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Interview: Tony Kemp on George Floyd’s Death, His Faith, and Gratitude to Jackie Robinson

Tony Kemp Faithfully Magazine
Tony Kemp is seen at bat in this September 29, 2018, file photo. (Photo: KA Sports Photos from Hanover, MD, USA / CC BY-SA)

Anthony Allen (“Tony”) Kemp, 28, is a Major League Baseball player and outfielder with the Oakland Athletics. Before joining Oakland, Kemp spent most of his career with the Houston Astros, where he won a World Series in 2017. A native of Franklin, Tennessee, Kemp won SEC Player of the Year at Vanderbilt University in 2013.

Shortly after the police killing of George Floyd, amid a growing national movement against racial injustice, Kemp turned to social media to encourage honest conversations about race. He launched a T-shirt campaign called the +1 Effect with the hope of encouraging further conversations about race.

Faithfully Magazine with Kemp over the phone about his inspirations and faith, and the backstory of the +1 Effect. The transcript has been edited for clarity.

On social media, you mentioned your gratefulness to the Negro Leagues and the people who paved the way for athletes of color to be in the MLB and other professional sports. Can you speak a little bit more about the significance for you and why this history is something that baseball fans and even baseball players alike should be familiar with?

I think there’s a little under 8 percent of Black players in the Major Leagues, and being able to understand the people like Larry Doby for the Indians or Jackie Robinson, guys who actually paved the way for us. I wouldn’t be able to live out my dream without these guys. And I think it would be a disservice if you didn’t look back in the history books and say “Thank you, Jackie, for everything that you did” and really appreciate what those guys had to go through for us to be able to have a successful career in the big leagues.

Our goal moving forward as Black players get in the community is to continue to spread the game because it’s an expensive sport and equipment is hard to come by because you have cleats, bat, gloves, there’s a whole laundry list of things you need for a baseball game, rather than a pickup basketball game or a football game. We know that the numbers are going down of Black players in the big league, so we want that number to get boosted up even higher.

So, going back to the Negro Leagues, I think it would be a disservice if we didn’t acknowledge them. It’s just a way of showing appreciation for saying “thank you” for what they did so we could do what we can do.

Did you grow up being familiar with them, and were they what inspired you to pursue a career as a professional baseball player?

Actually, for my sixth grade project, I was Jackie Robinson. It was a very eye-opening experience at 12 years old to go through and see the things that he endured, what people called him, the hate letters, the many things that he had to go through. I remember being 12 years old, saying, “Wow, he had to do all this and still play baseball at a high level.”

My brother played baseball and I wanted to be just like my brother. So every time he was on the baseball field, I was on the baseball field. It was definitely a great experience that my brother and my dad gave me.

Do you have any contemporary inspirations or influences of athletes who are around right now who have been outspoken about things like racism and police brutality that have influenced you and encourage you to begin to speak up about it?

Growing up, I was always a big fan of Curtis Granderson, especially in college, and then being able to actually play against him. He’s kind of taken me under his wing and he’s been a guy that started his own foundation. He’s been outspoken about social injustices. And, you know, I’m not a political guy. I just feel like these are issues that are just right versus wrong. And really being able to look up to Curtis and see the path that he’s taken in the big leagues, and not being able to step on toes, but actually have an open conversation and have a dialogue is what we’re looking for. So I’d probably say Curtis Granderson has been the biggest inspiration.

I’m intrigued by the fact that you’ve chosen social media as a platform to have conversations on these topics, especially since social media is usually not the best place for these kind of conversations to happen. Why do you see social media as a good opportunity for conversation and what do you ultimately hope to gain through the conversations?

Yeah, and that’s the unfortunate part. I just want to change the narrative of what social media is. You can use it for so many positive things. And unfortunately, it can be a place for keyboard warriors and people to hide behind identities and say mean things to people, which is unfortunate.

When I sent out my tweet, it came from a genuine place, just saying, “Hey, if anybody wants to talk about what’s going on right now, I’m open to it.” The responses were great. I mean, I just wanted people to know that I’m there for them, because after the Floyd murder, I was depressed. I was pretty down in the dumps, to say the least. And I wanted people to know that I was there for them and just being able to have an open conversation with somebody.

