MLB and Boston Sports Fans Have to Stand Up to Racism in the Stands

MLB and Boston Sports Fans Have to Stand Up to Racism in the Stands

MLB and Boston Sports Fans Have to Stand Up to Racism in the Stands

Racism in Boston sports will only change when the fans confront it.


This week Baltimore Orioles All-Star outfielder Adam Jones spoke candidly about the racism he faced in Fenway Park. On Monday, a group of “fans” shouted at him from the outfield stands, calling him “n—–.” One threw a bag of peanuts at him. After the incident, he told USA Today: “I just go out and play baseball. It’s unfortunate that people need to resort to those type of epithets to degrade another human being.”

This was an appalling event that demands a response greater than the apologies issued by the Red Sox and the city’s mayor, Marty Walsh. Their words don’t address the multivolume history of the intersection of Boston sports and racism.

Earlier this year, Saturday Night Live comedian Michael Che created an uproar when he called Boston “the most racist city” he’s visited. Bigotry rankings aside—and I am not arguing that the city has any kind of exclusive rights on hatred—one can speak about the enduring history of Boston racism just by looking at its sports world. In 2004, Barry Bonds caused an uproar when he said, “Boston is too racist for me. I couldn’t play there. That’s been going on ever since my dad (Bobby) was playing baseball. I can’t play like that. That’s not for me, brother.”

Certainly, Boston is home to remarkable people and anti-racist activists. But as these same activists will tell you, denying the presence of racism—or saying “not all Boston fans”—does not reckon the problem. It’s a weak dodge, avoiding the task of figuring out how to confront it. Massachusetts-born Sports Illustrated writer Albert Breer illustrated this exact problem on social media when he demanded “proof” of the incident, tweeting: “Is it horrible to want some proof? I dunno. I’ve probably been to 200 games at Fenway in my life. Never heard a slur yelled at a player.”

Breer’s comments disturbingly privilege his own experience over generations of the best players in the game while erasing an entire oft-discussed thread of Boston sports history. Bottom-feeding sports-radio hosts at WEEI mimicked this approach.

Demanding proof of racism is an ugly road to walk down. But regardless, black ballplayers from Jackie Robinson to Willie Mays to Jim Rice to current Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia have been speaking about their experiences of racism in Boston for decades. As Jones said the day after the Fenway incident, “I’ve spoken to players from different eras and a lot of the things they’ve told me [they heard slurs in Boston], I can’t say.” Either there are racist fans at Fenway Park, or there is a 70-year conspiracy to lie about it.

From being the last team in Major League Baseball to integrate in 1959, to the disrespect levied at Boston Celtic great Bill Russell when he was leading his team to 11 championships in 13 years (which led him to call Boston a “flea market of racism”), to Celtic star Dee Brown being profiled and assaulted by police in Wellesley, Massachusetts, to the racist invective thrown at hockey player Joel Ward, to the numbingly endless accounts of players about abuse from fans, the stories are legion. (Read Howard Bryant’s book Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston for a full accounting of the Red Sox stubbornly hanging on to its all-white status while baseball integrated across the country.)

As for Jones, he has faced this racist treatment before in other ballparks as well, and is done with the excuses. “It’s pathetic,’’ he said

It’s called a coward. What they need to do is that instead of kicking them out of the stadium, they need to fine them 10 grand, 20 grand, 30 grand. Something that really hurts somebody. Make them pay in full. And if they don’t, take it out of their check. That’s how you hurt somebody. You suspend them from the stadium, what does that mean? It’s a slap on the wrist. That guy needs to be confronted, and he needs to pay for what he’s done. At the end of the day, when you throw an object onto the field of play, the player has no idea what it is. What if something hit me right in the eye and I can’t play baseball anymore. Then what? I just wear it? No.

Another answer could be to take a page from European soccer and fine the damn team. Penalize them. Take away draft choices. Make them play in front of an empty stadium. Make the fans hurt so they police their own. Make the team hurt so they take this more seriously than just a press release.

Most important, the fans themselves need to take a cue from Orioles COO John Angelos, who yesterday told The Nation:

We must instead actively stand up to these individuals, movements, and the powers and philosophies that support and comfort them. We must stand up to, speak truth to, and face down this growing movement of open, notorious, arrogant, and dictatorial hatred in all its forms, and we must do so in every place, from the living room to the board room and from the grandstand to the state house to the capital mall.

Until such steps are taken, the words of the Red Sox and Mayor Walsh will be only so much hot air. 

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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