Here are four facts about two Boston sports franchises:
- The Boston Celtics became the first NBA team to ever draft a Black player when, in 1950, a Jewish head coach named Red Auerbach selected Chuck Cooper 14th overall.
- The Boston Bruins became the first NHL team to ever feature a Black player when, in 1958, Willie O’Ree debuted in a game against the Montreal Canadiens.
- The Boston Celtics became the first team in NBA history to start 5 Black players when, in 1964, they fielded a lineup of Bill Russell, Sam Jones, Tom Sanders, K.C. Jones, and Willie Naulls.
- The Boston Celtics became the first team in all of North American professional sports to hire a Black head coach, when, in 1966, Bill Russell took over the team.
I don’t know exactly when I learned these things. But for a period of my life, I found myself repeating them frequently. I was a white Boston sports fan at a college outside of New England, and, thus, I was repeatedly subject to accusations that the Boston sports scene was racist. And so I would point to Willie O’Ree, talk about the city’s role in the antebellum abolition movement, and insist that racism was not confined to Red Sox Nation.
Why was I so eager to defend the city against accusations of racism in those days? I suppose I thought I was defending Boston’s honor, trying to reclaim the city’s history from the types of people who still openly and fearlessly used racial slurs at Fenway Park well into the 21st century. I suppose I was trying to insist that, while sure, the racism was there and I would never deny it, that wasn’t really what Boston or the Red Sox were about.
But I did all of this despite the fact that Bostonians of color have been trying to educate people about the city’s racial issues throughout the course of my life. In essence, then, I wasn’t defending the honor of Boston, but of white Boston. And further, regardless of the validity of any of my defenses, all I was doing was minimizing the pain of the people who still experience that racism today. Oh, sorry you don’t feel comfortable going to a night game at Fenway Park, but have you considered the fact that William Lloyd Garrison published The Liberator right here in Boston starting in 1831?
I’m older now, and the same accusations still pop up with disturbing frequency. But I don’t bother rebutting them anymore. For one thing, I’ve finally internalized the lesson that the actions of my favorite sports teams — either on or off the field — do not reflect upon me or determine my self-worth in any way. I’m not a better person if my favorite baseball team wins 108 games and the World Series; I’m not a worse person if my favorite baseball team cuts 10 percent of its full-time staff during a global pandemic. But moreover: it frankly doesn’t matter what Red Auerbach, Bill Russell, Willie O’Ree, and Chuck Cooper might have done six-plus decades ago — not when racism in the Boston sports scene still thrives, right here and now.
Last week, some guy named Chris Curtis, an on-air personality at WEEI, did the thing that Boston sports radio hosts apparently just can’t stop doing: he made a clumsy, racist joke on air. Specifically, he cited Mina Kimes, an incredibly accomplished, popular, and well-respected ESPN reporter who happens to be of Korean descent, as his favorite “nip,” referring in this case not to the single-serving bottles of liquor that the hosts were discussing, but the racial slur used against people of Japanese descent.
Now, before we proceed any further, it’s important to establish that we will not be giving Curtis’s nonsensical, implausible, and still completely unacceptable excuse that oh, I was actually trying to be horny about Mila Kunis any validity whatsoever. His shit-eating grin said it all. He thought he was being clever, and maybe, for WEEI, he was, but he plainly knew what he said.
Naturally, Curtis was slapped with a modest suspension and will be back on the air in a few days. This was extremely predictable. We’re not even two months removed from Sports Hub on-air personality and former NESN color analyst Tony Massarotti calling two Black people in the background of a Zoom call car thieves. This is just what happens here.
Both Curtis and Massarotti offered relatively bland, paint-by-numbers apologies, after which their two co-hosts, Greg Hill and Mike Felger, respectively, jumped in with their own please don’t cancel us admonitions.
“I agree with you, Curtis, that is not what this show is and that is not what this radio station is,” said Hill on WEEI. On the Sports Hub, Felger insisted “that’s not what [Massarotti] represents or stands for, and anyone who knows him or listens to our show knows it’s not what I represent or what the company represents, and certainly not what Mazz represents.”
What they’re saying boils down to: racism is bad, but being accused of racism is bad, too. I certainly recognize the argument, but then again, I’ve grown up. On Boston sports radio, the grownups are plainly not in charge. It would have been so easy for both WEEI and The Sports Hub to fire these guys, and they pointedly did not. Instead, they rallied around them.
When I referred to Curtis above as “some guy named Chris Curtis,” I wasn’t doing it merely to be flip; I was doing it because, until this incident, I had never even heard of him, and I live in Boston and edit a Red Sox site. Chris Curtis is not a major personality with a significant following whose firing could potentially cause economic hardship to WEEI. He’s a forgettable replacement-level player in a replacement-level profession.
Tony Massarotti is a significant figure in Boston sports media — but one who almost no one likes, by design. He’s made his career as the guy who riles up Boston fans with uninformed, water cooler-level hot takes, to the point that his Twitter bio used to read “I’m really not a bad guy.” (It doesn’t say that anymore and he’s locked his account. I wonder why.)
In the face of this insane parochialism, here’s where I hope the Boston Red Sox do something to actually defend the honor of Boston. Obviously, this is not what they’re known for, historically, which makes it even more important: They forever have a chance to do the right thing.
As you probably noted above, the Red Sox didn’t feature in my list of highlights of Boston’s triumphant racial history. That’s because, as many of you reading this likely already know, the Red Sox have about as shameful a history with respect to race as any team in the world of sports.
