Oakland As catcher Bruce Maxwell was arrested this weekend for aggravated assault after allegedly brandishing a gun at a food delivery woman who came to his house in Arizona. This comes during media attention he brought to himself last week when he claimed a restaurant in Alabama had refused to serve him: “He was like, ‘You’re the guy who took the knee? I voted for Trump and I stand for everything he stands for,’” Maxwell told TMZ.
His story didn’t ring true to a number of journalists, who researched the incident after his claims. Fox News reporters determined Maxwell dined with a prominent local Democratic politician, and other eyewitness testimony cast doubt on his story of discrimination.
“He’s outright lying,” waiter Matt Henry said, according to Fox News. Henry explained he was carding Maxwell’s companion, who wanted to order a beer but didn’t have a valid I.D. He told the man he was sorry, but Alabama law requires an I.D. to serve alcohol, and he couldn’t risk his job or criminal charges by serving the alcohol without seeing an I.D.
The restaurant manager confirmed his employee’s story, but Maxwell hasn’t backed down, reopening the discussion of his “take a knee” debacle this season. Maxwell is the only Major League Baseball player to refuse to stand for the national anthem from September 23 until the end of the season this year. His reasoning for kneeling diluted National Football League player Colin Kaepernick’s original message for disrespecting the national anthem, stating his gesture was for “just complete inequality of any man or woman that wants to stand for Their [sic] rights!” A quick glance at his Twitter timeline shows a strong disdain for President Trump and conservatives, further muddying any message he’s trying to convey with angry politics.
A Kaepernick Retread in MLB
Like Kaepernick, Maxwell’s statistics have not been impressive over the last season, with a batting average of only .237 and three home runs in what many are calling “The Year Of The Home Run” due to a change in ball composition, making them fly farther. As a consequence, it appears Maxwell has much more to gain in job security from kneeling than he has to lose.
The liberal sports media, especially in the San Francisco Bay area, gushed over his kneeling, and treated it as a heroic action. The Oakland As official statement said merely, “We support all our players’ constitutional rights and freedom of expression.”
So far, the As’ statement has been the stance of the MLB as well, though a claim of supporting free speech rings false to fans since Mariners’ catcher Steve Clevenger was suspended last season for criticizing Black Lives Matter, not on the field, but on his Twitter account. Some speech appears more equal than others, and it’s leading to trouble for the league, especially as Maxwell’s off-field behavior becomes increasingly erratic. When I spoke to the As’ ticket office regarding the anthem controversy, they said they’d received hundreds of phone calls and emails from fans voicing concern over Maxwell’s actions.
Fans should be concerned. The NFL is having a hard-enough time with their attendance and ratings drop from players’ on-field politics. If Maxwell’s grandstanding spreads to the rest of the MLB, baseball is at a much greater risk for its survival. This is due to three main reasons.
1. Baseball’s Identity Is Synonymous With America
Although football is very much an American sport, baseball is far more entwined with what it means to be an American. Baseball is called America’s pastime for a reason. Its unique rules tie into the American dream far better than any other professional entertainment. People from toddlers to grandparents can throw a ball and hit, giving anyone a dream of playing baseball akin to having a home with a white picket fence.
Very few times in our nation’s history have sports so eloquently summed up the American spirit as directly after 9/11, when the New York Mets thanked the first responders who worked on the scene in downtown New York City. The Mets’ solidarity with workers, police, and firefighters is still remembered more than 15 years later.
The team was also responsible for one of the most emotional moments in sports after 9/11, when, on their first return to the field after days of games cancelled for fear of terror threats, Mike Piazza hit a home run that received some of the loudest sustained cheers of all time.
“I remember looking up and praying to God, saying, ‘Lord, please give me the strength to get through this, because I don’t know if I can,’” he said in a documentary. “It’s amazing, when you’re in the right place and the right time, and you believe in yourself and you have a lot of people pulling for you, and you feel it.” The sentiment perfectly portrays what baseball means to America in both trying and good times.
Fans associate the national anthem with baseball far more than they do any other sport. MLB.com opined about the anthem on the song’s 200th anniversary in an article titled, “Star-Spangled Banner, baseball forever linked.” Sportswriter Doug Miller wrote, “Every year now, we’re treated to incredible musical talent on the baseball field. It’s now a grand American tradition to bring out the best in the business to sing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at the biggest baseball games.”
