Boston teams begin addressing racism, but have a lot of hard work and practice ahead of them
Though the news has been overshadowed by diversionary gimmicks like Pats jersey-burning in Swansea, something big happened at Fenway Park on Thursday. In the home of the Red Sox, still working to shake the legacy of Tom Yawkey’s racist ownership practices, the Boston baseball team, along with the Patriots, Celtics, Bruins, and Revolution, debuted its Take the Lead initiative with the intended goal of standing up to racism and hate speech.
Red Sox president Tom Kennedy introduced the event by saying it came about following two “appalling” incidents of racist verbal attacks that occurred at Fenway earlier this year. According to Kennedy—whose organization acknowledged just two months ago to DigBoston that they sometimes found the views of their radio broadcast partner, WEEI, to be “offensive and out of line,” setting off a firestorm of media controversy—the team saw the incidents as an opportunity to begin to talk more openly about race. Though these issues are often given mere lip service or ignored entirely, Boston decided to deal with them in a groundbreaking way.
With an assist from Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry and NAACP Boston chapter President Tanisha Sullivan, New England’s professional sports teams have launched an initiative that strives to tackle head-on the institutional and casual racism for which the city is known. In some ways, this lofty and commendable goal has been successfully achieved, while other parts of Take the Lead’s debut programming seemed intended to communicate the message that, while racism exists, Boston still isn’t quite as bad as people like to say it is. And it managed to never mention the very visible racial dynamics at play within the organizations themselves.
The event, which took place on a stage set up in the seats behind the Red Sox dugout, featured a panel of former players and current team executives, along with the debut of a PSA to be played in all the teams’ stadiums. The PSA is impressive in its directness; it uses the words “racism,” “hate speech,” “discrimination,” “inequality,” and “injustice.” It asks fans to “stand for our teams, but don’t stand for racism.” It doesn’t shy away from the explicit message about what the PSA is addressing, which is more than can be said for the majority of the statements released by NFL teams in the wake of Trump’s most recent comments, statements that are awash in words like “unity” and “division” but conspicuously absent of words like “racism” and “police brutality,” the very issues that taking a knee during the anthem was meant to protest.
High-profile Boston athletes including Mookie Betts, Devin McCourty, Marcus Smart, and Jackie Bradley Jr. are featured in the spot. Red Sox veteran and clubhouse leader Dustin Pedroia appears, but his counterpart on the Pats does not—Tom Brady’s absence from the video is conspicuous. It’s worth noting, particularly as Brady has displayed a Make America Great hat in his locker in the past and has indicated that he and President Trump are friendly. Also visibly missing from the event was David Ortiz, who recently signed a “forever” contract to be involved with the direction the Red Sox take post-retirement.
The statement Red Sox owner John Henry released in the aftermath is on-target and unafraid, too, and Kennedy remains great at saying the right thing. But where the event seemed to fall apart was during the panel discussion. It was afraid to go to the places the PSA and related statements have gone, and was almost an attempt to walk back the language, lest (white) people think the intention was to criticize Boston or its sports fans.
The panel that promised to have the biggest impact featured Red Sox Hall of Famer Tommy Harper, who famously won an out-of-court settlement after being fired by the team for calling out a racist institutional practice in 1986; Cedric Maxwell, Boston Celtics alumni and radio broadcaster; Bob Sweeney, former Bruin and executive director of the Boston Bruins Foundation; and Andre Tippett, executive director of community affairs for the New England Patriots and Hall of Famer. However, the panel never went where it could and should have gone.
The moderator, longtime WBZ sports reporter Steve Burton, seemed instructed to cater to any white fragility in the audience. Instead of allowing for discomfort, as there will and must be in conversations about race, his role seemed to be designed to soothe any defensive white people who might have been watching. Whenever Harper spoke about his treatment by the Red Sox, Burton interjected loudly with positive reassurances that things have changed. Maxwell recounted the time someone called him the “Professor of Ebonics,” yet he also said that “racism is alive and well” but that it “goes both ways,” giving the example of when he doubted Larry Bird’s skills because Bird was white. And Tippett assured the crowd that Boston has “been good to” him because he’s had “a great career here.”
