Walk up music is one of baseball’s best traditions. It provides athletes with a way of expressing themselves while preparing to perform at the highest level. The players select their own music, for some it’s country twang, the bass of electronic music, or a metal guitar riff. Or, there’s Elvis Andrus’ 2019 walkup song, Baby Shark, which sent kids at the stadium into surprised delight.

In 2020, athletes have been outspoken advocates for racial justice and societal changes. The NBA has taken the lead in this, with racial justice expressions displayed on the on the backs of jerseys and black lives matter written across the court floor. It’s not about courts and jerseys though; the athletes want action and are pleading with us to listen. These expressions and pleas for justice are not new to sports.

In 2016, Colin Kaepernick began kneeling for the national anthem in protest of police brutality. In 2014, Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers wore “I Can’t Breath” T-shirts before their games in reference to protest the death of Eric Gardner. In 2012, Lebron James and the Miami Heat wore sweatshirts before games to protest the death of Trayvon Martin. In 2010, the Phoenix Suns wore new jerseys titled “Los Suns” in honor of Cinco de Mayo and to protest Arizona’s new stricter immigration policy.

This isn’t just a recent phenomenon either. In 1968, for example, athletes chose differing ways of expressing the civil rights movement in the context of sports. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar boycotted the Olympics to protest how African Americans were treated in the US. Meanwhile, gold and bronze medalist sprinters, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, took a different tactic. From the Olympic medal stand they raised their black gloved fists up high signifying the “Black Power” movement on the global stage.

By Angelo Cozzi (Mondadori Publishers). Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40937149

There are often painful consequences for athletes who use their voice for change. Some fans really dislike athletes’ expressions of protest. “Just play sports,” they say. “Shut up and dribble,” they shout. There’s a lot of ways that fans resist the calls for social justice from athletes, ultimately with economic threats of boycotting watching any more games. For some athletes, coaches and owners will stop playing them or offering them contracts. What’s really being said by those who want silent athletes? Let’s keep the status quo. For people facing oppression, that’s not an option.

Austin Channing Brown’s I’m Still Here describes the “racial harmony” of her Catholic high school. It never had the glaring racial tensions of swastikas or blackface. What she learned though, was the “harmony” that existed was “the absence of outright conflict,” which “often leaves deeper complications untouched.” There were problems, but nobody was talking about it. For those with white privilege, whose race is not an obstacle to your treatment and opportunity, those that bring up racial justice issues are too often dismissed as a nuisance and irritant.

In music, a major or minor chord is made up of the first, third, and fifth note of a scale. The third note determines if the chord is major or minor. These chords sound pleasant to our ears on their own. But not every chord sounds calming. The suspended chord, which substitutes the third note of the scale for the second or fourth, adds tension and begs for musical resolution. When you hear a suspended chord, your brain is hoping to find the resolution of a major or minor chord to resolve the tension.

For as long as injustice remains, we need suspended chords to announce tension. We need the expressions of those who don’t fit society’s standardization to create the tension in the orchestra of life, so that eventually we can resolve the injustices and the tensions. We need anyone who sees and experiences oppression to use their voice to wake others up. That includes athletes. The point of pleas for justice is not simply for attention, but for change.

For as long as injustice remains, we need suspended chords to announce tension. Share on X

Our world has problems. Instead of shooting the messenger, we should listen to the tensions that our modern prophets proclaim. The police who killed Breonna Taylor were not charged with crimes for the bullets that killed her, but only for the bullets that didn’t. Until justice reigns, we should expect the tense cries of suspended chords, unable to allow the status quo to go unchallenged.

Do we have to talk about race? If we ever want the world to change, yes.

If the world will change, it starts with you. What music will you play as you walk up to the plate of life? Will you choose to please the crowds of the status quo or will you go to bat for a better world?

If you are interested in joining me for a discussion of Austin Channing Brown’s I’m Still Here, I’m co-leading a discussion of it on Zoom on Thursday nights from September 17 – October 29. Contact me on email of social media if you’d like to join in the discussion.