Playing Through the Pain

Ask sports fans from across the country to describe Boston, and you’ll hear this: “City of Champions.” Ask athletes themselves the same question, and you’ll hear it described in very different terms: as a city of racists. If it’s not a fair label anymore, as so many of us insist, then why won’t it go away?

Some people still call it that. Some players call Boston much worse. And because the athletic community is very much a fraternity, those sentiments harden and are passed from one person to the next. The effect is rote learning, a unified belief that the city is racially intolerant.

“From the African-American athletes I speak to, it’s accurate to say that the perception is out there,” says Stephen A. Smith, ESPN’s volatile but well-sourced NBA analyst. “There are the Paul Pierces of the world, and they rave about Boston. But, from the outside looking in…it’s extremely prevalent and pretty much common that athletes think Boston is not that receptive to improving race relations. Understand something: When this city celebrates its tradition, what they’re saying—at least in the eyes of some in the African-American community—is ‘Those were the good old days. We liked the way it was.’ Well, black people didn’t. We had a problem with the way it was.”

And those problems eventually hurt Boston teams where it counted most—on the field. Early on, Yawkey and the Sox didn’t want anything to do with black players. But in time, the reverse became true and black athletes didn’t want anything to do with Boston. In his book, Bryant reports that there have been plenty of great black baseball players who either said they were reluctant to come to Boston or had language written into their contracts specifically preventing them from being traded here: superstars like Ken Griffey Jr., Albert Belle, David Justice, Tim Raines, Dave Winfield, and Gary Sheffield. Ultimately, it wasn’t some abstract curse that kept the Sox from winning a World Series for 86 years. It was their refusal, and then their inability, to put the best athletes in uniform.

It probably doesn’t help Boston’s reputation among black players that when they’re here, they are not often surrounded by people who look like them.

Boston’s suburbs are the country’s third whitest, which contributes to the fact that the metro area has about half the black population of cities of comparable size. As Guy Stuart, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, notes, Boston’s black population is also disproportionately foreign-born: Where the national average is about 7 percent, Stuart says, here it’s closer to 26 percent. “They’re more likely to be Haitian or Cape Verdean in Boston,” he explains.

The notion that Boston isn’t a “black city”—that it doesn’t have the same African-American presence as, say, Atlanta or DC—is something that I heard several times while reporting this story. Several people told me they’d conducted their own informal sociological observations while in Boston, and the results made them uncomfortable. “I’ve traveled all over the world, all over the country, and I never look around in most cities and see how many black people are in a place,” says Jerome Solomon, who covered the Pats for the Globe before moving to the Houston Chronicle. “But when I was in Boston, I was like, ‘Man, I’m always the only black guy here’…. The perception when it comes to athletes is that same thing.” To Solomon, that Boston is a racist city is less a matter of conjecture than of reality. “I’ll say this, if you talk to an athlete—and I talk to dozens every week—if you bring up Boston, racism is always the first thing that comes up, regardless of the sport they play.

Basketball and football especially…. With guys who have recently left, they’ll talk about it freely. Guys that I’ve talked to, they’ll say, ‘Oh, man, I thought you were in Boston.’ When I say I’m in Houston, the response is always ‘You had to get away from those racists in Boston, huh?’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, it was cold, too.’”


There is an undeniable paradox in a New England city ostensibly filled with progressives, located in a state run by the nation’s second black governor, being repeatedly described as bigoted. Because in
some ways things have changed, and so has Boston. Where once the town’s heroes were white men named Yaz and Larry, today the biggest stars, along with Tom Brady, are unquestionably Papi and Manny, KG and Randy Moss—men who defy old stereotypes about who Boston will or won’t embrace.

“In the case of Boston, what’s interesting is that it’s known for certain ethnicities—Irish and Italian,” says University of Southern California professor Todd Boyd, one of ESPN’s go-to experts on matters of race. “But it’s never been seen as a black city. On the other hand, it has a reputation for being a liberal city. That’s ironic, and I think, for some people, that’s a bit of a contradiction that’s caused some confusion. Well, how can a city with such a liberal history be racist? These are the things that need to be discussed. We need to talk about it openly.”