I feel like right now, unfortunately, when people have a conversation with somebody, it might end with one person storming off or it might end with one person saying mean things to the other party, which doesn’t have to happen. So the reason I wanted to start these conversations is just to let people know where I was coming from, and that I hear what they’re saying. I know that everyone has a voice and I didn’t want anyone to feel like their voice wasn’t being heard.

So, just by starting this conversation, it’s opened up a whole new avenue of what I’ve been trying to do with people and just say, “Hey, this is my opinion. This is how I feel.” You can have a calm open dialogue with somebody without getting upset and saying mean things. Sometimes people agree with you and sometimes people change and say, “Wow, I’ve never looked at it from that point of view. I’m gonna start doing that.” That’s been good. Some people say, “I disagree with you, but here’s my viewpoint and that’s okay.” It’s okay to agree to disagree. No one is gonna be mad at you for having an opinion at the end of the day. They’re all opinions anyway, and everybody can have their own opinion, which is fine.

I told some people, “Hey, having these uncomfortable conversations with people, you might lose some friends.” And I’ve actually, lost contact with a couple people who had reached out who were my friends and I said, Hey, I just don’t understand. ‘Black lives matter’ is a simple statement. Why is ‘Black lives matter’ a controversy in this country? Of course, all lives matter. Of course, Black lives matter. Of course, Latino lives matter. The reason the outcry of ‘Black lives matter’ right now is the community is hurting with all these deaths coming from police and how we’ve been treated and how we’ve been oppressed. I don’t even look at it as a political issue. I look at it as a right or wrong issue.

Tony Kemp Oakland Athletics

You mentioned that you went through kind of a stage of depression with the Floyd murder. With other stories of police brutality, it can be traumatic and reopen wounds. What is the way that you have been able to find a way to move forward and push for good?

Once I saw the Floyd murder, I didn’t get out of bed. It was a Monday or Tuesday and both those days, I didn’t get out of bed till about 2 p.m. or 3 p.m. And I was really going through it. That’s when I sent out that tweet saying, “Hey, I’m open here. I’m here to talk to people.” I felt like I did that because I knew what I was going through, and I just wanted people to know, “Hey, I’m here to be here for you and I’m here to listen to you.” Being able to do that was able to get me over the hump to help other people. It was kind of therapeutic in a way to just talk to people and say, “Hey, I understand where you’re coming from. What can we do?”

And that kind of led into the +1 Effect and it’s been very positive. I think that it has led to a lot of change. Obviously, some days I wake up and it’s overwhelming to know how much further we have to go in this country. But I think more and more people are listening and people are understanding. It starts with one person leading to another person.

Tell me a bit more about the +1 Effect. Where did the idea come from, what does it ultimately support and what’s the goal of the campaign?

It started after the Floyd murder. My uncle is an engineer in St. Louis, and he texted some of the guys – my nephews, cousins, my brother, and I, and a couple of my uncles and said, “Hey, I think we need to get on a Zoom call and get everything out in the open and talk about our feelings and talk about what’s going on, especially with the Floyd murder.” The Zoom call lasted about three or four hours with our family, and it was a little bit sad hearing stories from my cousins and especially my brother that I’d never heard before.

I had not even thought to ask, “Hey man, have you ever been pulled over by the police?” Or “What’s your story?” Some people cried on the call. There was a lot of anger on the call. But, at the end of the day, I’m gonna say it was a powerful conversation because my uncle says if you can change one person and that person can change another person. It’s kind of like a domino effect. It’s kind of like a ‘plus one effect.’ And, I guess once he said that, the +1 Effect thing kind of stuck with me.

I called him the next day and I said, “Hey, man, I think that this could be a huge campaign. I think we can actually run with this and do good. And obviously, I’ll say, ‘Hey, this came from my uncle.’” And my uncle is like, “I don’t care who if it came from me. I just want it to be out there in the world that we need to see some change for the better out there.” And so we all started laughing about it, but that’s kind of where the +1 Effect started.

