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Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred’s current challenge is to ensure baseball is played in 2020. Once he meets that challenge, he will face another: getting the racists out of Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox. If he fails to do so, he may find himself confronted with on-field player protests, a phenomenon with which MLB has rarely had to contend.
Players may kneel or raise their fists during the national anthem as NFL players have, or they may walk off the field mid-game as European soccer players have. What they will not do is endure hateful racist taunts while they try to concentrate on playing the game they love. Those days are over.
Before longtime major-league pitcher CC Sabathia retired in 2019, he aired publicly what Black baseball players throughout the majors have known for years: They get racially abused at Fenway.
“We all know,” Sabathia explained. “When you go to Boston, expect it.”
Certainly, only a small minority of Red Sox fans traffic in such filth, but those few have made an impression. No other stadium in America carries such a reputation, and if athlete activism finds its way to MLB, it will undoubtedly take root at Fenway Park.
Torii Hunter, who played in the majors for 19 years with the Minnesota Twins, Detroit Tigers, and Los Angeles Angels until his retirement in 2015, revealed recently that he had been called the n-word at Fenway repeatedly throughout his career, by adults and children alike. Adam Jones, who finished last season with the Arizona Diamondbacks and is now playing in Japan, quickly took to Twitter to support Hunter. Jones had also been serenaded with the n-word at Fenway and then suffered the added indignity of former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling publicly calling him a liar.
Jackie Bradley Jr., currently with the Red Sox, followed up on the Hunter and Jones’ tweets, tweeting, “I definitely have appreciated both of y'all's leadership and advice along the way,” indicating that perhaps he, even as a Red Sox player, experiences racist insults at Fenway. David Price, the former Red Sox and current Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher, certainly experienced such insults. He admitted as much when he played there.
To minimize their time at Fenway Park, many MLB players flatly refuse to play for the Red Sox. Hunter is exhibit A. He says he inserted a “no trade to Boston” clause into every one of his major-league contracts. Enduring racial abuse at Fenway a few times a year was enough for him.
But what happens when Black major leaguers decide that a few times a year is too many? What happens when they decide they simply won’t endure it?
Once baseball resumes and the Red Sox faithful are permitted to return to Fenway, we will surely find out. A wave of Black athlete activism is rising as the nation boils with protests against police brutality and systemic discrimination. Black baseball players, like other Black athletes and Black people in general, are fed up. And while they may have bitten their tongues at Fenway in the past, they will likely not do so going forward.
Take a look at what some of these players have said and written over the past few weeks.
Atlanta Braves pitcher Touki Toussaint: “I am ANGRY. I am SAD. I am TIRED. ... I am Black…. I will not sit quiet knowing my platform.”
Cleveland Indians outfielder Delino DeShields Jr.: “Raise your hand if you’ve ever been called a [n-word] while trying to do something you love to do.”
Minnesota Twins outfielder Byron Buxton: “African Americans have been slaughtered left and right for nothing more than the color of our skin. That is reality and it has been ignored far too long. DEMAND PROGRESS.”
These athletes, committed to defeating racism and increasingly emboldened to fight it publicly, will not stand quietly on the baseball field and endure racial insults. And they now have something it wasn’t clear they had a few weeks ago: White teammates who will publicly oppose racism alongside them and who will be valuable allies in the majority white league. A sampling of some of their recent comments:
Philadelphia Phillies star Bryce Harper: “I will never know what it is like to be an African-American. ... The one thing I do know is I will always stand with them and for them.”
Cincinnati Reds legend Joey Votto: ‘”I am awakening to [Black peoples’] pain, and my ignorance. I will no longer be silent.”
Young Toronto Blue Jays star Bo Bichette: “We need to actively stand with black people. Right now.”
Oakland Athletics reliever Jake Diekman: “Love will always prevail over hate. Protest. Speak. Love.”
Never in major-league history have players, both Black and white, spoken out so aggressively against racism. Activism has taken hold and there is no going back. The next time a Black player is called the n-word at Fenway, prepare for a response. Maybe it will take the form of a silent pregame protest or a somber postgame news conference.
Or maybe it will take a form not previously seen in this country, a form of protest not even the NFL has faced. Black soccer players in Europe have for years been confronting racial abuse from fans in stadiums across the continent and they have begun to take the entirely reasonable step of refusing to play under such conditions.
Earlier this year, for instance, Moussa Marega, a striker for FC Porto in Portugal was serenaded with monkey noises as he played. After scoring what would be the winning goal in a 2-1 game, he had heard enough and walked off the playing surface. The game continued, but he refused to be a part of it. Good for him. Last year, during England’s prestigious FA Cup tournament, fans racially targeted Haringey Borough FC’s goalkeeper, and the entire team left the field, ending the game. Good for them.
And good for any MLB player who upon hearing the n-word at Fenway Park drops his glove or bat where he is standing and simply walks off the field, perhaps with all of his teammates following behind him.
Black players have been racially abused at Fenway Park for too long. Manfred and MLB have two choices. Find a way to work with the Red Sox to institute unprecedented, fierce disincentives for racial abuse at Fenway, or become the new epicenter of Black athletes’ protests in the United States.
N. Jeremi Duru is a Professor of Sports Law at American University, leading scholar at the intersection of sport and society, and former counsel to the Fritz Pollard Alliance of coaches, scouts and executives of color in the NFL. He’s on Twitter at @njeremiduru.
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