Baseball, Barbecue and Losing Freedom This Fourth of July
The drive home away from the city, is, as always, gorgeous. Get off of the turnpike, wind through the back roads; the small, New England towns with drystone walls and 17th century monoliths, directional signposts affixed to each along the way. You always notice the beauty, but today it is more so because the trees are no longer bare. The sun is warm. People are out. It is finally summer.
The drive is pretty, but long, and within the tedium your mind drifts. The Fourth of July nears, and through these Massachusetts towns and villages -- Three Rivers, Palmer, Belchertown -- you see the annual preparations for its arrival. The current American flag, the old Betsy Ross flag, line each side of the main drag. Your mind drifts, backward to family. Technology has sharpened the memories, turned them quaint, so quaint your son laughs at the antiquity, calls you a dinosaur when you tell him your parents rushed feverishly to the bank to cash their paychecks before the holiday weekend -- direct deposit took care of that long ago. You remember the years the Fourth fell on a Monday and the panicked Saturdays that preceded them, the urgency to make sure there was enough booze for the barbecue because nothing was open on the holiday and, back then, Massachusetts Blue Laws kept liquor stores closed on Sunday.
July 4th was the best day of the year. Everything was centered on family. In some ways it was even better than Christmas because the entire family showed up -- the Fourth was a de facto family reunion. The massive barbecue, the pool at one uncle's house, even though you nearly drowned in it not once, but twice. All the cousins. The older ones who brought the cherry bombs and bottle rockets, the younger ones like you who were content with a strip of firecrackers. The Boston fireworks displays at the Esplanade, or later, at Stephens Field in Plymouth. The touch football games. The math reminds you just how young everybody was. When you were 40, your boy was in preschool. When your mother turned 40, you were a freshman in college.
You look out the window. The towns pass and so do the memories. Don't think about them. Your mother is dead. Long dead. Fifteen years now. Your father, ravaged by dementia, is breathing, but he's not alive. Hasn't been a presence in years. The young family is now old, a small family getting smaller. Look ahead. Look at the road. Look at what has replaced the memories. The Fourth is coming. Look at what it has become.
ONE YEAR, THERE was no bash. You don't remember why. No extended family. No barbecue. No pool to drown in -- you had learned how to swim by then. It was 1983. The only thing you remember about that day is sitting in your room watching your black-and-white TV. Sox-Yankees. Channel 38. Ned Martin and Bob Montgomery on the call. The Yankees' Dave Righetti threw a no-hitter. Wade Boggs struck out swinging to end it. If black-and-white televisions and a world before direct deposit feel ancient, you smile at the memory of Righetti pitching nine innings, these days a feat that feels as rare as a no-hitter, as contemporary as the dead ball.
Last month, Major League Baseball and its partners again released Independence Day-themed baseball hats that each of the 30 teams will wear. This year's version features a flush of stars across the front against a blue and white backdrop, offset with a shaggy shock of red. The Toronto Blue Jays, located in a country that does not celebrate American independence, were also issued the caps -- even though the Canadian flag does not contain stars nor the color blue. Public outrage prompted a redesign of the Toronto caps. Next is the USA-themed socks, the marketing, the freedom-inspired spikes, gloves, wristbands, the inevitable paeans to the armed forces.
By now, we're all numb to the spectacle. At least publicly, the emphasis on the Fourth of July shifted from family to symbols years ago -- Sept. 11 did that. Two decades of paid patriotism has made it ever harder to center the Fourth on reconnecting with your favorite aunts and uncles. No backyard barbecue and badminton game could compete with 20 years of military tributes and unquestioned nationalism. You think back to Righetti. Cosmetically, there was nothing about that July 4, 1983, that said patriotism. All Yankee Stadium said that day 39 years ago was baseball. Ninety-four degrees. Sox-Yankees. The Stadium looked as it did every other day. The crowd came because it was July 4, a Monday day game -- a great day for baseball and family -- and, along with Bat Day, the biggest giveaway day of the year: Yankee Cap Day. You smile a little at the victory in that, because only a few decades earlier, the Yankees were most resistant to a brilliant piece of marketing. In the 1950s, the Yankees did not want fans wearing Yankees caps. George Weiss, the Yankees' general manager at the time, thought a million New York kids wearing the team cap cheapened the brand. Yankees hats were a piece of a professional uniform. They were for players, not fans.