Perhaps most troublingly, Sweeney, the lone white member of the panel, fell into two of the most well-worn tropes in conversations about race. He trumpeted the notion of colorblindness, as he mentioned seeing Hall of Fame goalie Grant Fuhr as “one of the best goalies of all time, not African-American.” Later in the conversation, he pulled the “Black friend” card when he mentioned his African-American neighbor, whom he sees as a friend.
When executives for all five of the teams joined the conversation, no one mentioned the elephant in the ballpark: that the people with the power on the stage were all white men. When, at one point, moderator Burton pointedly asked Bruins CEO Charlie Jacobs about the fact that the team only has one Black player, he made sure to quickly assure Jacobs that this wasn’t his fault, that Jacobs wasn’t to blame.
Much time was spent talking about changing fan culture and encouraging people in the crowd to speak out if they witness racism, with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh saying that the reaction to racism at a Red Sox game should be “100 times stronger” than when a Yankees fan talks trash at a game. Never discussed, however, was the clubhouse culture of the teams. How will the actions of executives trickle down to the players and coaches?
Racism doesn’t just thrive in the stands; it exists within the teams, too. On a Red Sox team that is overwhelmingly Black and brown this season, it’s notable that none of the players have felt comfortable saying anything explicit about race and racism beyond platitudes about how there’s “no place” for that kind of behavior. In Tampa Bay, after Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell became the first MLB player to take a knee during the anthem, Rays pitcher Chris Archer spoke to press earlier this week saying that, though he agrees with the message of the protest, “from the feedback that I’ve gotten from my teammates, I don’t think [kneeling during the anthem] would be the best thing to do for me, at this time.” Archer’s experience in an MLB clubhouse is not unique, and it’s one the Red Sox should be asking themselves if their own players are having.
Other things that were not addressed but that deserve answers from teams that have pledged to stand up to racism: Does “standing up to racism” mean the Red Sox will hold their broadcast partner WEEI accountable for the racist views they allow to remain on air? Will Pats owner Bob Kraft, coach Bill Belichick, and other people among the organization openly condemn Donald Trump and address the money they donated to his campaign? Will the teams speak out against and condemn the racial profiling and police violence that their players of color no doubt experience when they are out of uniform? Will the Patriots advocate for Colin Kaepernick to have a job and actively stand behind Seattle Seahawks player Michael Bennett in his pursuit of justice from the Las Vegas Police Department, who he alleges used excessive force with him? When Brian Bilello, New England Revolution president, mentioned that in his locker room, many of his players were not born in the US and so it’s not just about race but also culture, the question became whether doing right by players and fans will include openly supporting Boston’s status as a sanctuary city and condemning the Trump administration’s ICE raids and travel bans.
These questions are not meant to take away from the important work beginning in Boston, nor to discourage it from continuing. To give credit where credit is due, this was a Black-led event, and led by Black women at that. There are plans for initiatives to help diversify the front offices and clubhouses. It’s a hard conversation that the teams are asking their organizations and fans to step into. And there was reassurance that there are plans to move forward with renaming Yawkey Way, as well as acknowledgment from Kennedy that they recognize that the renaming is largely symbolic and requires more action behind it.
What seems to be missing, at least right now, is an acknowledgment that racism goes beyond words and not having enough people of color on your staff, that it is political and systemic. If you commit to standing up to it, it needs to be about not just punishing people who use the “n-word” in your facility but examining all of the ways in which your organization participates in racist systems. This initiative is a good first step. What matters more is what happens next.
In order to truly have this discussion, the ways that teams uphold and remain complicit with racist systems also need to be addressed. And if this is meant to be an introduction to a conversation, what does it say that the people having it still can’t let the Black folks on stage talk openly about racism and injustice without couching it in reassurances that it’s not really that bad?
If it wasn’t that bad, we wouldn’t be having to launch this initiative in the first place.