Two racially charged incidents at Fenway Park, on consecutive nights in May, made it clear to the city’s sports and civic leaders that they had to do something to address a problem that has haunted Boston for decades.
In the aftermath, the area’s five major sports franchises — the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics, Bruins, and Revolution — quietly began meeting to devise a joint effort to combat racism.
Later this month, at a Fenway event, the teams will unveil the beginning of their project: a public service announcement featuring athletes calling on fans to take a stand against racism and hate speech at sports venues. Each of the teams has agreed to prominently play the video in their venues.
Dubbed “Take the Lead,” the project is an effort to use the influence of the area’s sports teams — and athletic stars — to lead a discussion on an issue that Boston has struggled to confront head-on.
“When the incidents in May occurred, one of the first things we recognized was sports teams are high-profile, and we have the opportunity to help lead a high-level discussion around this,” Red Sox CEO Sam Kennedy said in an interview. “We wanted to take the lead in taking a stand against racism.”
In the first of the incidents that inspired the project, Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones, who is black, was the target of a racial slur hurled from the stands. Later in the same game, Jones said, a bag of peanuts was thrown at him.
The following night, after a Kenyan woman sang the national anthem, a white fan used a racial slur in a derogatory description of her performance. The fan’s remark was made to Calvin Hennick, a white man attending the game with his young biracial son. Hennick complained to ushers, who threw the fan out of the ballpark. The Red Sox have said that the fan is permanently barred from Fenway Park.
Together, the incidents touched a raw nerve in a city whose sports history has been famously tinged with racism. Last month, Red Sox owner John W. Henry, who also owns The Boston Globe, pledged the baseball team’s support for renaming Yawkey Way. Henry declared himself “haunted” by the legacy of former owner Thomas Yawkey, who owned the team when it was the last in Major League Baseball to integrate.
Just last week, Fenway was the scene of a racial protest. Three white fans who described themselves as allies of the Black Lives Matter movement unfurled a banner reading “Racism is as American as baseball” atop the Green Monster.
After the Adam Jones incident, Kennedy began meeting with state Senator Linda Dorcena Forry of Dorchester and Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, for guidance on addressing racist behavior in the ballpark. The three quickly agreed that the area’s other sports teams should be brought into the discussion. Eventually, the group also met with Governor Charlie Baker and Mayor Martin J. Walsh to discuss their plans.
“We thought it would be incredibly powerful for this initiative to include not just the Red Sox but all of our professional sports teams,” Sullivan said. “Because this was not just an issue involving the Red Sox and Fenway Park.”
The launch on Sept. 28 will include a discussion on racism moderated by Rev. Liz Walker of Roxbury Presbyterian Church and broadcaster Steve Burton of WBZ-TV. In addition to the video — to be shown regularly at all the teams’ venues — the program will include other initiatives, some of which are being determined.
“I am hopeful that this campaign will help to galvanize fans around this issue of race,” Sullivan said, “and that it will encourage fans to learn more about how they can take the lead in their respective communities around issues of racial equality.”
The organizers said the project is intended to be ongoing — not just the unveiling of a video. Part of the message they hope to convey is that the battle against racism is one that cuts across racial and ethnic boundaries, they said. To that end, the video includes both white and black athletes.
The activists advising the teams have also called on them to examine their internal efforts at diversity, beginning with their senior management and front office staffs, to which they say the franchises have been receptive.
“We want people of color to be part of these management teams,” Dorcena Forry said.
Sullivan noted that sports is one of the great common passions in Boston. That, she said, makes the teams perfect partners for speaking out on race.
“Sports, as an entity, is a unifier,” she said. “It cuts across all races, all ethnicities, and all genders, and we have an opportunity through this campaign to reach people we might not otherwise be able to reach.”