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THE LA RUSSA LESSON: SOME SPORTS PEOPLE SHOULD AVOID POLITICS
Steve Kerr’s impassioned plea for gun reform has prompted opinions from coaches and managers throughout the industry, but the views of a 77-year-old lifer in Chicago might not connect in his clubhouse
It isn’t just another ballgame, this delicate exercise in voicing one’s social awareness. Pity the manager or coach who speaks out without realizing the potential consequences within his ranks. Never can it be as simple as opining publicly about the flag, the national anthem and the abject horror of a teenager killing 19 children and two teachers with guns purchased as easily as a Big Gulp.
What if his headline-grabbing statements aren’t received well by his players? What if the stated competitive purpose — enjoying a successful season, advancing in the playoffs, justifying ample salaries, generating excitement among fans — is infected by a political disconnect?
From the moment Steve Kerr lit a flare last week under the dead asses of America’s politicians, a conga line of sports wannabes has followed in commentary lockstep. What they don’t understand is that Kerr, whose father was shot twice in the head and killed by terrorists as a university president in Beirut, has decades of personal anguish to justify his outcry and advocacy of gun control. His players in the Golden State locker room admire his stance, always have, with no stronger proof than the Warriors’ robust return to the NBA Finals and a chance to win a fourth championship in eight years. After Kerr’s diatribe against Mitch McConnell and Republican senators who continue to enable school massacres, Steph Curry reposted the speech on Twitter.
“Watch this as much as you watch the game tonight,” he wrote after the shooting in Uvalde, Texas.
Then he approached his coach before tipoff that night. “He gave me the head nod, gave me a good handshake,” Kerr said. “It was unspoken, but I knew what he was expressing.”
Not every sports leader can forge the same symbiotic bond. Kerr is in his mid-50s, in tune with a complicated 2022 world, tapped into the souls of players only a generation younger. He has the credibility of life experiences melded with eight titles, three as a coach. Tony La Russa, meanwhile, is nearing 80 and has little in common with his players beyond their Chicago White Sox jerseys. In what already looms as another bummer season for a franchise that has won only one World Series since throwing one back in 1919, La Russa did his cause no favors by revisiting old-world views that could clash with ideologies in his clubhouse.
When San Francisco Giants manager Gabe Kapler responded to Kerr’s impassioned outpouring with his own message — he would protest “the state of the country” by staying inside the clubhouse during “The Star-Spangled Banner” — La Russa called it a “mistake.” Such a boycott, he said, disparages those who’ve served and died in the U.S. military. Yes, La Russa was taking that narrow-minded track once again, needlessly, as he did during his long decade removed from on-field managing. In doing so, he ignores what happened in the White Sox clubhouse before he returned as an oddballish choice in late 2020. The flag and anthem have different meanings for different people, understandably. But in his domain, at his age, he must pay close heed to the vibes of his players, whose distress of two summers ago remains fresh. The team’s foremost leaders, veterans and youngsters alike, took a knee before a game — Tim Anderson, Jose Abreu, Lucas Giolito, Luis Robert, Eloy Jimenez — as did coaches Daryl Boston and Joe McEwing.
Certainly, they are more in line with Kapler’s thought process than they are with La Russa, who said this of Kapler: “I think he’s exactly right to be concerned with what’s happening in our country. He’s right there. Where I disagree is, the flag and anthem are not appropriate places to try to voice your objections.
“You need to understand what the veterans think when they hear the anthem or see the flag. And the cost they paid and their families paid. And if you truly understand that, I think it’s impossible not to salute the flag and listen to the anthem. … I agree with (Kapler). There’s a lot wrong. But I would never not stand up for the anthem or salute the flag.”
If the primary function of a manager is to guide a team toward October, this isn’t the time for La Russa to participate in political debates. His 23-23 team, expected to contend for an American League pennant, wouldn’t earn a berth in an expanded postseason if the season ended today. Other than the sensational Anderson, now sidelined with a groin injury, an acclaimed offense has been asleep. Two of general manager Rick Hahn’s expensive acquisitions, pitcher Dallas Keuchel ($55.5 million) and catcher Yasmani Grandal ($73 million), have been busts this season. When loaded teams are playing dead at midseason, a manager risks being dumped in many cities. Atop the performance concerns, La Russa now is playing with avoidable fire by dissecting protests when he should be tending to his baseball mess.
He could have answered questions diplomatically, like other managers. Another with an AARP card, Buck Showalter of the rampaging New York Mets, said he respects “how Gabe feels and the way he’s going about it.” Joe Girardi, whose future is teetering in Philadelphia, simply said, “That’s Gabe’s decision. I’m going to leave it at that.”
“I'm proud of him,” Boston’s Alex Cora said. “He's a good friend of mine and the kind of guy I respect from afar for what he's doing, and if this is what he's doing, good for him. I understand his reasons. He was very open about it and I know there's a lot of people that are going to support him."
