From Michael Bennett and Marshawn Lynch to LeBron James and Kevin Durant, athletes are using their platforms to address concerns about racial injustice. Amid a newly charged debate over symbols of the country’s history of discrimination, Thursday brought evidence that major sports teams may be starting to follow suit.
Three Tampa teams — the Buccaneers, Rays and Lightning — issued a joint statement in which they pledged to help pay to remove a Confederate monument from the downtown area of the city. Meanwhile, Boston Red Sox owner John Henry said that he would push to change the name of Yawkey Way, a street outside of Fenway Park, because it honors a former team owner whose legacy includes racial intolerance.
Tom Yawkey owned the Red Sox from 1933 to 1976, and under his guidance, the team became the last in MLB to integrate, pointedly passing on the likes of Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays. Following his death, the street was named in his honor in 1977. His widow, Jean Yawkey, owned the team until her death in 1992, at which point it was held by a family trust for 10 more years.
“I am still haunted by what went on here a long time before we arrived,” Henry, who bought the Red Sox in 2002, said in an email to the Boston Herald. He added, “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.”
Although Henry said he had broached the renaming idea with Boston officials in the past, the timing of his comments to the Herald, coming in the wake of the events in Charlottesville and President Trump’s widely criticized reaction to them, was not coincidental. “We ought to be able to lead the effort and if others in the community favor a change, we would welcome it — particularly in light of the country’s current leadership stance with regard to intolerance,” Henry said.
The planned removal of a statue depicting Confederate military commander Robert E. Lee drew hundreds of protesters to Charlottesville, including many white nationalists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members. Hundreds more showed up to counterprotest, leading to violent clashes and an incident in which a driver who reportedly espoused racist and pro-Nazi views killed a woman and injured at least 19 others.
Trump came under fire for being slow to specifically denounce the white nationalists, and while he eventually did so, he has continued to decry “the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.” The recent violence led to protesters in Durham, N.C., toppling a Confederate statue, while cities such as Baltimore and Birmingham, Ala., removed or covered up Civil War monuments and other cities looked into how they could avoid becoming the next Charlottesville.
In Tampa, an agreement had been reached last month to remove the 106-year-old monument, which depicts two Civil War soldiers next to an obelisk. On Wednesday, Hillsborough County (Fla.) commissioners voted contentiously to allow a maximum of 30 days for enough private money, around $140,000, to be raised for its removal.
“I will be highly surprised if we are able to raise those dollars in 30 days,” Les Miller, the county’s lone black commissioner, said Wednesday (via tampabay.com). “I would hope that we don’t have a Charlottesville, Va., in Hillsborough County. I pray that we don’t.”
Yet it took just one day to raise the necessary funds, thanks in part to local sports figures such as former Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy, first black head coach to win the Super Bowl, and Lightning winger J.T. Brown, one of approximately 30 black players in the NHL. “That could have been in Tampa, could be anywhere in the country where the statues are,” Brown said to the Tampa Bay Times.
“I was just thinking to myself, how was I going to explain to my daughter if she was old enough, how would I explain why someone doesn’t like her? Or why is this going on in the world today?” Brown continued. “For me that kind of re-motivated me to make sure I’m doing everything I can to make sure the community is a better place for her and everyone.”
Other individuals also contributed, and then, while saying that “this monument does not reflect the values of our community,” the three Tampa teams announced they would cover the rest. “Now more than ever before, we must stand united and committed to diversity and inclusion as we all attempt to heal from the tragedy in Charlottesville,” they said in the statement.
Tampa does not have an NBA team, but if it did, it would almost certainly have contributed funds, as well. The league, as demonstrated by comments from players, coaches and executives, has a notable culture of social and political awareness, and the election of Trump only seemed to intensify the atmosphere.
James, who campaigned for Hillary Clinton last fall, said Tuesday on Twitter, “Hate has always existed in America. Yes we know that but Donald Trump just made it fashionable again!”
On Thursday, Durant, who led the Warriors past James’s Cavaliers for the NBA title, said he would skip the traditional champions’ White House visit. “I don’t respect who’s in office right now,” Durant said, adding that he thought his teammates would “all agree” with him.
Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale sharply criticized Trump’s responses to Charlottesville Wednesday, and he referred to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in advocating the removal of Civil War monuments in Memphis, “Take ‘em down. I don’t know what the hesitation is,” he said. ” … Whatever gets those things down immediately, we got to do it. It splits people apart. It creates a public safety hazard having that thing in our city.”
The NFL doesn’t quite have the same outspoken culture, possibly because of the league’s quasi-militaristic nature, or possibly because, unlike their NBA counterparts, players don’t have guaranteed contracts. The continued unemployment of former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began kneeling during renditions of the national anthem last season and inspired other football players and athletes in different sports to emulate his example, could be having a chilling effect on some players.
Nevertheless, the first round of NFL preseason games last week saw at least four players stage anthem protests, including the Seahawks’ Michael Bennett, the Raiders’ Marshawn Lynch, the Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins and the Rams’ Robert Quinn, the latter two by raising their fists. On Thursday, before an Eagles-Bills game, Jenkins again staged his protest, and this time, he was given a show of support from teammate Chris Long.
Bennett said onWednesday, “It would take a white player to really get things changed.” Long was a likely candidate to respond in some way, given that he not only has been vocal on social issues, but also was raised in Charlottesville, played for the University of Virginia and owns a home there.
“You know that subculture exists in our country, and it has in our country for a long time, but when they all get together in one place — especially your hometown — it really bothers you,” Long said Monday of white nationalists (via philly.com). “You can say what you want about the president’s remarks. I wish he’d categorically spoken out against white supremacy.”
Whereas Jenkins, who began his protests last season, and Kaepernick have been particularly concerned about police killings of black men, Bennett told ESPN that what happened in Charlottesville and afterward spurred him to action. “Over the weekend, so much violence, so much hate,” he said. “I just wanted to remember why we were American citizens, remember the freedom, the liberty and the equality, make sure we never forget that.”
Now some teams are reacting, as well, even if it means possibly upsetting fans in Tampa and Boston. Other fans, not to mention more than a few players, are likely applauding the ownership-level steps into social activism.