In 1945, the Red Sox, only after being pressured by a liberal Boston City Council member, offered a tryout to three stars of the Negro Leagues: Sam Jethroe, Marvin Williams, and one Jack Roosevelt Robinson. Jethroe and Robinson would both go on to star in the Major Leagues, of course, but neither for the Sox, as the tryout amounted to nothing. Robinson later insisted that it was a sham, writing in his autobiography that “Not for one minute did we believe the tryout was sincere.” A Boston Globe reporter in the stands that day would later report that an unknown team executive shouted “get those n—— off the field.” It wasn’t until 14 years later — over 12 years after Robinson debuted with the Dodgers and, remarkably, two years after he retired — that the Red Sox finally became the last team in Major League Baseball to field a black player, Pumpsie Green.
These types of things didn’t stop after Green’s debut, either. In the 1970s and 80s, the Sox conducted Spring Training in Winter Haven, Florida, where they maintained a relationship with the local Elks Club. The club provided free meals and invitations to use the facilities to white players, but not to the team’s black stars, as the club was racially segregated. When Tommy Harper, then a coach, complained about it in 1984, the Red Sox fired him.
And of course, in recent years, there have been several well-documented incidents of racial slurs being heard at Fenway Park. Adam Jones of the Baltimore Orioles alleged that a fan made racially derogatory remarks and threw a bag of peanuts at him in 2017. The very next day, another fan directed a slur towards a Black singer of the National Anthem. In 2020, Torii Hunter appeared on WEEI of all places and talked about his experiences being called racial slurs at Fenway, experiences which were quickly backed up by similar claims from C.C. Sabathia and David Price, amongst others. One of the reasons that so many Black players may have felt compelled to come forward was that many white Bostonians either questioned whether the incidents actually happened, or tried to insist that they weren’t reflective of Boston as a whole. Quelle surprise, many of these defenses came from WEEI personalities.
What if you think he's making it up? Still want to stand and cheer? https://t.co/4iVtk4HkdL— Gerry Callahan (@GerryCallahan) May 2, 2017
Not saying it happened or it didn't, but the rush to condemn Boston w/no proof is chilling. And, of course, the pandering is off the charts.— Kirk Minihane (@kirkmin) May 2, 2017
To their credit, the Red Sox did the right thing, both after the Jones incident in 2017, and after Hunter’s comments a few years later. Following the Jones incident, the Sox announced that they would be renaming Yawkey Way, removing a symbol honoring former owner Tom Yawkey, who was the man most responsible for the team’s ugly history. After Hunter’s comments, the team released a strong and unequivocal statement that supported the players, didn’t minimize what happened, and put the onus on themselves to fix the problem:
Torii Hunter’s experience is real.
If you doubt him because you’ve never heard it yourself, take it from us, it happens.
Last year there were 7 reported incidents at Fenway Park where fans used racial slurs. Those are just the ones we know about.
And it’s not only players. It happens to the dedicated Black employees who work for us on game days. Their uniforms may be different, but their voices and experiences are just as important.
We are grateful to everyone who has spoken up and remain committed to using our platform to amplify the many voices who are calling out injustice.
There are well-established consequences for fans who use racial slurs and hate speech in our venue, and wevknow we have more work to do. This small group of fans does not represent who we are, but are rather a reflection of larger systemic issues that as an organization we need to address.
True change starts from within, and as we identify how we can do better, please know we are listening. We hear you, and we believe you.
The team got it right then. And now, it’s time for them to do it again with respect to WEEI. Because here’s the thing: while the Red Sox don’t own WEEI, they do, in a very real way, control it. WEEI has broadcast every Red Sox game since 1995, and is under contract to continue to do so until 2028. Without the Red Sox, WEEI is barely relevant.
The station pays the Red Sox a lot of money to broadcast the team’s games and, in turn, make even more money off those broadcasts. And there are contractual obligations in place to ensure that Red Sox personnel regularly appear on WEEI programming, including Chris Curtis’s show. But talk radio has seen nothing but falling ratings and fading relevance over the past decade, as podcasts increase in popularity and work-from-home eliminates the daily commute. And WEEI consistently finds itself far behind The Sports Hub in the ratings game: during the Fall 2022 ratings period, WEEI put up just a 9 share, compared to the Sports Hub’s 19.6.
WEEI needs the Red Sox to survive. The opposite is not true.
Professional sports teams and the media companies that broadcast their games exist in an all-important symbiotic relationship. And while the leagues and teams do not exert de jure editorial control over the broadcasters, they can and do influence the way those broadcasters operate.
The Red Sox can and should use their influence over WEEI to enact some real change. There is absolutely nothing stopping them from releasing a statement tomorrow that says “In light of the fact that WEEI has a long history of employing racist idiots, we’re no longer comfortable associating our team with that radio station. If we do not see evidence that WEEI is working to rectify what is unfortunately an ongoing racist idiot problem, we are prepared to pursue alternative broadcast avenues going forward.”
That’s it! That’s all they have to do! If the Red Sox did this, not only would Chris Curtis be gone immediately, but WEEI would never tolerate that shit again. Then, the next time someone accuses the Boston sports scene of being racist, I wouldn’t have to bring up a hockey player from the 1950s. I could just say: you’re right, but thankfully the Red Sox are doing whatever is in their power to change that.
The Red Sox have done the right thing recently when racism has been seen in their own backyard. But the team’s influence stretches far outside the walls of Fenway. The Red Sox are arguably the most important institution in all of New England, and certainly the most important institution in the WEEI orbit. It’s long past time for them to put some pressure on their long-time broadcast partner. WEEI has the signal, but the Red Sox have the power.