Said Texas’ Chris Woodward: “I think we're all frustrated, especially in this country. Nobody's happy. It's not about which side you're on. It's just we've got to get better as a society. I'm not going to really make comment either way on whether I would or wouldn't do what he did.”
Kerr’s rival in the Finals, Boston’s Ime Udoka, also offered appropriate words after the Celtics eliminated Miami in the Eastern Conference finals. Unprompted, the first-year coach said, “When I talk to my son, a 10-year-old — I think about Uvalde and what’s happened. We talk about this game that we love and put all our passion into, and it’s not life or death. We win or we lose, we go home and kiss your kids, and you move on either way. We’ll be happy if we win and we would be down if we lost. But you sit back and think about 19 children and two adults that don’t get that. That’s real. It’s something that I don’t want to be forgotten, the awareness of that. It just happened a week ago, and it seems to be pushed in people’s memory already. Change is needed. It’s a game that we play. Regardless of the result, it’s not life or death. Bottom line. Just keep that in our minds.”
Perfect. And his players stand right behind him, as the most important series of their lives approaches Thursday.
La Russa’s remarks, however, only created a possible generational gulf when, realistically, he had nothing to gain from countering Kapler but self-satisfaction. His employment is protected by doddering White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who doesn’t admit mistakes and still thinks rectifying his club’s 1986 firing of La Russa — my god, 36 years ago — was a better idea than the smarter play two winters ago, a much younger and more relevant A.J. Hinch. Watch and see if the White Sox continue to lay down and not produce for La Russa.
Also ask why Reinsdorf and other sports owners haven’t taken the approach of the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays, who made robust statements condemning gun violence while stating terrifying facts on their social media feeds. “58 percent of American adults or someone they cared for have experienced gun violence,” the Rays wrote. NBA fans attending a Heat-Celtics playoff game on the night of the shooting were told by Miami’s public-address man, “The Heat urges you to contact your state senators by calling 202-224-3121 to leave a message demanding their support for common-sense gun laws.” The White Sox and numerous other U.S. teams have donated money to the Robb Elementary School initiative, along with other foundations. But most have refrained from a full-scale verbal attack like the Rays, who wrote: “This cannot become normal. We cannot become numb. We cannot look the other way. We all know, if nothing changes, nothing changes.”
I’m not even sure if Kapler’s sentiments were well-timed or made much baseball sense. His take rubbed me as an attempt to keep up with Kerr, the celebrated basketball and life coach who works a mile down the street. Was this a byproduct of Bay Area liberalism? Didn’t Kapler’s boss, Giants CEO Larry Baer, appreciate the idea of his front-facing leader striking his own pose? As an American, Kapler has a right to voice disgust about the country’s inner workings, but why was he so demonstrative days after the Uvalde tragedy? And did he consider how his delayed reaction would play in his clubhouse, where the Giants have thrived for two seasons on under-the-radar overachievement with controversy nowhere in the team DNA?
“I don’t plan on coming out for the anthem going forward until I feel better about the direction of our country,” Kapler said Friday, upset that “we’re not the land of the free nor the home of the brave right now.”
This came after he emptied his emotions in a personal blog, regretting he hadn’t protested by taking a knee during the anthem three nights earlier. “My brain said drop to a knee; my body didn’t listen. I wanted to walk back inside; instead I froze. I felt like a coward,” Kapler wrote. “I didn’t want to call attention to myself. I didn’t want to take away from the victims or their families. There was a baseball game, a rock band, the lights, the pageantry. I knew thousands of people were using this game to escape the horrors of the world for just a little bit. I knew thousands more wouldn’t understand the gesture and would take it as an offense to the military, to veterans, to themselves. But I am not okay with the state of this country. I wish I hadn’t let my discomfort compromise my integrity. I wish that I could have demonstrated what I learned from my dad, that when you’re dissatisfied with your country, you let it be known through protest. The home of the brave should encourage this.”
All of which is well and good, as was this: “When I was the same age as the children in Uvalde, my father taught me to stand for the pledge of allegiance when I believed my country was representing its people well or to protest and stay seated when it wasn’t. I don’t believe it is representing us well right now. Every time I place my hand over my heart and remove my hat, I'm participating in a self congratulatory glorification of the only country where these mass shootings take place.”
Yet there was Kapler two days later, realizing Memorial Day was upon him and deciding — flip, flop — that the Giants had an especially important “Star-Spangled Banner” ahead in Philadelphia. So much for his indefinite vow. “I’m very comfortable taking it day by day. I think I'll just decide what makes the most sense in the moment,” he said. “Memorial Day is an important day in our country's history and a special day and a unique day. I find it to be one that deserves special attention.”
The mass shootings have overwhelmed our senses. Sports figures are influential in this country and are urged to weigh in — but only when their opinions reflect an organizational culture and don’t jeopardize the mission at hand. When Steve Kerr talks, the Warriors are inspired.
When Tony La Russa talks, you wonder why he’s managing a major-league team at the age of 77 years, eight months.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.