Time for Boston sports team owners to up their civil rights game

Teams should convene summit to address racist behavior in the stands

HAVEN’T WE HAD enough racist behavior in the seats of Boston’s pro sports venues?

Segregationist management practices and racial animus in the stands are as old as pro sports in our city. From avowed segregationist owners like George Preston Marshall (Boston Braves-cum-Washington Commanders) and Thomas Yawkey (Red Sox) to the second balcony in the old Garden being known to all as “N-word Heaven,” to Bill Russell and his family being left on their own to face racial attacks, it starts to feel woven into the fabric. As recently as this summer, LeBron James was the latest Black athlete to remind us of this tradition, when he described Boston fans as “racist as fuck.”

Much deserved attention has focused on the experience of Black athletes in our big-league stadia. Too little has focused on what racist behavior does to Black fans considering catching a game at the Garden, Fenway, or Gillette. Isn’t it past time we thought about whether racist behavior in the seats and in the executive suites intimidates Black fans and amounts to a violation of their civil rights?

Let’s try a new solution. Why not use the Commonwealth’s civil rights laws to prosecute racist fan behavior? The idea may sound like folly in the context of the conventional approach to criminal investigations and prosecutions under the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act. Objections would include concerns about First Amendment free speech rights and constitutional concerns about identifying a clear victim of what is on its face mere speech.

To the first objection, one argues that history has weaponized the n-word. It is a word like no other in the English language. The attorney general’s web site says, “Along with the impact on individual victims, hate crimes send a message to members of groups that they do not belong, or will be hurt because they are perceived as different. Our response to hate crimes can send a powerful message that these crimes will not be tolerated.”

I am not aware of any comprehensive review into whether the n-word has intimidated specific Black fans into feeling “they do not belong.” We do not know if specific management practices make specific Black people feel “they do not belong,” because we never have investigated. But we can just look around our stadia and see that Black fans are not there. If we look in earnest, one suspects we would find at least some Black fans who would testify that that racialized treatment kept them at home. That is, it’s hard to believe we would not find at least some civil rights victimizations that have gone unreported. The owners of the venues and the teams have evaded full responsibility for ensuring that their stadia are safe environments for all people.

According to a publication of the Massachusetts attorney general’s office, “Your rights may have been violated if:

  • “The perpetrator targeted you because of your race, national origin, religion, age, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability or protected activity (for example, the right to vote or the right to associate).
  • “The perpetrator interfered with your civil rights, including your right to use public parks, walk on public streets, attend school, or live peacefully in your home.
  • “The perpetrator used verbal slurs while threatening or intimidating you.”

Sports owners can’t change the minds of committed racists. But experience and research show they can change fan behavior. They simply have to develop the will to do so. We have examples.

Remember the drunken brawling and gambling in the bleachers and far right field grandstand at Fenway? Remember smoking? Remember 2005, when a Massachusetts court upheld Bob Kraft’s revocation of a company’s season tickets, when a guy using the seats peed in an empty women’s room at Gillette? The guest claimed he was in a long line for the gents and suffered from a urological condition. It may seem hardline to revoke a privilege under such circumstances, but the action sent an unmistakable message: such disorder will not be tolerated. Surely, racist behavior is at least as onerous as peeing in the wrong restroom.

We are in new days in Boston sports. The four major sports clubs and the soccer team feature owners with professed progressive values. LeBron James is an influential part-owner of the Red Sox and a leading voice for racial equity. Mayor Wu is one of the nation’s most thoughtful municipal progressives. Let’s ask them to pool their power and come together on protecting the civil rights of Black fans.

The owners could jump-start a civil rights initiative with a “summit conference” on the issues. Can you imagine the impact if John Henry, Bob Kraft, Jeremy Jacobs, and Wyc Grousbeck, along with James, decided they’d had enough? Likely soon-to-be Attorney General Andrea Campbell and Suffolk DA Kevin Hayden, son of a prominent historian of the Black experience in Boston, would at least listen closely. John Henry was offended sufficiently by the Yawkey legacy to pressure the city to change the name of Yawkey Way back to the original Jersey Street.

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It would be most meaningful if the Red Sox and the Celtics took the lead on this. We can even name the summit conference for two great leaders on this issue: Bill Russell and Izzy Muchnick, the Mattapan city councilor who led a fight against the Red Sox and the baseball color line in the mid-1940s.

Even if an exhaustive, comprehensive investigation into whether Black fans are deterred by racist behavior somehow turned up zero victims, the effort would be worth it. Through the instrumentality of the law and the morals of influential institutional stewards, i.e., Boston club owners, we could wield a powerful deterrent force.

Jim Jordan is the retired director of strategic planning at the Boston Police Department. He has taught police strategy at Northeastern University, the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and in training settings around the country.