Commonwealth Magazine


HAVE WE NOT HAD Enough racist behavior in the chairs of Boston’s professional gyms?

Segregationist management practices and racial animosity in the stands are as old as professional sports in our city. From outspoken segregationist landlords like George Preston Marshall (Boston Braves-cum-Washington Commanders) and Thomas Yawkey (Red Sox) on the second balcony of the old garden known to all as ‘N-word Heaven’, to Bill Russell and his family left to their own devices to deal with racial attacks, it’s starting to feel woven into the fabric. Just this summer, LeBron James was the latest black athlete to remind us of that tradition, when he described Boston fans as “racist as shit.”

Well-deserved attention has focused on the experience of black athletes in our big league stadiums. Too little has focused on what racist behavior does to black fans considering catching a game at Garden, Fenway or Gillette. Isn’t it time to ask 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 Commonwealth civil rights laws to prosecute racist behavior by fans? The idea may seem nonsensical 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 his face mere speech.

To the first objection, it is argued that history has weaponized the n-word. It is a word like no other in the English language. The Attorney General’s website states, “In addition to the impact on individual victims, hate crimes send a message to members of groups that they don’t belong or will be hurt because they are seen as different. Our response to hate crimes can send a powerful message that these crimes will not be tolerated. »

I’m not aware of any comprehensive review of whether the word n’intimidated specific black fans into feeling “they don’t belong”. We don’t know if specific management practices make specific black people feel “they don’t belong,” because we never investigated. But we can just look around our stadiums and see that the black fans aren’t there. If we look seriously, one suspects we’d at least find black fans testifying that this racialized treatment has kept them home. In other words, it’s hard to believe that we wouldn’t find at least some civil rights abuses that went unreported. Venue owners and teams have escaped full responsibility for ensuring that their stadiums are safe environments for all.

According to a publication from the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, “Your rights may have been violated if:

  • “The attacker targeted you because of your race, national origin, religion, age, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, disability, or protected activity ( for example, the right to vote or the right of association).
  • “The abuser violated 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 insults while threatening or intimidating you.”

Sports owners cannot change the minds of staunch racists. But experience and research show they can change fan behavior. They just have to develop the will to do it. We have examples.

Remember the fights and drunken gambling in the bleachers and far-right grandstand at Fenway? Remember smoking? Remember 2005, when a Massachusetts court upheld Bob Kraft’s revocation of a company’s subscriptions, when a guy using the seats peed in an empty women’s room at Gillette? The guest claimed he was queuing for the gentlemen and suffered from a urological condition. It may seem harsh to revoke a lien in such circumstances, but the action sent an unequivocal message: such a mess will not be tolerated. Certainly, racist behavior is at least as painful as peeing in the wrong toilet.

We are into new days in Boston sports. The four main sports clubs and the football team have owners with professed progressive values. LeBron James is an influential co-owner of the Red Sox and a leading voice for racial equity. Mayor Wu is one of the nation’s most thoughtful municipal progressives. Ask them to pool their power and unite to protect the civil rights of black fans.

The owners could revive a civil rights initiative with a “summit conference” over 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? It is likely that future Attorney General Andrea Campbell and Suffolk Attorney Kevin Hayden, son of a prominent historian of the black experience in Boston, would at least listen carefully. John Henry was offended enough by Yawkey’s legacy to lobby the city to change the name of Yawkey Way to the original Jersey Street.

It would be more meaningful if the Red Sox and Celtics took the lead on this. The conference can even be named atop two great leaders on this issue: Bill Russell and Izzy Muchnick, the Mattapan councilman who led a struggle against the Red Sox and baseball’s color line in the mid-1940s.

Even if a thorough and comprehensive investigation into whether black fans are deterred by racist behavior has resulted in no casualties, the effort would be worth it. Through the law and the morals of influential institutional stewards, that is, Boston club owners, we could exert a powerful deterrent.

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

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