latest in a seemingly endless string of such incidents — with postponements of games and statements of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, the league also celebrates today its annual Jackie Robinson Day.
For the most part throughout its history, baseball has been silent on racism. After he broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers 73 years ago, Jackie Robinson was told he needed to resist the urge to fight back, and he held his breath until he bought time. Then he fought, vehemently, for equality beyond the game of baseball — in the face of hate, death threats and family jeopardy.
That is the Robinson baseball needs to tap into at this moment: the legislator, speaker, marcher, debater, columnist, activist, campaigner and mirror to a country that needs to do better. We have no excuse for our silence or our selective ignorance of how Robinson’s last public baseball wish was to see the power of diversity woven into the game’s leadership.
“I am not an activist.” and “what are we doing this for?” Are the two questions that stuck out in my mind that baseball players said yesterday. How crazy is that? You don’t have to be an activist to speak up for what’s right. You are just a coward.
— David Price (@DAVIDprice24) August 27, 2020
In other words, being neutral is no longer an option. MLB has already developed initiatives toward more inclusive hiring practices, yet this is also about a culture shift, a change in the norms to both elevate inclusion and respond to racial injustice. And since the killing of George Floyd in May, MLB has engaged more. The league supported Black Lives Matter in a variety of ways, through signage, patches and Opening Day symbolism but also by working on actionable initiatives. Yet the concern for slipping into silence or avoidance remains. To be proactive, here are five things I would suggest right now to start that culture shift, knowing that this is just the tip of the iceberg.
1. Update the Selig Rule
The Selig Rule requires teams to interview diverse candidates for job opportunities inside and connected to Major League Baseball. Like any rule, it needs to be revisited from time to time. Now would be one of those times.
A few years ago, I wrote that I supported the Selig Rule because of the power of putting good intentions in writing. It provides a reference point. It raises accountability. The rule has shown success in unearthing qualified diverse candidates for certain positions. Yet there are areas in the game that are still out of the reach of its intended impact. For example, teams have unilateral power to bring in special assistants outside of this rule. This puts emphasis on someone’s relationship with team leadership. In the past, these positions were not crucial for hiring, say, the team’s next manager, but more and more, they help determine who becomes the best candidate.
Without the league having the influence to lead each team toward the larger goal of diversity, the only way this pipeline becomes diverse is through the commitment of individual team owners. And unless you, as a candidate, are part of this inside track, you’re a long shot in the interview process. Because these positions have tended to reflect the homogeneity of baseball ownership, some oversight and sharing of best practices would be beneficial to accomplish a group mission, rather than a team one.
How to take action right now: Bring all the teams together to draw up a robust best-practices document representative of all points of view but based on expertise in how to achieve and protect inclusiveness throughout the sport.
2. Use analytics in a new way
Even though this has always been part of the game, the past decade in baseball has seen an explosion in analytics. Now, there are departments inside each organization dedicated to crunching numbers, finding patterns and seeking value under every rock. They make projections and explain history, and every team uses its department in its own way. Analytics can turn an organization’s philosophy into an algorithm. Analytics can tell you that if you try to steal third during a day game with a left-handed pitcher on the mound during a solar eclipse, the chances of success increase by X percentage points. The details have details.
But when we ask organizations about the lack of diversity in certain positions or why there persists a culture impacted by significant bias both overt and in the shadows, there are few answers. Yes, it’s an emotional issue, rooted in long-established systemic biases that can be tough to quantify, but we have developed many social models for a whole host of other circumstances. Why not turn those analytical minds toward this goal of diversity? Or use analytics to understand how the system can perpetuate disparity? After all, there are aspects to it that are indeed equations. Bias is measurable when it comes to outcomes. We have statistical data points. We spend so much time on economic value and on outcome value on the field that we tend to think our unstated human priorities will be met through magic. Perhaps analytics can help us pose questions such as: Why don’t minority candidates advance at the same rate as white candidates? Why do I hire people who look like me? What is the impact of a player playing in a cultural environment that is unfriendly or, worse, openly hostile? Do players of color have someone with whom to discuss experiences with racism anywhere inside the organization? What is done about racism? Is it harder to be a role player when you are Black? In policing, there are data for disproportionate arrest rates, use of force and so on. Many of these data points are tracked along the lines of race. Successfully inclusive companies design themselves to control bias. If any industry can do the deepest of dives, it’s baseball. Why not use it for a greater good?
