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Boston’s five major sports teams, from the Patriots to the Revolution, launch initiative to combat racism

Take the Lead will ask fans to take a stand against hate speech at sports venues

The Boston Red Sox, New England Patriots, Boston Celtics, Boston Bruins and New England Revolution have teamed up for a new initiative to combat racism: Take the Lead. The project will start with a public service announcement with athletes from each of the five teams imploring fans to take a stand against racism and hate speech at sports venues.

The video will be unveiled at Fenway Park on Sept. 28, but each of the teams will show it in its venue.

The Boston Globe reported on Tuesday that the project is an effort to lead a discussion on racism using the influence of the area’s sports teams and star athletes.

“When the incidents in May occurred, one of the first things we recognized was sports teams are high-profile, and we have the opportunity to help lead a high-level discussion around this,” Red Sox CEO Sam Kennedy told the Globe. “We wanted to take the lead in taking a stand against racism.”

On May 1, Baltimore Orioles center fielder Adam Jones called out a Boston Red Sox fan who threw a bag of peanuts at him and other fans who called him the N-word during the Orioles’ 5-2 win over Boston.

New York Yankees ace CC Sabathia said all 62 of the African-American players in the majors know about the racism at Fenway.

From Newsday‘s Erik Boland:

Sabathia said he’s experienced what Adam Jones did in Boston, though not since he’s been with Yankees because their security presence in pen. Sabathia said in his big league career “I’ve never been called the N-word” anywhere but in Boston. Sabathia said it’s talked about among black major leaguers: “we know. There’s 62 of us. We all know. When you go to Boston, expect it.”

The next game, a fan was ejected from Fenway for using racist slurs. Both of the men engaged in the conversation were white, but Calvin Hennick, to whom the comments were addressed, was with his 6-year-old biracial son and African-American father-in-law.

Hennick told NPR:

Describing the encounter with a man he described as a “middle-aged white fan,” Hennick said the fan had criticized the woman who sang the anthem by saying, “It was too long, and she n——– it up.”

“I thought that surely I’d misheard him,” Hennick wrote, saying he asked the man to repeat himself.

“Just to be clear,” Hennick said he then responded to the man, repeating his words back to him once again.

“That’s right,” the man replied, according to Hennick. “And I stand by it.”

These two incidents, besides the four fans who hung a banner that read “Racism is as American as Baseball” from the Green Monster at Fenway on Sept. 13, have galvanized the Boston sports teams to come together and work to end racism in their city.

Kennedy met with state Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry of Dorchester and Boston NAACP president Tanisha Sullivan for advice and insight on how to address the racist behavior at Fenway. But the issue shouldn’t just be a discussion among the Red Sox, the three agreed, and all the major sports teams were brought in. Gov. Charlie Baker and Mayor Martin J. Walsh were also asked to participate in the initial conversations.

“We thought it would be incredibly powerful for this initiative to include not just the Red Sox but all of our professional sports teams,” Sullivan told the Globe, “because this was not just an issue involving the Red Sox and Fenway Park.”

Rev. Liz Walker of Roxbury Presbyterian Church and broadcaster Steve Burton of WBZ-TV will moderate a discussion on racism. The video will appear regularly at all five teams’ venues, and more programs are being ironed out.

“I am hopeful that this campaign will help to galvanize fans around this issue of race,” Sullivan said, “and that it will encourage fans to learn more about how they can take the lead in their respective communities around issues of racial equality.”

The hope is that by prominently playing the video will make people realize the fight against racism requires that all racial groups work together, and the video will include white and black athletes to illustrate that.

Another goal of the initiative is to make teams take a look at their own efforts to diversify their senior management and front-office staffs.

“Sports, as an entity, is a unifier,” she said. “It cuts across all races, all ethnicities and all genders, and we have an opportunity through this campaign to reach people we might not otherwise be able to reach.”

To understand how deep-rooted the issue is, below is a brief history of racist incidents and racism being discussed by Boston sports figures.

When racism and Boston sports collide

  • Boston Celtics star Bill Russell, the first black coach in the NBA, wrote in his 1979 memoir Second Wind that Boston sports fans’ racism is like a flea market.

Russell expounded upon those thoughts: “I’ve stood in Boston Garden after making a big play in a playoff game and literally felt fifteen thousand people cheering for me — the whole Garden shaking with waves of emotion washing over me so strongly that it felt as if my spinal column were immersed in sparkling champagne. And I have felt the personal abuse of those same fans — sometimes right after the game. How can a young kid who gives his life to basketball prepare himself for the idea that the cheers and boos are not permanent? Or that you can’t take one without the other?’’

  • The Red Sox were the last to integrate their baseball team in 1959 — 12 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Thomas Yawkey, who owned the team from 1933 to 1976, was a noted racist who opposed integration of the league, to the point that the Bruins had a black player before the Red Sox did.

In 1945, they tried out Jackie Robinson but rejected having him on the team. Similarly, team scout George Digby set up a $4,500 contract to obtain Willie Mays from the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues, but general manager Joe Cronin and Yawkey refused.

John Henry, who bought the Red Sox from The Yawkey Trust in 2002, wants Boston to rename Yawkey Way. The street, which lines Fenway Park’s third-base side, is the mailing address for the organization.

He told the Boston Herald he was “haunted” by the history of racism during Yawkey’s tenure.

“The Red Sox don’t control the naming or renaming of streets,” he said in an email to the Herald. “But for me, personally, the street name has always been a consistent reminder that it is our job to ensure the Red Sox are not just multi-cultural, but stand for as many of the right things in our community as we can — particularly in our African-American community and in the Dominican community that has embraced us so fully.”

  • In 1985, former Red Sox player Tommy Harper publicly complained about the practice of giving only the white players, writers or team officials passes to the all-white Elks Club in Winter Haven, Florida, where the Red Sox held spring training.

”I wasn’t brought up to talk about race,” Harper, who received a financial settlement after filing state and federal discrimination complaints against the Red Sox in 1986, told The New York Times. ”I’ve never dwelled on whether this guy is black or white, but the Red Sox left me no alternative. It was just so demeaning for them to accept these cards, then turn around and call me ‘teammate.’ ”

Rhiannon Walker is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a drinker of Sassy Cow Creamery chocolate milk, an owner of an extensive Disney VHS collection, and she might have a heart attack if Frank Ocean doesn't drop his second album.