“I hope there isn’t any racism – subtle racism,” former Celtics’ star Kyrie Irving said during a press conference on his return to Boston as an opponent during the ongoing Nets-Celtics series; and with that, the conversation on racism in the city of Boston was reignited.
A couple days after this statement, University of Rhode Island student Cole Buckley threw a water bottle at the now-Nets player, after a blowout game in which he stomped and spat on the Celtics logo at center court. While Buckley’s motivations are not clear, he was charged with one count of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, reigniting the conversation Irving had started before the game.
Many Boston fans dislike Irving as an athlete. He left the team after making it seem he was going to stay and went to a division rival instead and has constantly talked down to Boston. Irving is still a human, however, who does not deserve to be dehumanized by angry fans regardless of words and actions. Of these fans, many also use their dislike of Irving as an excuse to act on and ignore the racism that has stayed in Boston’s sports culture for nearly a century.
For 86 years, from 1918 to 2004, the “Red Sox curse” was one of the most infamous and legendary tales in the history of American sports lore, and while the stain of trading Babe Ruth was huge, so was the stain of the Red Sox ownership led by Tom Yawkey and Eddie Collins.
The Red Sox had the chance to be the first team to integrate. Instead they were the last. They held tryouts for Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays. In fact, according to the longtime scout for the Red Sox George Digby, he had actually come to an agreement to bring Mays to Boston, but was turned down by Yawkey and Manager Joe Cronin who said they did not want a Black player on the team. Mays later said “they had me easy” but Yawkey’s prejudice got in the way.
After years of begging from star Ted Williams and the league, the Sox brought Pumpsie Green on in 1959, at which point Jackie Robinson had already been retired, and his Dodgers had moved to Los Angeles, and Willie Mays had won a World Series and was named MVP with the Giants.
Red Sox owner John Henry distanced the club from Yawkey, who had been a symbol of Boston since his death in 1976, but only did so once Orioles’ star Adam Jones claimed he had been yelled racial slurs towards and had peanuts thrown at him by Sox fans.
In the 1960s, Bill Russell, leader of the iconic Celtics teams of the era and the city’s first Black superstar, had his house vandalized by angry, racist fans. Russell said in his autobiography that Boston “was a flea market for racism.” He said it hurt his experience in a city that he had liked otherwise. Despite being a sports icon, he did not return to Boston until 30 years after his retirement.
Similar racist actions have made it into Bruins games as well, with fans taunting then-Capitals’ forward Joel Ward during game seven of the 2012 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. Following his game-winning shot that eliminated the Bruins from the playoffs, fans hurled racial comments at him from both the stands and on Twitter. While Ward praised the members of the Boston fanbase that supported him, it was clear that issues of the past were still lingering.
Boston is not the same city it was half a century ago; many players have talked about positive experiences in the city. Just because the culture has improved, however, does not mean that anyone can start making excuses for racism.
Racism has been seen in the fan bases of many sports teams, but that is not the excuse people seem to think it is, especially on social media, as numerous Boston fans are trying to defend the city with this notion on Twitter and Instagram. Passion for a team is not an excuse to dehumanize anyone, even someone as widely disliked in the area as Irving
The sting of racism in Boston’s sports crowds clearly is incredibly powerful and damaging to not only Black players who come to Boston to do their jobs, but the rapidly growing population of people of color in the city as well. Regardless of Irving being the one to bring the issue up, it is a problem in a city that claims to pride itself on being progressive.
For years Yawkey held a stranglehold on Boston. It was for more than his charity work as his racial attitudes completely defined the culture of Boston sports. While admirable progress has been made, Celtics player Jaylen Brown said it best this past weekend, “Boston, we’ve got a lot of work to do, no question.”