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Boston’s sports teams joined the cause with actions, not just words

The Celtics kneeled during the national anthem before a game at TD Garden in January.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The killings a year ago of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sparked widespread outrage that shined a light on social-justice issues across America. That outrage became a catalyst for athletes, teams, and leagues to use their platforms to call for change.

The Celtics, Bruins, Patriots, Revolution, and Red Sox all issued statements in the midst of this social unrest calling for change and pledging, in varying degrees, to be a part of it. The Celtics hoped “for a ‘new normal’ where every citizen is afforded the same rights, has the same opportunities, receives the same treatment, and can peacefully enjoy every freedom promised to all of us.”


Red Sox president and CEO Sam Kennedy said, “Silence in the face of injustice is unacceptable.”

The Bruins acknowledged that “sometimes it’s hard to know when, where and how to comment on issues that challenge the freedom and well-being of our community,” but “we want to be part of the change and we will lead with our actions.”

Patriots and Revolution owner Robert Kraft said, “We will not rest on statements, because words without actions are void. Rather we will work harder than ever before — through our philanthropy, community engagement, advocacy, and supporting the work of our players — to build bridges, to promote equality, to stand up for what’s right, and to value ALL people.”

In the past year, the organizations that made pledges to use their influence and resources to drive change have laid the groundwork and started making the contributions they promised. At the same time, considerably more remains to be done. .

“Regardless of what an individual or an institution had done for racial equity ever, it clearly wasn’t enough,” said David Hoffman, who has spent 11 years as Celtics vice president of community engagement. “Does it matter that we drafted Chuck Cooper in 1950? Does it matter that Bill Russell, as a Celtic, was the first black coach ever? We had the first starting five? Of course all that matters from a DNA perspective. But those contributions do little, right now, for the injustices that we’re seeing out there.


“So, the societal challenge was that it’s no longer acceptable to sit on the sidelines and pick and choose your spots. You have to pick a side. We need to be really intentional around this because the injustice out there is completely unacceptable. So we laid out a roadmap and a plan.”

Last fall, the Celtics announced a six-point initiative that pledged $25 million over 10 years to address racial injustice and social inequities. The areas of focus included education, economic opportunity and empowerment, health care, criminal justice, law enforcement, breaking down barriers and building bridges between communities, and voting and civic engagement.

Social justice messaging has been prominent in arenas over the past year, including prior to a Bruins playoff game in Toronto in August of 2020.Elsa/Getty Images

They tackled civic engagement with campaigns aimed at driving voter registration in Black and brown communities, partnering with Mass. Vote to put video messages on Celtics social media accounts and using a portal on the team’s website that led to more than 1,000 registrations.

To address economic opportunity and empowerment, they partnered with Vista Print and the NAACP to launch the Power Forward Grant, which extends $1 million to Black-owned small businesses. As of now, grants have been given to about a dozen businesses, with plans to award up to 40.


The Chuck Cooper Fellowship, which offers a nine-month position with Celtic United to a graduate or undergraduate student from the Pittsburgh area, was created to address economic opportunity, as was a career fair for young professionals looking for jobs in sports.

The Celtics partnered with Roxbury’s Dimock Center and Massachusetts General Hospital for the “Spread The Health” campaign, which opened up discussion about the COVID vaccine while addressing mistrust of the health-care industry in Black and brown communities. The campaign hosted a vaccine clinic at White Stadium for residents of Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, and Dorchester. The campaign also is working with the Dimock Center to increase access to mental-health services in Roxbury.

With their Playbook Initiative, the Celtics were able to spread the team’s anti-discrimination and bias-prevention program through more than 300 communities statewide. A partnership with Project 35 will allow the Celtics to present the initiative at the Massachusetts Superintendent of Schools conference in July, and the curriculum will be available for free on the team’s website this fall.

“I’m most proud of our process, because our process, I think, has led us to be able to make sure that we’re doing this for the right reasons at the right pace in the spirit of collaboration and partnership and humility,” Hoffman said. “And do it authentically.”