Grilling, baseball and fireworks, first replaced by symbols -- and now by a country tearing itself completely apart. July 4, 2022, falls in the midst of devastation. It is Independence Day in America with independence under current and relentless assault. From Miranda rights to the environment, to the separation of church and state, to guns -- so many guns -- people are reeling. The U.S. Supreme Court has run a chain saw through what two generations of Americans had known to be the legal baselines of their lives. Tens of millions of women today do not feel freedom and certainly are not celebrating independence. The people who can become pregnant who feel celebratory toward the Court may do so from the victory of their position, but it nevertheless remains true that the power of choice -- and the right to privacy -- has been taken from all of them.
You look at the Betsy Ross flag, and then you look at it again. As a kid it was your favorite version of the American flag because the 13 stars in a circle looked kind of cool, reminded you of "Schoolhouse Rock!"-- the old Saturday morning cartoon. As an adolescent, you associated the 13 circular stars with sports -- Dr. J, Andrew Toney and the Philadelphia 76ers. Today, as an adult, you see how the flag has been co-opted by white nationalist groups, some of the same ones who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
"Schoolhouse Rock!" A cartoon short birthed during a period of Congressional concern in the early 1970s that children devouring Saturday morning cartoons required some balancing educational component. ABC voluntarily created the legendary three-minute cartoon focusing on math, science, grammar -- and civics, the basic tenets of the American democracy. There is no pretense of basic civics today.
YOU WATCH TV, even though you swore to not pay attention to the Jan. 6 congressional hearings. It was not a decision made from the perch of elegant privilege, of too rich to care, but from a full dissidence -- a weariness of the gaslighting and false equivalencies, the whataboutisms, the goalposts moving that have defined the past several years. The spectacle of all-white juries acquitting proud, admittedly guilty white killers of Black people largely predated your birth, and thus for the past 18 months you've held on to a truth: The events of Jan. 6, where Americans stormed the most symbolically important legislative building in the free world -- and a sitting president reportedly enraged he was not taken to the Capitol to join them -- are the most unforgivable betrayals of the American ideal in your lifetime.
You said you were not going to watch, but inner conflicts aside, you are an American -- so you watch. You revisit the images of police barricades being knocked down, of Americans climbing through windows trying to breach the U.S. Capitol, of elected American officials sheltering in place and of police running from Americans lest they be trampled by them. Think about the people chasing them, the ones over past decades who always told your people to obey, the ones so quick to call others anti-American. You tell yourself to not think about the utter, enraging hypocrisy, to resist the useless and flaccid equivalencies. (Imagine if Black people did that...) It all falls flat. We are post-hypocrisy. The equivalencies don't hold up. They never did.
Instead, you drift back into sports, to the players over the past decade, the Black ones who knelt silently, who appealed for better with a momentary gesture -- and for it, they were called unpatriotic. They were called sons of b------. By the fans who paid to see their wondrous abilities. By the then-president of the United States. They lost their careers for it. They were traded for it. A Supreme Court Justice, the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, called the protest by Colin Kaepernick and others "stupid," as well as "dumb and disrespectful" before the eventual unsatisfactory apology. These Black players were the subject of constant news stories dissecting the appropriateness of their actions. Recall the individual moments; CC Sabathia, as a Yankees pitcher, on the team plane trying to explain the Black communities and their tense relationships with police after one of his white teammates asked of Black suspects, "Why don't they just obey?" You think about John Mara, a co-owner of the NFL's New York Giants, and Steve Bisciotti, majority owner of the Baltimore Ravens, who indirectly reached the same conclusion: The majority of their fan bases just simply would not accept a kneeling player. That crime was that great, a line too far. Both publicly said they supported Kaepernick's right to protest, but neither dared even let Kaepernick try out as a backup -- even after several productive conversations between Ravens coach John Harbaugh and Kaepernick. They said the right words, but their deeds, along with the other 30 owners, told a different, far more truthful story.