During his three seasons in Boston, Celtics center Al Jefferson was willing to discuss the issue of racism, though he never quite understood what the big deal was. “People always ask me if it’s true, if Boston’s like that,” says Jefferson, 22, a Mississippi native. “The only thing I have bad to say about Boston is it’s cold. I never experienced anything bad about Boston. Never. The only time I ever hear about it is when I go back home and the older cats ask me about Boston. Tell you the truth, I didn’t even know it was a big issue.” Jefferson, of course, was traded from Boston to Minnesota in the deal that made Garnett the Hub’s latest crush. “Kevin Garnett is in for the most glorious experience of his life,” says Bill Walton, who spent three years in a Celtics uniform, and who now does NBA commentary for ESPN.

So yes, some things have changed, because it’s hard to imagine Garnett or anyone else getting a warmer reception from such a chilly place. Which makes it all the more curious that Boston has been unable to shed its nasty reputation. “Have racist things happened in Boston? Not to me, but they’ve happened,” says Charles Barkley, who regularly visited the city as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, and who is now an NBA studio analyst for TNT. “But racist things have happened to me in Philly and Arizona. The media always uses race. It’s one of their aces in the hole…. It’s easy. If you say something about race, you’re going to get people to respond.” Barkley adds that racism in general isn’t as big a problem for athletes today as it used to be. Insulated by wealth and fame, the current generation has been spared the hard experiences of those who came before them, as well as of the average black person. It’s a difficult point to argue. Unfortunately, though, that’s really not the issue. How racist Boston is perceived to be is far less important than the fact that the perception continues to exist at all.

What also continues is Boston’s visceral reaction whenever someone so much as hints that the city is prejudiced. Some of Boston’s anger may be caused by guilt over its previous wrongs, and some of it may be a genuine belief that the city’s identity should no longer be tied to its ugly past. Either way, it’s self-defeating. Because in Boston’s haste to defend itself—to deny, deny, deny—it simply perpetuates the perception. It’s automatic now, like a child who puts his fingers in his ears or his hands over his eyes in an attempt to avoid something unpleasant. But we all know that never makes the bad thing go away.

Consider what happened with Gary Matthews Jr. After his observations about Fenway fans, he was shouted down here in Boston, angrily dismissed as a “steroid abuser” on one notable Sox fan site, and called an idiot on local radio shows. There was no discussion—only derision. However ill-informed Matthews may have been, the more effective way to have dealt with his comments would have been to rationally discuss them, to win the debate by the preponderance of evidence. Instead, he was told, essentially, to just shut up, which made it look as if Boston had something to hide. By the time the Angels arrived at Fenway a few weeks later, he refused to speak to me about what he’d said.

As for Garnett, he contended that Wilbon had never talked to him. In any case, when Garnett first arrived, he said, he’d asked around and been convinced that the city’s reputation was outdated. But like a lot of locals, he hasn’t really had much to say about racism since then. And so instead of the wound being healed, it remains raw. That’s a shame, because an ask-me-anything session with KG at the time of Wilbon’s comments might have prevented the media frenzy. More important, it would have been cathartic for the city. It’s hardly surprising, however, that it didn’t happen.

While reporting this story, I reached out to the Celtics, Red Sox, and Patriots, asking for interviews with current players, coaches, and front office members. The Celtics gave me the runaround before ultimately passing. The Red Sox and Patriots failed to do even that much; they simply didn’t acknowledge the requests. An attempt to speak with Mayor Tom Menino, who made improved race relations a key issue during the Boston Miracle, was met with similar stonewalling. Countless e-mails and phone calls to the mayor’s public relations office yielded platitudes from his flacks, but no interview.

The city’s reputation for racism endures because we don’t want to talk about it, because the press seems more interested in reporting on the controversy than in initiating a useful dialogue, because athletes are more careful today than they’ve ever been. There aren’t many Bill Russells anymore—someone who speaks his mind because his conscience demands it. Russell once told me he thought of himself as a man first and a basketball player second. These days, with millions riding on endorsement contracts and a capricious media to navigate, candor is seen as bad business. In a way, that’s understandable, but it would be a powerful thing to hear from more of today’s athletes. Because what Russell realized that so many current players still don’t is this: The best way to move forward is often to deal with the past.

To that end, the city itself could probably learn something from the experiences of Guy Stuart, the Kennedy School lecturer. Before he came to Boston, Stuart, who is white, spent a decade working in black communities in Chicago. It was there that he learned a useful lesson: If you want to improve race relations, “don’t go around simply saying you’re not racist.”