Change the Ref

A Parkland father's haunting new anti-gun ad highlights two American traditions

With baseball stadiums largely empty during the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, a new PSA from gun control group Change the Ref is using the inherent strangeness of audience-less events to encourage political action that will help prevent school shootings like the one that took place in Parkland, Florida in 2018.

Titled "A Not-Live Event," the 90-second spot begins by following a cardboard cutout of "lifelong baseball fan" Joaquin Oliver, who was killed in the Parkland shooting. Joaquin's cardboard cutout is one of many that have populated stadiums during the pandemic to give the impression of an audience. Halfway through the ad, viewers are shown what is really at stake:

"There's nothing like seeing a baseball game live. Joaquin would be the first to tell you that," the video's text reads. "Only he can't."

Then, in an abrupt tonal shift, the ad begins rolling news footage of the Parkland shooting that took Joaquin's life more than two years ago.

"Two years and 83 school shootings later, no federal gun laws have changed," it continues, before calling on viewers to "send a message to the do-nothing politicians" and "vote for change" on November 3 — election day in the U.S.

"Usually I do get a lot of negative responses from either NRA supporters or whoever wants to be part of the conversation, putting their own point of view," Joaquin's father, Manuel Oliver, who founded Change the Ref with his wife Patricia, tells Mic, referencing the organization's previous ads. "In this case, I have not."

In the new video, "the way that we placed the message and the call to action, it's pretty hard to be against that," he says.

In no small part, the video's power comes from the jarring juxtaposition of COVID's effect on America's beloved national pastime with the sobering reality of gun violence — and America's inability to adequately address both public health crises. It's a synergy Oliver expressly cites as a contributing factor in the new campaign's impact and how it has reached beyond the usual circles of the gun violence prevention movement.

"By using this connection of an American passion, baseball, we are reaching a lot of regular civilians that enjoy the game," Oliver says. "Regular civilians that identify as Americans love the tradition of baseball. It's actually ironic that there is actually another American tradition — I'm talking about the gun violence pandemic that's been there for years, decades — and we were able to connect both."

Indeed, the new campaign itself was born out of family tradition, one which was tragically ended before it could transcend generations.

"I was expecting that someday my grown-up son would bring me to the ballpark," Oliver says. "That's never gonna happen."

"So I want parents to see this," he continues. "I want parents to understand that they don't have to go through the tragedy that we went through as a family. Because one of the things that will happen is that your family traditions will die the same day that your loved one dies."

Oliver frequently brings the conversation back to Joaquin, making clear just how integral his son's memory is for creating this campaign specifically, and for Change the Ref more broadly.

"I am not a baseball fan — I never was— but I wanted to support my son," he says. "So [while he was alive] we came out with this baseball ballparks trip, and we did it two consecutive years."

"The fact that Joaquin, today, is visiting these ballparks means a lot," Oliver adds. "And I can say that I am proud that I have a son that is not only accomplishing that goal of visiting all the ballparks, but he's also bringing a strong message to every single visit and every single game."

Despite his own non-fandom for the sport, it is nevertheless the ineffable power of baseball which Oliver hopes will help carry his son's message beyond the confines of the video itself.

"There's a lot of magic going on this time in the baseball season — something happens," Oliver explains. "The guy that got the foul ball, and there was the whole news about stealing the Cubs championship. And then you have the Marlins' guy that is always sitting behind home plate. I think that Joaquin could become that iconic something in this season. Hopefully that will happen."