How to take action right now: Bring in an expert — such as Iris Bohnet from the Kennedy School at Harvard University, whose studies in the fields of people analytics and behavioral design are second to none — and get to work.
3. Be a bridge among players, fans and law enforcement
Speaking of police, this is a partnership that should be expanded. Police and baseball share a lot of common culture, including the union history and the reach into communities across the country. Little leagues are everywhere, and minor league and big league teams have strong local presences. Baseball can help develop and share resources with police to help reimagine policing through the best spirit of the game. Everywhere I played, I had a direct relationship with local law enforcement. Players know that experience well, whether it is an officer looking out for players to secure their safety or a working friendship linked together for charity or volunteer officers in players’ lives as coaches when they were younger, as they were in my case.
Baseball can be part of this solution because the game understands the passionate community of fans around its teams. This is one great loss as the minor leagues contract. The intangibles of teams’ reach allowed players to do so much with their influence to improve relationships. This is a time when we need to engage more, sit at the table together and allow the language of baseball to break the ice. Police are everywhere, and so is baseball, and the two have a long-standing connection. There are about 700,000 police officers in the United States in about 18,000 departments. There are 180,000 Little League squads and millions of players. There are 30 big league teams and 250-plus minor league teams. Together, they represent an underutilized partnership.
How to take action right now: I serve on the Connecticut Police Officer Standards and Training Council, and it is amazing what can happen when people consistently work together with a common goal. The council has civilians and law enforcement working together to set policy. Many states have a similar structure but do not have civilians in the room. Help this become the standard.
4. Take full advantage of baseball’s existing diversity
Mookie Betts and Clayton Kershaw explain why the Dodgers chose not to play Wednesday night amid other games still happening in MLB.
Baseball already has rich diversity on the field. When I played, it was an aspect of the game I truly loved. People from all over the world, all over the country, different socioeconomic backgrounds, all trying to figure it out as a team. I saw many examples of players reconsidering their assumptions by the end of a long season. A season in baseball is a time when you gain much more information about a person than their skin color and their home address. Sometimes, knowing that those initial assumptions were incorrect or oversimplified can help you see the world through the eyes of another person. The game can do more to showcase players working together. You travel, eat, play, pray, room, ride, win, lose, cry, train … together. It’s an advantage over what is a fairly segregated country, where people generally retreat to their silos, whether involuntarily or by choice. Baseball provides access and opportunity to share cultures and ideas in unique ways. That is worth a lot, and the game should be proud of it. We can work together because we have been working together already.
How to take action right now: Launch a campaign to show real diversity at work. Call it: “One Team.”
5. Don’t run and hide from racism
Mets slugger Dominic Smith gets emotional talking about social injustice in America and how he felt playing in Wednesday’s game.
The typical strategy when it comes to uncomfortable topics a team, league or organization is confronting is to let the media cycle kill it. There is a calculus that people will get bored, the media will get bored, and any inconvenient truths will melt away. To date, racism certainly has been pushed into that category. If the approach is based on the false belief that racism exists only when the people who experience it bring it up, then baseball will fail to be part of the solution. The problem with this ignore-it-until-it-goes-away strategy is it diminishes the impact of racism or at least makes it seem as though we all have the privilege to just move on. Many do not. The company line, the quote about unity, the “this is not who we are” has meaning only when you stand up for those words every single day. Better to acknowledge this is who we have been or we have been silent for too long.
Diversity programs can fail in part because those put in the position to address diversity have no real power unless they are putting out fires, but baseball can do a better job to lead the charge, especially when it benefits society. It’s tough to assess but achievable. It will be uncomfortable at times, and business interests might need to adapt, but these are moments for great leadership to be uncompromising on core values. It cannot be a knee-jerk reaction, either. Baseball has to be careful with cancel culture. That has been used by corporations as something to hide behind and a way to avoid taking a deeper look at themselves. The risk is that we tend to cancel the lessons, too. We must remember that racism is not a 24-hour news cycle in people’s lives. Don’t treat it that way.
How to take action right now: Revisit the entire legacy of Jackie Robinson. Bring to life his other goals for equality — the ones he pursued in his life after baseball. Use his example of how to respond to injustice, both in public and in private.