An unlikely source of catharsis for a Black MLB player: Social media
By James Wagner
Tony Kemp felt, in his words, depressed.
Soon after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis 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, Tenn., 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 from 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’ comments against anthem protests in the NFL, 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 had 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 in 2013 by the Houston Astros, for whom he played from 2016-19 before trades to the Chicago Cubs and then to 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 does not 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, 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, said he 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 former San Francisco 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.”