Home Baseball An Unlikely Source of Catharsis for a Black M.L.B. Player: Social Media

An Unlikely Source of Catharsis for a Black M.L.B. Player: Social Media

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Tony Kemp felt, in his words, depressed.

Soon after George Floyd’s death in May, with enduring protests about racial injustice and police brutality around the country, Kemp could not get himself out of bed until 2 or 3 p.m. on back-to-back days.

“I was just down in the dumps,” said Kemp, an infielder-outfielder for the Oakland Athletics.

Seeking some catharsis, he decided on June 5 to start the sort of civil dialogue that often feels so lacking nowadays. Kemp, 28, walked into his kitchen in Nashville, sat down and tapped out a message on his cellphone to his 42,000 followers on Twitter.

“Let’s be honest,” he wrote. “It’s been a tough week. If any of you need to talk or want to be more informed don’t hesitate to ask me. All love.”

Social media can be a challenging venue for tackling sensitive subjects with nuance. But for Kemp, one of the few African-American players in Major League Baseball, sending that tweet felt like placing a bar stool at his kitchen island and inviting anyone to join him for a conversation about the issues roiling the country.

The idea to formalize his efforts into a campaign, which Kemp labeled the +1 Effect, came during a tearful video chat with his family after Floyd’s death in police custody. Kemp’s uncle argued that societal reform would come from individuals sharing perspectives with others, and that motivated Kemp to keep talking to fans.

Messages streamed in from baseball fans, many with starkly different views than his. He talked with them about everything from race to police profiling to kneeling during the national anthem.

“Sending out something like that, you never know what kind of response you’re going to get,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “But man, it blew up. I was happy about that. We had a lot of good, positive conversations.”

In all, Kemp estimated he has corresponded with more than 125 fans through direct messages on Twitter or Instagram. There was a short exchange with Emily Eason, a 38-year-old white woman originally from Nashville, about white privilege. There was a conversation with Frank Howard, a 40-year-old white man in the Houston area, about Drew Brees’s comments against anthem protests in the N.F.L., which Brees later apologized for. And there was an extended chat with Bob Wheeler Jr. about education gaps affecting poor or minority students.

“When I was talking to him, Tony seemed genuinely concerned and he really wanted to know what I thought about making things better,” said Wheeler, a 52-year-old white man who works as a medical consultant and lives two hours outside Dallas. “That just blew me away.”

Wheeler is a self-avowed “gun-toting right-winger” who said he would rather fund education than defund the police. As he talked to Kemp, Wheeler said, he could tell they were coming from differing perspectives but shared a common interest in eradicating systemic racism and improving the disparities in Texas’ public schools.

“We had the exact same end point in mind,” Wheeler said. “We just got at it from different viewpoints.”

When Kemp first opened the line of communication with fans, he braced himself for polarizing comments. There were certainly some difficult conversations, but he said people were mostly cordial.

“I don’t see myself as much of an activist,” said Kemp, who was drafted out of Vanderbilt University in 2013 by the Houston Astros, for whom he played from 2016 to 2019 before trades to the Chicago Cubs and then Oakland. “I’m not into politics. I just think this is a matter of right and wrong. And for me, it was very therapeutic to reach out to some people and educate some people.”

Kemp, who doesn’t have children, fielded questions from parents who sought advice on how to talk to their children about racism or who were white and adopted Black children. When someone asked what was wrong with saying “All Lives Matter” — because “it seems B.L.M. is about one specific race” — Kemp explained the Black Lives Matter movement.

When a woman asked Kemp how she could better understand his experience, Kemp sent her a list of documentaries, movies, podcasts and books that he and his wife had compiled.

Kemp did some listening himself, too. During a discussion about some protesters damaging police property, one man sent Kemp a YouTube video from a Black conservative commentator. In turn, Kemp recommended the documentary “13th,” about the racial inequality in the U.S. criminal justice system. Each watched the other’s suggestion.

“Being able to have these conversations and talk to people and be able to see their side, too, is important,” Kemp said.

Howard, a second-generation Army veteran who now manages a sandwich shop in the Houston area, was shocked that a professional athlete was willing to talk directly to fans about such issues.

In a telephone interview, Howard explained that he had been angered when the former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem in 2016. Since then, Howard said, he had realized that his ignorance had kept him from understanding Kaepernick’s motives, but he still felt somewhat hypocritical: While he would always stand during the anthem himself, he respected those kneeling to raise awareness about injustice.

“As a white man I think I’m looked at crazy for that stance,” Howard wrote, in part, to Kemp.

“People have different views,” Kemp later wrote to Howard. “And if you change your point of view it doesn’t make you a hypocrite just means you’re growing as a person and become more open minded.”

Howard said Kemp’s words were reassuring. Eason, who works as a paralegal in Houston, said she felt emboldened after Kemp had urged her to “challenge those closest to you when you see them using their privileges to oppress others.”

“I know it sounds easy to say, ‘Oh look at me, I’m the white girl encouraged by this Black athlete,’” Eason said in a telephone interview. “But after hearing his story, these conversations need to happen. They’re not happening.”

Before this year, M.L.B. players had been relatively quiet about issues of racism and police brutality compared with their counterparts in the N.F.L., N.B.A. and W.N.B.A. The reason, Kemp said, was because baseball is a predominately white sport, with African-American players making up about 8 percent of the major leagues.

But Floyd’s death has been a watershed moment for so many segments of society, motivating many white players to talk openly about racism or privilege. It also prompted Kemp to wade into online discussions and share his own experiences for the first time — like when he was 17 and officers in his hometown of Franklin, Tenn., searched his car, which he felt was excessive, after issuing him a citation for failing to come to a complete stop at a stop sign.

With the M.L.B. season set to begin on July 23 without fans in stadiums, Kemp plans to keep up his dialogues even when the games start.

“My hope is that these conversations will last, with some people with a new perspective having a domino effect to the next person and so on and so on,” he said. “That’s how you see change.”



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