Baseball great Gary Sheffield says MLB's 'soldier-like' atmosphere prevents players from protesting the national anthem

MLB players have remained notably quiet about the wave of activism that has spread across professional sports, and retired outfielder Gary Sheffield has a possible explanation.

Over a weekend that saw players from across the NFL protest during the national anthem in various ways, Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell was the only baseball player to take a knee in solidarity. Sheffield said the lack of demonstrations was due to MLB’s regimented atmosphere.

“When I was a kid, you had all these guys, athletes like Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, following Dr. Martin Luther King,” he said in an interview with Patrick Sauer of GQ. “I’ll only speak for baseball, but nowadays we don’t have an Ali. We don’t even have the personalities of my generation and the one before me. Baseball has become so soldier-like, bow your head type stuff.”

It’s an eye-opening comment from Sheffield, who played for eight MLB clubs during his career. Football is known for having a conservative streak of its own, but baseball, with all its unwritten rules, may be even less accommodating of dissent.

While some players wanted to protest during the anthem, they may have been deterred by a desire to be united with their teammates. Tampa Bay Rays ace Chris Archer said as much after a recent game.

“I don’t want to offend anybody,” he said, according to Gabe Lacques of USA Today. “No matter how you explain it or justify it, some people just can’t get past the military element of it and it’s not something I want to do, is ruffle my teammates’ feathers on my personal views that have nothing to do with baseball.”

Sheffield said the national anthem wasn’t respected nearly as much during his career, which stretched from 1988 through 2009. He implied that protests of racial and social inequality would have been more likely to occur 20 or 30 years ago.

“In light of all that, for decades MLB players didn’t stand for the flag,” he said. “You’d have guys in the locker room eating, stretching in the bullpen, sitting in the dugout, players were spread out all over the field. There was no idea of ‘unity.'”

While baseball’s unique atmosphere was likely part of the reason so many players chose to stand for the anthem, there may have been another cause. African-American ballplayers made up just 7.1 per cent of Opening Day rosters this season, the lowest number since 1958.

Sheffield bemoaned that statistic, saying the youth baseball scene in the US has shifted to expensive travel leagues that make it difficult for African-American kids to attract attention from MLB teams.

“When I was coming up, there wasn’t a day scouts weren’t coming into our hood to find guys with big arms like Doc Gooden and Floyd Youmans, and big bats like me,” Sheffield said. “They invested time getting to know the kids … All that’s gone with travel ball and AAU, which turns it around. The kid has to find the scout.”

Whatever the cause, it doesn’t seem likely that more MLB players will get involved with the cause this year. There were no protestors prior to Tuesday night’s American League Wild Card Game between the New York Yankees and Minnesota Twins.

Check out GQ’s full interview with Sheffield here.

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