Amid escalating racial tension across the nation, Red Sox principal owner John Henry advocated for the renaming of Yawkey Way—the well-known Boston street outside Fenway Park named after former team owner Tom Yawkey.
While Yawkey was at the helm, the Red Sox were the last team in Major League Baseball to integrate. The team passed on the opportunity to sign Jackie Robinson two years before he joined the Dodgers and became the first African-American to play in the MLB, and then chose not to sign Willie Mays only a few years later. Though Red Sox and city officials recognize the good work being done in the name of the Yawkey Foundation, to some the name still serves as a symbol of the franchise’s racially-tainted history.
Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Northeastern’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society, applauded Henry for his action, noting that sport is a particularly influential social justice platform due to its large audience.
“Sport is a ground where social statements about collective betterment need to be made, and where social movements need to have a platform,” he said.
Lebowitz noted several cases in which sport served as such a platform, from John Carlos’ Black Power salute during the 1968 Olympics to Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the National Anthem in 2016.
“In terms of being an engine for social justice and for normative culture change, sport has always been an avenue for that,” Lebowitz said. “In this case, the brand of the Red Sox and the weight of that franchise here in Boston and really in the MLB at large is incredibly important.”
Noting the history of the Red Sox and race, Lebowitz added, “John Henry is looking at all that history through the prism of the present. That’s the beauty of it. He’s making a statement about who we are as a country, about our country’s moral fiber.”
Indeed, Henry’s statements came in the wake of deadly white nationalist-led rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, and only days before tens of thousands of people took to Boston streets to protest hate and bigotry.
At the same time, a debate over the removal of statues that commemorate Confederate figures has grabbed the attention—and captured the passions—of people across the country. Those who oppose the move, including President Donald J. Trump, argue that the statues play an important part in commemorating America’s history.
Lebowitz, for his part, pointed to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to make the case for expressing history through the lens of the historically oppressed. “I don’t think that taking down a Confederate statue or renaming a street is changing history,” he said, “It’s allowing the people who have been oppressed to own that history. It’s an opportunity to express it from their eyes out. When you walk through the Holocaust Museum, you understand the history through the eyes of the people who were subject to that brutalism.”
Likewise, Lebowitz said that while renaming Yawkey Way wouldn’t serve to erase the Red Sox’s history, it would mark an important step toward social justice. “There’s a storied history to the Red Sox, but there’s a storied history of racism there, too. This is a chance to say, ‘Let’s change that,’” he said.