Maybe it’s just because I’m getting older. I suppose there’s a chance I’m getting a little smarter. It sure seems like I’ve been here before. I pick up the newspaper and it’s like I’m reading old headlines. When I look at stories about Colin Kaepernick, it’s like Curt Flood all over again. Does anyone remember this fleet-footed St. Louis Cardinal outfielder? While he was no better than a borderline Hall of Famer (though if he’d been a Yankee or Brooklyn Dodger, he’d be in Cooperstown…but that’s another blog), Flood was a superb defensive player, earning seven Gold Glove awards, to go with six seasons with a .300 or better batting average and three all-star appearances. In other words, no slouch in the field or at the plate.
In the aftermath of the 1968 World Series (which St. Louis lost in seven games to the Detroit Tigers), despite having statistically his finest year, many blamed Flood for losing track of Jim Northrup’s fly ball, resulting in a momentum change in the decisive game seven. Management offered Flood a token $5,000 raise and took it personally when Flood held out for what he felt he had earned. When his batting average dipped to .285 and the Cardinals finished out of the money in the first year of divisional playoffs, Flood was traded to the moribund Philadelphia Phillies after the 1969 season. When he balked at making the move, the Phillies, thinking it was a money issue, offered Flood $100,000 for the 1970 season, a raise of ten grand. But it wasn’t about the money. Flood was keenly aware of what was going on in communities like Detroit and Watts. He’d seen civil rights leaders abused and murdered. Keep in mind, Flood was eleven years old before Jackie Robinson integrated baseball. In 1959 (Flood’s second year in St. Louis after a cup of coffee with Cincinnati), the Red Sox became the last major league team to have a black player on their roster.
Flood decided to sue, challenging the ‘reserve clause’, a contract codicil that allowed the team that drafted a player to keep him indefinitely, pay a salary that was (within boundaries) entirely their decision, while maintaining the freedom to drop you or trade you with no recourse. Flood sat out the 1970 season before he accepted a trade to the Washington Senators. The inactivity and advancing age limited Flood to a handful of unproductive games for the Senators. In a letter to Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, Flood wrote: After twelve years in the major leagues, I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several States. Curt Flood lost his case. Knowing fully well that he would be blackballed from baseball (Flood did not receive so much as a coaching offer from any baseball entity), he bought a bar in Majorca. After a brief run as a radio color man for the Oakland A’s in 1978, he dabbled in baseball start-ups before succumbing to throat cancer at the age of 59. Though the reserve clause still exists in a modified form, Flood kicked down a door that lead to a number of protections for ballplayers who have accrued service time and the advent of free agency, allowing a player to sell his services to the highest bidder.
So it is with this background in mind that I watch Colin Kaepernick remain ‘on the sidelines’ after making the decision last season that he needed to make a stand about police brutality…by kneeling. Again, it’s not about the money. The former 49ers quarterback sits unemployed while one NFL team overpaid a guy in the broadcast booth to make a comeback…a guy that no one wanted at the end of last season (hence his migration to television). It is impossible to imagine Kaepernick not being better than several of the back-up QB’s that are on active rosters. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see other NFL players, black and white, join his effort. It saddens me to think that Kaepernick may never work in the NFL again, though I believe he knew the risks going in. It disappoints me more that we seem to learn nothing from history.
I believe Curt Flood would have gladly taken a knee with Colin Kaepernick. While nearly fifty years have gone by since Flood’s courageous stand, African-Americans are still dying in the streets. They are still more likely to be imprisoned by our justice system for crimes that are punished with probation for white offenders. They are still marginalized by a society that has co-opted their culture for profit. But when it’s two outs in the bottom of the ninth, we cheer like crazy for that guy…OUR guy. We’ll watch these men destroy their bodies on a sports field and scream, ‘Go, Team!’, though that’s not the chant we use when a dark-skinned family moves into the neighborhood. Whites aren’t liking it when we hear we aren’t team players. Like the realities America didn’t want to face with Flood and Kaepernick, the truth hurts. When whites accuse the athletes of being against America, they fail to recognize that America has been against blacks from the beginning.
Whether they stand like Curt Flood, or kneel like Colin Kaepernick, white America will criticize their stance.