La Russa addresses past criticism of anthem protests


Rick Renteria took a knee.

He took a knee during a moment of silence before the national anthem on Opening Day, joining his players in an act of protest against the police killings of Black Americans and racial injustice in the United States.

During the national anthem, when Tim Anderson and several of his White Sox teammates took a knee, Renteria placed his hand on Anderson’s shoulder in a show of solidarity.

When the White Sox visited Minneapolis, Renteria accompanied Anderson on a visit to the memorial site for George Floyd, who was murdered by police in May.

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Renteria is no longer the White Sox manager. His replacement, announced Thursday, is Tony La Russa, who has a very different history than his predecessor when it comes to professional athletes’ response to these important social issues.

“I know there’s a constitutional right to express yourself,” La Russa said in an interview with Sports Illustrated in 2016, when he was running the Arizona Diamondbacks’ front office. “But I think you have a right as an organization to have a certain philosophy of respecting, whether it’s our constitution, whether it’s our country, whether it’s our soldiers, however you feel, our flag. I would not, to the best of my ability, I would not sanction somebody taking a knee. I think that’s disrespectful.

“And I really question the sincerity of somebody like (former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was the first athlete to gain widespread attention for protesting police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem). I remember when he was on top, I never heard him talk about anything but himself. Now all of a sudden, he’s struggling for attention and he makes this big pitch. I don’t buy it. And even if he was sincere, there are other ways to show your concerns. Disrespecting our flag is not the way to do it.”

An awful lot has changed since 2016, of course. Players now feel more empowered to use their platform to speak out on the injustices they see in the country. Major leaguers participated in mass acts of protest this season, with many entire teams sitting out of games.

La Russa’s past comments had fans concerned leading up to his hiring becoming official Thursday. But he should be allowed to change with the times, too. In fact, it’s what we ask of all people.

So has he?

“I know in 2016, when the first issue occurred, my initial instincts were all about respecting the flag and the anthem and what America stands for. A lot has gone on in a very healthy way since 2016, and not only do I respect but I applaud the awareness that has come into not just society but especially in sports,” La Russa said during his introductory press conference. “If you talk about baseball, specifically, I applaud and support the fact they are now addressing, identifying the injustices, especially on the racial side. As long as it’s peacefully protested and sincere.

“And what I’m learning more and more, like with the Players Alliance and especially with the White Sox, when your protests actually have action-oriented results, the way you are going to impact, make things better, I’m all for it.

“There is not a racist bone in my body. I do not like injustice, and I would support exactly what I mentioned. Anything peacefully done and sincerely thought of and especially with an action at the end of it will not be a problem.”

Though it might not have anything to do with pitching changes and pinch-runners, it’s incredibly important for White Sox fans and players to hear those words.

After years of culture- and chemistry-building inside the White Sox clubhouse, La Russa is now tasked with taking that and turning it into a championship. Relating to his players, supporting his players, allowing his players to be who they are — things Renteria earned plenty of praise for — figures to be essential in being able to do that job.

“Words are words. I would look at actions and what I’m seeing, one of the reasons I’m so encouraged by what I’ve seen the last bunch of years, how players are backing up their words with actions,” La Russa said. “They are not just speaking the speak.”

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