Column: It shouldn’t take sports to spark critical conversations about social injustice

Why does it require hitting the pause button on the games we watch to convince many to pay attention to the racial flames engulfing America?

Isn’t it enough that Jacob Blake, a Black man in Kenosha, Wis., was shot seven times in the back for all the world to see? Do we need something beyond the horror of the 8-minute, 46-second public execution of George Floyd?

The jolt that sparked real discomfort and awareness for far too many came when the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play a game in the NBA Playoffs or, as happened Wednesday, the Seattle Mariners decided to sit out a game against the Padres.

Take a minute to ponder those priorities.

“Sports are a privilege,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said Thursday before a doubleheader at Petco Park. “We get the opportunity to play an awesome game, we get paid for it. These guys, they’re the best in the world and they get to compete on this level every day. But it’s a privilege. It’s a privilege of a functioning society.

“Our players made a decision yesterday to take a step backwards and to back off the gas here, to create some awareness of something. We need change.”

Scrambling the sports rhythms of our lives has been an uncomfortable catalyst since one-time NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem to fix the spotlight on racial injustice.

To engage the country — truly and fully — it required someone playing a sport to shake many by the shoulders.

When the Bucks stepped aside, the rest of the NBA followed. That spurred the Brewers, also just 40 miles from Kenosha, to do the same. The Mariners — whose eight Black players on the active roster constitutes the most in baseball — benched their game, as did the Giants and Dodgers in San Francisco.

Why is sports shaping the conversation? Because we too routinely sidestep conflict and awkwardness until it literally walks into our living rooms.

“Some things, I think, are just bigger than sports,” Giants manager Gabe Kapler told reporters. “I don’t think it should require athletes needing to boycott playoff games to remind us Black lives matter.”

You could hear profound pain dripping from the voice of Tony Gwynn Jr. as he discussed the innocence ripped away from children of color during a segment Wednesday on Fox Sports San Diego.

Gwynn said his father, Padres legend Tony Gwynn, quietly counseled him on how to interact with police in ways White families rarely feel compelled to discuss.

“He told me, ‘If you ever get pulled over, it’s yes sir, no sir, hands on the wheel, make sure the wallet is on the passenger seat so you don’t have to reach for anything,’ ” Gwynn recalled Thursday. “As a kid I was like, ‘What else would I reach for? Why is that an issue?’ ”

Many use the tired “stick to sports” directive to undercut critical conversations.

“Honestly, I think stick to sports is laughable now,” Gwynn said. “More and more, I think we’ll get further away from that. I work at a radio station where we talk about sports and I would rather talk about sports. But I’m also a human being.

“Even if it makes people uncomfortable, I feel like it’s my duty to talk about it and speak my truth. I do my best not to be offensive and try to listen and hear the other side — even if it burns my soul.”

Padres manager Jayce Tingler found himself striking a balance between a team chasing a rare playoff spot and not being tone deaf to the larger message.

“I just think there’s bigger issues going on in the world today than being able to shuffle a pitching rotation and making sure guys’ legs are fresh,” Tingler said of the doubleheader denting schedules ahead of a series in Colorado.

“It’s horrible what’s going on. There’s no doubt about it. I think we can all agree … change needs to happen.”

Outside of Petco, the conversation continued. A protest led by a group called Gente Unida and the Racial Justice Coalition of San Diego called for a stoppage of Padres games and all sports.

“I’m very inspired by what the Milwaukee Bucks did,” said Enrique Morones, the founder and executive director of Gente Unida. “If you stop having games on television, people will start paying attention.”

Though it’s unlikely to happen, Morones is spot-on about what it takes to awaken many.

Servais, the Mariners manager and a Wisconsin native, said one of his players shared a story during a raw team meeting at Petco about being called “the n-word” recently by someone in a passing car in Washington.

Asked to explain how White players on the Mariners reacted to the difficult discussions, Servais outlined hope.

“It’s really good in our clubhouse,” said Servais, whose team was unanimous in choosing not to play Wednesday. “I wish our country was as disciplined and the conversations were going like they’re going in our clubhouse. I really do. Unfortunately, it’s probably not happening everywhere.”

That sports again is asked to lead the way says something about society today.

Sadly and somberly, it says even more about us.

The Mariners line up for the national anthem on Thursday at Petco Park, a day after sitting out a game to raise awareness of another police shooting involving a Black man.

(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

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