ATLANTA - Atlanta Braves legend Hank Aaron said he would not accept an invitation to the White House if he were currently a player.
“Would I visit the White House? Would I go? I had no reason to go. I'd been there once or twice and there's nobody there I want to see,” Aaron responded to a reporter’s question asking if he would visit the White House if he were still a player on a team.
His candid remarks came during a press event for the Hank Aaron Champion for Justice Award which was held Friday afternoon at the Center for Civil Rights and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta.
The former Braves slugger honored sportscaster Bob Costas, former US Attorney General Eric Holder, and Mayor of San Juan Puerto Rico Carmen Yulin Cruz before helping to a lead a roundtable discussion with them. Costas, Holder, and Aaron spoke to the press as part of the event.
“I’ve been to the White House, but I can understand where the players are coming from. I really do understand where they are coming from,” Aaron said.
“You know I actually think whether it’s the Golden State Warriors or the Cavaliers saying they wouldn't go if they won or Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr saying what they said or the Eagles taking the stand that they took. I actually think that has more clarity than the national anthem protests do. Because the anthem protest can be spun in a number of different ways and whether people like it or not [President Donald] Trump spun it to his political advantage to his base. Whereas if Steve Kerr, Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Gregg Popovich say 'Hell no, we won't go!' that says one thing pretty clearly and it cannot be misinterpreted. there's not saying 'We won't go to the White House.' they're not saying 'We won't honor our country.' they're saying 'We object to the tone set by the man who sits in the oval office.' it's a pretty clear message,” Costas said.
“You know they have that right. They're expressing a view and I respect that in the same way that those that do go, I respect that as well. This nation that's found on giving people the ability to express their opinions and when we express diverse opinions coming from good places then we have to give people that space to do that that's how progress is made,” Holder said.
Aaron and the honorees who spoke seemed to agree that politics and sports weren’t generally a bad thing.
“I think they should voice their opinion. Regardless of whatever one may think. We didn't get to where we are today because we sat back and kept our mouth closed or scratched our head or sat and didn't do anything. I think that if you have an opinion you should voice it and then you should let others know that it is your opinion and you're not speaking for anybody but yourself,” Aaron said.
“For those who always want to put people in certain roles and never listen to them, I think you should judge people on their merits. Just because you're an athlete doesn't mean your views are necessarily going to be good ones, but if you're an athlete and you have studied an issue and you're expressing a view that is based on that research that is well reasoned and well-grounded in fact, no I think it's deserving of attention,” Holder said.
“The circumstances have changed, which is not to say injustice doesn't still but the dynamics are different there are greater shades of gray in some cases. But generally speaking, I think it's a good thing to see athletes more involved,” Costas said.
Hank Aaron, who spent 20 years with the Braves starting in 1954, touched on those changes, but also about how baseball internally for the players set aside the racial differences felt in the real world, to let him be able to focus on the game.
“That was one of the good things about playing the game of baseball. I felt like the good Lord works in mysterious ways and somehow when I got to the baseball field everything was left alone. I was strictly a baseball player and played baseball,” Aaron said.
Still, Aaron contrasted himself against current players who are known more for making political statements than for their performance on the field and said he wished he did more for the advancement of the civil rights movement. Something former Atlanta mayor and UN Ambassador Andrew Young told him he had accomplished and then some.
“You know Andy Young and I talk about this quite often and I feel, to be very honest with you, I feel somewhat guilty that I didn't do as much as I possibly could have done. And he told, he said 'Don't ever feel that because what you were doing on your end was much, much more than what we were doing on ours,' Aaron explained. “So, he kind of makes me feel a little better than some of the things I didn't do and could have done, that I feel that I did the very best I could do.”
“I think we always tend to look back and tend to forget our history. Yeah, sports brings us together most of the time but doesn't always bring us together. I remember the Olympics in 1968 in Mexico City. People weren't particularly happy with Tommie Smith and John Carlos when they raised their fist. And yet, they wanted to express a point. They wanted to talk about the need for equal treatment of all people in this country,” Holders said. “Now, it is true that on Sundays football brings us together when it is allowed to do so, and that's a good thing, but like everything in our society sports brings us together, sometimes divides us often times exposes inequities in our society and I think that's a good thing.”
It is an inequality which Aaron believes may be keeping African Americans from the game of baseball citing economic hardships of the average working family, a lack of scholarships from colleges, and a lack of resources and space in cities. But Aaron seemed hopeful that those could eventually be solved by speaking up.
“I think that's a good thing. I think people who have a voice I think had a responsibility to speak for the without a voice, the voiceless,” Holder said. “I think it's good to see athletes today are not only about the sports that they are involved in which they excel, but they are using the familiarity that they have to make this nation better and I think that's a good thing.”
“What I hope is that it's not confined only to African-American athletes or people of color, I hope that everyone with a conscious gets on board. That's why I think someone like Chris Long of the Philadelphia Eagles is import. This isn't just about black Americans or people of color, it’s about America and America as Martin Luther King said rising up and living out the true meaning of its creed. We've come a distance in that direction but there's a distance to go,” Costas said.
The roundtable and awards ceremony were part of Hank Aaron week in Atlanta.