Adam Jones getting a standing ovation at Fenway Park on Tuesday was a moment. We love moments. Sports, after all, is a collection of them more so than games, seasons, or even careers. You remember Jordan’s jumper over Craig Ehlo like it happened 20 seconds ago, but how much of that actual game can you recall from memory? A moment can be a shorthand for an emotion or a symbol for something greater, which Colin Kaepernick understood when he sat for the playing of the national anthem. It can be more powerful than any word spoken, at least that was the hope Tuesday as the Red Sox faithful stood to shower Jones with affection the day after a single word made him national news.
The thing we often forget about moments, though, is what has led up to them. What was the score of that Bulls/Cavs game? Why was Jordan’s shot so important and why was it so devastating to Cleveland? Why is someone calling a baseball player the N-word in Fenway Park so shocking and reprehensible, so full of gravity, that CC Sabathia would say he’s never been called that in any ballpark except Fenway?
The Red Sox were the last team to integrate, adding their first black player in 1959. Sox owner Tom Yawkey famously tried out Jackie Robinson in 1945, then allowed him and two other Negro Leagues players to be subjected to racist taunts from the stands. Yawkey’s reluctance to sign African-American players would, for years, be associated with the infamous Red Sox curse, eventually lifted in one of those grand “moments” in 2004. But racial animosity persisted at Fenway. In 2013, during the ALCS, a Red Sox fan allegedly screamed “Bye, Trayvon” at a Detroit Tigers fan. (Barry Bonds also refused to play there, telling the Boston Globe that the town was “too racist for me” and that “it ain’t changing.”)
Outside of sports, Boston has a checkered history when it comes to race. In 1965, the state of Massachusetts passed legislation requiring public schools in the state to integrate. After schools in Boston defied the law for nearly a decade, the NAACP sued the Boston School Committee and won. The subsequent busing plan led to flare-ups of violence and racial tension in the mid-1970s, just as the Red Sox, still owned by Yawkey, were on the rise in the American League. In 1975, they went to the World Series but lost to the Cincinnati Reds in seven games. That season, the Sox didn’t start a single African-American position player on Opening Day, though their Cuban pitcher, Luis Tiant, had a father who played in the Negro Leagues.
In 2017, there were only 62 African-American players on Opening Day rosters in Major League Baseball. That’s essentially two African-American players per team, if you divided it equally (and rounded down).
It’s tempting to see this as a moment, a controversy that can simply be clapped away. Even Jones himself felt that the problem could be mitigated by leveling fines. But moments are brief and life goes on. We want to cast this as a symptom of Boston’s segregated culture and geography, or worse, to wave it off as the actions of a few “bad apples.” What so many of us fail to recognize is the world outside the moment, and the inequality that exists outside Boston.
It would feel nice to throw my own, metaphorical peanuts at the city of Boston. After all, here I am in the multicultural paradise of Los Angeles. Every other face you see at Dodger Stadium is brown. The Mexican community here is the heart of our sports fandom, and yet the stadium is an enduring reminder of the Chicano community that was ripped out by former Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley and the city government to make way for baseball in Chavez Ravine. Families were displaced, and a planned public housing development in the area was scrapped.
If we say that Boston is unique, we forget that school busing controversies occurred in places like Los Angeles and Las Vegas, too, and that racist chants can happen anywhere, even a high school basketball game in New Jersey in the year 2017. It’s more comforting to say either “it could never happen here” or “it could only happen there.” It’s dangerous to say that just because you’ve never personally witnessed racism, that there’s no possible way it exists. The Boston crowd cheering for Adam Jones was a hell of a moment, one that wraps a tidy bow on an ugly story—but it was just a moment. We all have to live with the rest of it.