Fenway Incidents Prompt Questions About Hate Speech At The Ballpark

May 11, 2017
Originally published on May 14, 2017 8:44 am
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Last week, Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones said he was the target of racial slurs during a game at Fenway Park in Boston. A day later at Fenway, there was another fan using another racial insult this time directed at a Kenyan woman who sang the national anthem. NPR's Tom Goldman reports that people are wondering if these incidents are isolated or part of a growing problem.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: While the furor around Adam Jones has receded, the discussion hasn't even 3,000 miles west of Fenway Park.

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GOLDMAN: On an otherwise carefree afternoon, baseball fans at Angel Stadium of Anaheim stopped to talk about hate speech. None of those we polled this past weekend said they'd ever witnessed it at a ballgame, but all of them said they wouldn't stay quiet if they did. Amanda Israel is a first-year dental student at USC.

AMANDA ISRAEL: I would honestly - I wouldn't even go to the usher. I would go straight to the person. I mean, yeah, some people may be afraid to kind of approach it, but I think if you approach it yourself, you'll know that it will get taken care of, whereas somebody might just brush it off because they don't want to engage in conflict.

HARRY EDWARDS: I think it's a positive thing for us to be talking about it.

GOLDMAN: That's longtime sociologist and civil rights activist Dr. Harry Edwards. He says a national conversation about hate speech at the ballpark is especially positive because historically, black athletes dealt with racist taunts by themselves, athletes from Jack Johnson to Jackie Robinson to Muhammad Ali to Shaquille O'Neal and so many others who weren't famous. But Dr. Edwards says with Fenway Park, we need to know what it is we're talking about, an isolated incident or...

EDWARDS: Are we talking about these individuals as simply the latest manifestation of the much wider problem in American society?

GOLDMAN: Perhaps. Dr. Richard Lapchick directs the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. He tracks racist incidents in sports. In 2016, he says there were 31 nationwide, mostly affecting pro athletes.

RICHARD LAPCHICK: It was triple the year before.

GOLDMAN: That jump from 11 to 31 came at a time when there was a reported 20 percent increase in hate crimes nationwide. But few, if any, of those crimes had the counterpoint seen last week at Fenway Park when fans showed their support for Adam Jones. Again, here's Dr. Harry Edwards.

EDWARDS: You can go from a racist incident that goes viral one day and the very next day have a standing ovation for that same athlete by 35,000 people. That carries a message with it.

GOLDMAN: Dr. Edwards says over the last 50 years, he's witnessed the power of sports as a lever for social change. It's a stretch to expect baseball to provide a roadmap for dealing with this country's intractable issue of race relations. Still, MLB wants to send a message within its world. For at least the last decade, all 30 teams have been required to give fans the opportunity to report hate speech by alerting an usher or by sending a text to club officials. Late last week, baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said MLB is surveying each team's policies, what they do to handle Adam Jones-like incidents.

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ROB MANFRED: As a prelude to giving consideration to some more industry-wide guidelines in this area.

GOLDMAN: At a minimum, baseball hopes to deliver what fans want from a day at the park - a day away from the world outside. Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.