With such a rich history, disrespect for the song implies a deep disrespect for baseball itself. Such protests are prone to upset fans of this particular sport far more than others, and could lead to deep troubles for the MLB if the kneeling continues.
2. Attendance Still Hasn’t Recovered From the Strike
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, baseball seemed unstoppable. The level of fame players reached is akin to the level we see from NFL stars today. It all changed on August 22, 1994, when the players’ union called a strike. The World Series wasn’t played for the first time since 1904, and the effects on the sport were disastrous.
Fans saw the players as rich, entitled spoilsports who didn’t care about the game. It didn’t help when the media was reporting matters like superstar Jose Canseco being pulled over for driving 104 mph in his Porsche, specially modified to take jet fuel instead of regular gasoline. With optics like Canseco, the working American fan saw players’ protests as a frivolous money grab. Average attendance dropped by 20 percent, and television ratings dipped severely.
Although baseball’s viewership and attendance has been on a steady climb ever since, barring a slight dip in 2008-2009 with the recession, it still hasn’t reached levels of the pre-strike era. Seeing their heroes lapse into selfishness hurt fans.
The reason the strike cut so deeply is because fans identify with baseball players far more strongly than they do athletes of the NFL. There is a “that could be me” factor with baseball because it doesn’t have other sports’ perceived physical demands. When fans see these particular players acting disrespectfully, fans tune out more quickly—and they stay out as a consequence. If we see widespread protests of the national anthem, we might see another big drop in baseball’s viewership. With so many difficulties for small-market teams, a drop comparable to that after the players’ strike could bankrupt a good portion of the league.
3. Family Friendliness Is Part of Baseball’s Brand
Local news about the NFL regularly reports aggressive incidents or violence near football games. Just recently, a Raiders lineman had an altercation with an unruly fan in the parking lot after the game on October 9. The very next week, on NFL’s Thursday night Carolina Panthers game, an Internet video of two fans punching each other went viral. Football games are notorious for not being the safest places, but the aggressiveness and safety issues aren’t prevalent in baseball.
Baseball has a more family-friendly environment, with players much more prone to interact with kids in the stands during the game. If you’re seated in the front rows anywhere in the ballpark, there are typically lines of kids shouting to try to get a foul ball thrown in their direction. It’s a large part of the atmosphere and culture of baseball.
Like many sports, baseball suffered from a performance-enhancing drugs epidemic in the 1990s and 2000s. However, very few sports have been as adamant in testing and outing players or as harsh with their suspensions and penalties as the MLB. Many of the great players in the steroid era have not been admitted to the Hall of Fame because of their known drug use. The MLB does this because of their family-friendly culture, and the steroid epidemic caused a big problem for that carefully cultivated image. Every time a major star is caught with a substance, it’s something parents want to shelter their children from.
National anthem protests pose a similar problem. Families teach children to remove their caps and stand for the anthem, and it’s announced at the stadium before the song starts at each game. When children see players involved in these protests, it poses a difficult situation for parents, regardless of their political stances. They are forced to explain that either 1. Their children’s heroes are engaging in bad behavior, or 2. Mire children in toxic identity politics. It leaves one solution for parents: extricating their children from the ballpark in favor of other family-friendly entertainment.
If the MLB loses the families, it stands to lose a lot more than other sports would because of the way baseball has been so heavily marketed to children and families for more than 100 years. But it’s the combination of the three reasons above that spell severe danger for baseball if Maxwell’s anthem protests continue, or, worse, expand to other players.
Sports leagues have been reluctant to do anything that could be perceived as infringing upon players’ rights. It’s up to the league to protect fans and their game from on-field politics. The NBA reacted to the issue by sending a memo to teams reminding them a rule requires players to stand for the anthem. So far, there hasn’t been any sitting or kneeling during the games to cause basketball any problems.
The MLB is right not to address their anthem problem during this postseason, less they distract from the beauty of October baseball and a very exciting World Series. Having Maxwell in the news is already distracting enough to a very exciting Dodgers versus Astros match-up. However, the league must take similar action to the NBA during the coming offseason in order to protect America’s pastime from the kind of negative attention the NFL is receiving.
One back-up player causing a commotion does not make national waves in the world of baseball, but if it spreads, we could see a ratings and attendance devastation to the Major Leagues on far greater a level than we’ve seen to the NFL. A swift and decisive move from the league will show they care about the fans and this country, and keep America’s pastime a fun, family-friendly celebration of American culture for decades to come.