For Rebekah Salwasser, Red Sox executive vice president of social impact and executive director of the Red Sox Foundation, it was important for any plan to have a lasting impact.


Red Sox players Jackie Bradley Jr. and Michael Chavis kneeled during the national anthem on Opening Day at Fenway Park in 2020.Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

“If you back up to about June of last year, that’s really when I think there was a light switch internally here that said, listen, we’ve got to start doing something that’s a little more sustained and less reactive to incidents,” Salwasser said.

The first step was creating the Social Justice, Equity & Inclusion Advisory Committee, made up of 12 members from different areas of the organization. From there, conversations were held with organizations and employees to learn not only about racial equity and restorative justice but also the experiences of Black and brown people within the organization. What the committee learned was that the minority employees needed support and a space to gather.

The largest statement the Red Sox made could be seen from the Massachusetts Turnpike in the form of the 254-foot “Black Lives Matter” billboard. Although it was vandalized in November, the Red Sox Foundation paid for repairs and also to have fences and security cameras installed.

In 2018, Patriots players had formed the New England Patriots Players Social Justice Fund, backed by the players but with the Kraft family contributing $250,000 each year. Last year, the Kraft family and Patriots players announced a collaborative fund with plans to distribute $100,000 per month to 10 local organizations.

NFL players, including former Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty, were allowed to have social justice messages on their helmets last season.Adam Hunger/Associated Press/file

In February, Kraft made a $1 million donation to the New Commonwealth fund, created last year by Black and brown Boston business owners to eliminate systemic racism. It is the fund’s largest individual donation.


In May, the Bruins’ hockey operations department began working with the NHL’s senior Vice President of social impact, growth and legislative affairs, Kim Davis, to launch the Diversity and Inclusion Scouting Mentorship Program to help people from underrepresented backgrounds pursue careers in scouting and the hockey industry.

The Bruins are also working to push Willie O’Ree, who broke the NHL’s color barrier with the Bruins in 1958, for the Congressional Gold Medal. The team planned to retire O’Ree’s number this year but pushed its plans to the fall due to the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the Boston Bruins Foundation is in the process of launching this summer a street hockey league in O’Ree’s name and is also finalizing an internship in O’Ree’s name this fall.

Since 2017, six pro sports teams in Boston have worked together on the Take The Lead Initiative, which aims to foster an inclusive and safe in-venue environment for fans, supporting community outreach initiatives that promote diversity and inclusion, and collaborate on inclusive hiring practices.

The Revolution responded quickly to last summer’s unrest with its C.H.A.N.G.E. platform, an acronym for converse, help, amplify, nurture, galvanize, and educate that lays the foundation for their approach to social justice.

The Revolution also used their drive-in watch parties last summer to raise money for NAACP Boston and the United Negro College Fund New England. Those endeavors were the springboard for conversations about next steps.

As part of Black History Month, the Revolution spent the first three weeks of the month promoting an area of the local Black and brown community through its social media platforms, highlighting Black-owned businesses, local figures in Black history, key dates in New England Black history, and local organizations that support the Black and brown community.

“I think we know we need to do more,” said Dave Campopiano, the Revolution’s director of fan and community engagement. “We should do more as teams, we have that obligation to help to lead change, frankly.”

As teams continue to put work behind the calls for change they made a year ago, Hoffman said one thing is clear.

“I think the organizations that are actually doing it are the ones that are no longer picking and choosing spots,” Hoffman said. “It’s not a choice, You’re either going to be on the right side of history — meaning actively being a part of the solution — or if you’re neutral or worse, you are not part of the solution. Where we need to get overall as a society is the very unapologetic pursuit of racial equity.

“It’s not pretty. It’s not always going to be summed up in a statement, a T-shirt, a hashtag, a piece of content. That’s not what racial equity work is. Civil rights activism is not a hashtag. It’s not a T-shirt, it’s not a piece of content. It’s not a theme day or week or month. It’s actively doing it internally and actively doing it externally.”

Julian Benbow can be reached at