Boston sports teams tackle racism head-on

Red Sox and others join with NAACP in 'Take the Lead' initiative

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When Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones was subjected to racist taunts while playing in Boston's Fenway Park on a spring night in 2017, the widely publicized incident put another dent in the image of a city that has struggled for years with a reputation for being inhospitable to black people. But more than 18 months later, community leaders are looking back at the episode as a watershed moment that brought Boston's pro sports teams together to tackle racism head on.

The response is encapsulated in a program called Take the Lead that involves an anti-racism public service announcement played at every Celtics, Red Sox, Bruins and Patriots game. The effort also includes a diversity sports career summit and a one-year fellowship for people of color—moves that are meant to boost minority representation inside the city's pro sports teams' offices.

Take the Lead—which Red Sox management set into motion days after the heckling incident—will not on its own, of course, heal Boston's racial wounds, which have persisted for decades. Black people ranked Boston as the least welcoming city among eight major urban areas, including New York and Chicago, according to a national survey commissioned in 2017 by the Boston Globe as part of a seven-part series on the city's racial problems.

Boston has "really struggled to directly confront our dark history with racism," says Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston chapter of the NAACP. But Sullivan, who was involved in the formation of Take the Lead, says, "There's great power in [the program] because sports are a unifier and sports can help to break down barriers."

She credits Red Sox management for not acting defensively or searching for a quick fix in the wake of the heckling incident, which involved a fan calling Jones the N-word and hurling a bag of peanuts at him, according to media reports. "We want to make sure we are not running from this, we are running towards it," says Red Sox Chief Marketing Officer Adam Grossman.

In a symbolic move, the team last year successfully petitioned the city to change the name of a street outside Fenway Park from Yawkey Way to its original Jersey Street name. It was named Yawkey in 1977 in honor of former Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey (who bought the team in 1933 and died in 1976). His ownership tenure is marred by the fact that the Red Sox were the last Major League Baseball team to sign a black player. The signing, in 1959, came 12 years after Jackie Robinson broke pro baseball's color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The Red Sox—which since 2002 have been owned by a group led by businessman John Henry—have also empowered fans to help police the ballpark for hate speech. Efforts include providing a number people can text if they see something inappropriate. The public service announcement includes players from all of Boston's pro sports teams. The PSA script, by Boston-based ad agency CTP, includes lines like, "If you hear something wrong, offensive or hateful, speak up, say something. Stand for our teams, but don't stand for racism."

Attendance at Boston sports venues remains overwhelmingly white. As part of its recent series on race, the Boston Globe studied attendance at several games and found blacks accounted for less than 2 percent of the Fenway Park crowd at an Aug. 16, 2017, game it chose randomly to sample. The crowd at a Patriots game that same year was about 2 percent black. The Globe called high ticket prices a "barrier to inclusion," along with image problems that are perpetuated by episodes like the 2017 racial heckling incident, which led to more than 20,000 local and national news stories, according to the Globe.

The Red Sox, through Take the Lead, are trying to lure more diverse fans with community outreach. In the last six months of 2018, the team reached more than 1,000 people of color through activities like a networking event for millennials of color after a game, according to the NAACP's Sullivan. The team also partnered with JetBlue to give away nearly 46,000 baseball hats to Boston public school children.

The program's career summit is a longer-term play. The first one, held last year, drew 150 young people of color who gained access to representatives from the Red Sox, Patriots, Bruins and Celtics, according to Sullivan. The next one, scheduled for the end of this month, is expected to draw 175 attendees. "We know that the courts and the fields are diverse with players," Sullivan says. "But those people who are making the decisions day-to-day from a business standpoint, they're not as diverse."

Sullivan knows firsthand the value of just a little bit of access. In the 1990s she landed a job as a game-day babysitter for the children of Red Sox players that she parlayed into a gig as a community relations intern. Through her connections her brother, Ty Sullivan, landed a job as a bat boy, which put him on a career path that led to becoming an agent with CAA Sports, where he now reps several National Basketball Association players.

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