You always wondered how the players would react to Jan. 6, knowing that the people who stormed the Capitol, threatened congressional leaders and the vice president of the United States, and were part of a riot that led to a police officer's death, reflected the same constituency of Americans who told the players to obey, to respect the flag, to find a better way to protest.
You think about Tony La Russa, manager of the Chicago White Sox, who always has so much to say about who is doing what and how they're doing it. Kaepernick was just seeking attention, La Russa said. He was disrespecting the flag, La Russa said. You think about John Tortorella, who as coach of both the NHL's Columbus Blue Jackets and the U.S. National Hockey team, said in 2016 -- before changing his stance in 2020 -- that any player who took a knee or made any sign of protest against the flag wouldn't play. You think about Boomer Esiason, the former NFL quarterback turned broadcaster who criticized Black players for their protest, which consisted of a silent gesture. You think of Ray Lewis, the Hall of Fame Baltimore Ravens linebacker, who said Kaepernick needed to shut his mouth if he wanted to play in the NFL.
When the barricades were overrun, and elected officials of both parties hid under their desks, and the cops were killed, and the very people who told Black people to respect the law and obey did not obey, where was La Russa? Where was Tortorella, who believed so much in America? Where was Esiason, and Ray Lewis and all the commentators who demanded law and order and respect?
They were silent.
One man who wasn't silent was Washington Commanders defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, who lit the gas lamp -- and dismissed Jan. 6. He called it a "dust-up." There was the outrage. Internally. On Twitter. But you get it. If the past several years have reinforced anything, it is that there has always been a separate set of rules, a concierge lane, a front door exclusively for white America. Jan. 6 crystalized this truth.
You know that what you think is not controversial, or speculative, or worthy of the hapless, inevitable hourlong TV town hall specials. ("Does America have a racial problem?") It is as uncomplicated as reading a résumé. Black people have always lived in this country in service to -- and not with ownership of -- the United States. The message is unhidden: A significant percentage of white America believes this country belongs to them. It explains the difference between the reaction to San Francisco Giants manager Gabe Kapler's decision to protest the paucity of gun control laws in this country after the Buffalo and Uvalde mass shootings by not appearing on the field for the national anthem, and the weight of the federal government landing on Colin Kaepernick -- where legislators enacted anti-protest laws around the country, a revered Supreme Court justice called his actions disrespectful and the then-president called any NFL player who kneeled an SOB.
You wondered what the players would do, how they felt when they saw the images of Eugene Goodman, the lone Capitol police officer running from the Jan. 6 rioters to protect members of Congress and their staffs, alerting them to take cover. Would they react to years of being told to shut up and play, of backing the blue, or respecting the law? Physical protest is unsustainable for long stretches of time, but values are constant. Whatever the players may feel, however, emboldened or vindicated, they have publicly turned inward. Protest post 2020 is on the wane, in favor of empire, and for the grassroots, the people on the street who have needed allies in the fight, they see the juxtaposition clearly: During a time of rights being taken, or Jan. 6 hearings, the big news in sports was LeBron James being crowned a billionaire.
There are two rules in the United States, never directly articulated but rife with consequence when broken: Beyond what the mainstream, which is to say white America, determines to be acceptable, it is forbidden to express humanitarian compassion and concern for the people of Palestine -- just ask Dwight Howard. And it is unacceptable to unequivocally advocate for Black people. The former is in general violation of the nation's foreign policy, the latter is universally understood to be career threatening for the simple fact that any Black athlete that stands up for his people is routinely referred to as "brave."