It’s all about just having open, honest dialogue about race and experiences with other people and having someone’s point of view being talked about in a calm manner to. “Hey, this is my experience. This is my point of view. If you like it, that’s great. But if you don’t, that’s no skin off my back. I’m just letting you know my perspective.” And if that person changes and says, “Yeah, you’re right. There needs to be more change in the world.” And then that person starts having conversations in their inner circle, and they start using that open dialog. That’s when you start to see a change.

I tell people you might lose friends, because they get upset in these conversations. But, if your goal is to just remain calm and just say, at the end of the day, they’re all opinions. So it’s been very positive, and I hope that it’s gonna continue. It’s one of those campaigns where I didn’t want it to just be a one or two week ordeal. I want to say we’re still going strong.

If you’re willing to speak on it, I’d love to hear how your faith has influenced your understanding of racism in America, police brutality and even just the idea of how we should even bring hope into these conversations.

Tony Kemp +1 Effect
Tony Kemp showing a +1 Effect T-shirt. (Photo: Permission of Tony Kemp)

We’ll start with my religious background. When I was in fourth grade, my grandpa passed away. I went to my mom and I said, “How can I see Pawpaw again?” And she says, “You need to give your life to Christ.” I’m very thankful that my mom and my dad had strong Christian backgrounds at the time. I was 10 years old when I got baptized and gave my life to Christ. And ever since then, I’ve always felt that the things that you do is always been bigger than us.

I think I’m not a person that pushes my religious beliefs on people. I just give books or I’ll say, “Hey, listen to this.” I talked to a guy yesterday on Instagram [and he] says, “I don’t really have a religious background,” and I just said, “Okay, I completely understand. Well, here’s a book by Lee Strobel. It’s about a guy who was an atheist and his wife was until his wife conformed to Christianity. And then he went on a case to disprove Jesus Christ and he actually became a Christian and now is an evangelist himself.” Just being able to do that with different people is important. Even with the Black community, I just want people to know that you don’t have to be an athlete on this platform to reach people. Everybody has a voice, everybody has an impact in this world.

Talking about social media, it’s just the highlight reel of the highlight reel, right? That’s why sometimes I want to post negative things on my Instagram because I want people to know that life isn’t just rainbows and fairy tales all the time.

As far as the religious background goes, I think that it’s just praying for these people and praying for this change. There is hope. Just talking with my mom, we just need to pray for these people that don’t understand how systemic racism works or how Black people are oppressed. If something doesn’t affect you personally, then it’s hard to empathize. So I think that we need to start empathizing with people who are hurting right now. That’s my goal.

There are lots of aspiring athletes of color who look up to you as a role model. What words of encouragement and advice would you give to them as they pursue their gifts and their skills and their sport? Would you encourage them to see their calling as an athlete to be a platform for them to speak up about their faith and even calling for change in society?

My advice to people of color who are coming up in sports, it would be to believe in yourself. Always put God first, and even on the days that are dark and you feel like you can’t win, he’s always there for you. He’s always looking out for you. I just want the younger community to know that once you get into sports, you do have a voice because people watch you and fans will admire you from afar and say, “Hey, I like that guy. I like that he works and that he plays hard. I wonder what else he’s about.” That’s the time where you can share your experiences and that’s when people can start empathizing with you and start understanding your life experiences and that’s very important from a change standpoint. That’s how people understand what you’re going through without even knowing it. They just see you on TV.

Once you can start to use your voice and use your platform, that’s when people start to understand you in a deeper level and a deeper understanding. So, I think that the youth is important. It’s our future. It’s the future of the world. I think that these people need to know that you don’t have to be 28, 30 years old just to voice your opinion on something. I think that growing up, you can say whatever is on your heart and do some research and make sure you know what you’re talking about and put your best foot forward and just believe in yourself.


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    Written by Timothy I. Cho

    Timothy Isaiah Cho is an Associate Editor at Faithfully Magazine. Timothy enjoys reading, discussing and writing on topics related to racial justice, diversity, social justice and Christian engagement in society. He received a Master of Divinity from Westminster Seminary California and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from U.C. Berkeley. Timothy also works for World Relief in Southern California. Email: timothy.cho (at) faithfullymagazine.com