Kapler through direct gesture asked his country to do better by challenging its most powerful symbol. He did against guns what Kaepernick did in support of Black people. He was not fired. He is not a pariah. There are no incessant news cycles demanding him to explain his position, no president calling him a son of a b----, no whisper campaigns that whenever his managerial term with the Giants comes to an end, he has managed his last big-league baseball team. Nor should he have been. He made his statement and, like an American ostensibly should, kept on living.
And that, you know so painfully well after more than a half-century in this land, is the difference. Black people have known it for centuries, and the alarm will always ring for the ones who have forgotten. You participate in the American dream at their pleasure. This is theirs, not yours, and thus they can trash the Capitol if they want because the Capitol building is theirs. After all, they came here to build a better life. The laws enacted in that building, before your ancestors fought to undo them, were in protection of them.
You? You were brought here to work.
NO ONE WHO cares will ever forget where they were on June 24, 2022, when the Supreme Court ended legal, federally protected reproductive choice the day after the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the same week Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson settled sexual misconduct lawsuits with 20 of 24 women -- the remaining four will go to trial -- the same week that Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington Commanders, is resisting a subpoena by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform regarding the "toxic workplace culture" at his football team, including "allegations of sexual harassment, spanning multiple decades."
Some prominent male athletes offered public support, as did the social media accounts of some teams, but you think about the players, the teams, the games, and all of the performative nature of support. Just the word support is incorrect, for it suggests the abortion option did not affect men, was not their fight. You think of the hideous mendacity of it all, that Roe saved the futures of as many men as it did women. Careers continued. Dreams were not derailed. Privacies were maintained. You think about the enormous gap between the fashionable statements, where the adversaries profit by saying the right things, and the actually committed people who will march and support and do the work. And while you contemplate another example of gaslighting in this country, it reminds you of USA Today columnist Nancy Armour's piercing question the day Dobbs replaced Roe: Where are all the girl dads?
Race, class and gender. They are the third rails of American life and cannot be separated. You think about the pandemic, when so many of the girl dads, in the clubhouse, the press boxes and in the stands, gaslit their girls by stealing their language because they did not want to wear a mask or be vaccinated. "My body, my choice," they would insultingly say. The term of empowerment that belonged to the pro-choice movement for a half-century became a rallying cry for people who could not bear the horrors of wearing a mask.
You see sports supporting Pride month. The corporate sponsors love that. They can sell hats with team logos and rainbows. They can talk about inclusion. They can hire people who will tell the world that institutions are committed to everyone, and you see another gas lamp lit, for the billionaires who sign the checks and hire the inclusion people to the big jobs who order the hats with team logos and rainbows on them also bankroll the political movements that have led to the stripping away of rights from citizens with the strength of a tsunami. Gabe Kapler protests, but his employer, like so many of them, is actually the adversary. Having maxed out his contributions to far-right causes, Giants billionaire owner Charles B. Johnson, contributes money that supports the candidate and enables the Court, which has telegraphed the coming assault on Griswold, Lawrence and Obergefell. Daniel Snyder owns the team that fined Jack Del Rio $100,000 for his comments about the Jan. 6 riot, but in 2016, Snyder was among a handful of NFL owners who each gave $1 million to Donald Trump's inaugural committee -- in support of the man now accused of inciting the whole thing.
But at the ballpark, there will be hats for sale. Aspiration spray painted on the field (End Racism). And online? Hashtags.
You can stop drifting now. You're home. Pull the car into the driveway. Home. For a moment, you are unsure exactly what that word means -- or perhaps more accurately, on this Independence Day and during the crushing weeks that preceded it, you are 100% certain that you do.
Howard Bryant is Senior Writer, ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He is the author of numerous books including The Last Hero: The Life of Henry Aaron and Juicing the Game.