Red Sox CEO and president Sam Kennedy outlines the Take the Lead initiative
Boston’s pro sports teams are banding together to end racism at their venues
The Red Sox will be the first of the five professional sports teams in the Boston area to unveil their new public service announcement with athletes imploring fans to take a stand against racism and hate speech at Fenway Park on Sept. 28. There also will be panel discussions before the game against the Houston Astros.
When chairman Tom Werner and owner John Henry took over the team in 2002 from the Yawkey Trust, Werner and Henry publicly acknowledged that the team was the last to integrate baseball. Henry said the organization was going to work hard to make Fenway as inclusive and accepting as possible.
Fifteen years later, Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones was subjected to a bag of peanuts and racial slurs being hurled at him on May 1, and the following day a white father watching with his biracial son and African-American father-in-law was within earshot of a fan saying the Kenyan artist singing the national anthem was “n—–ing it up.”
Red Sox CEO and president Sam Kennedy began working on a plan to address racism at the ballpark, and it ultimately bloomed into all five professional teams — Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins, Patriots and Revolution — and Boston leaders meeting to map out how they could begin to remedy racism at Boston sports venues.
Kennedy sees the Take the Lead initiative as an opportunity for the organization to live up to the promises made in 2002. He spoke to The Undefeated about how Take the Lead came to be, what he hopes it achieves and how he hopes players understand the power they have and use their clout to speak up about the issues that affect and matter to them.
What is the backstory on the Take the Lead initiative?
We were all extremely disappointed and saddened by the incident with Adam Jones back in early May, and then there was a follow-up incident the following day. It really created a series of conversations internally amongst us in management and employees, community stakeholders and leaders. I have to give credit to our mayor, Martin J. Walsh, who has been holding race dialogues in the city of Boston; Tanisha Sullivan, who runs the Boston chapter of the NAACP; and [state Sen.] Linda Dorcena Forry of Dorchester. In conversations with the three of them, we thought that it would be great to have a convening and do it with all of the other professional sports teams in Boston. That’s how this event came up. We’ve created a public service announcement that we’re going to run at Fenway Park, TD Garden, Gillette Stadium and all the venues where the professional sports teams play. At the Take the Lead event, we’re going to have a couple panel discussions about race in Boston and sports and namely how people can take the lead in standing up to hate speech.
What was your immediate reaction when you were first made aware of what happened to Adam Jones?
I was super saddened to think that in 2017, these things still happen. I think you quickly recognize and realize that these things unfortunately happen all over the United States — and all over the world, as a matter of fact. My first instinct was to reach out to Adam. I have a great deal of respect for him as a player, so we wanted to reach out together with ownership. We went to go visit him the next afternoon at Fenway. We also went down to discuss with our own players our concern for what had happened. Little did we know another incident would take place later that same day, which was just very unfortunate. To give you a short answer to your question, it was to reach out to Adam and the Baltimore Orioles to express our disappointment that it happened and to apologize just because we felt no one should have to go through that.
Outside of PSAs and panels, how else do you all plan to tackle racism at your venues? It’s one that’s persisted for a very long time.
I think we’re realistic and recognize that members of the professional sport community in one city, we may not change the world. But I think it’s really important that those of us in leadership positions, those of us who are blessed to work in the sports community, we have an opportunity and an obligation to address these issues and do our part. So it really starts with having a conversation and talking about these issues openly and honestly with our employees and with our stakeholders in the community. We’ll be vigilant in terms of our code of conduct and policies and procedures at the ballpark. But I’m really proud of organization, our ownership group and our players, who are specifically participating in this PSA.
What players from the Red Sox will be participating in the PSA and Take the Lead initiative?
That’s the one thing we’re keeping confidential until we unveil it. I’m sorry I’m not able to share that with you; we’re trying to hold something for the big day. One of the things we want is for our athletes to feel comfortable to the extent that they want to take the lead with this initiative, and we’ll be there to support them through social media or other avenues and just continue the conversation. I think the denial that racism exists can be a problem. I think acknowledging it and recognizing that it’s a pervasive negative force in our society is a big part of the battle.
For the fans and people in Boston who would say you need to leave these things alone and stick to sports, what would you say to them to get them on board?
[Former MLB] commissioner Bud Selig said it once, and he said it a thousand times, that baseball is a social institution. It’s woven into the fabric of our society, and we are very, very fortunate to be a part of baseball and we have to recognize that we are teams and organizations made up of people. These are issues that face people, and these are high-profile organizations and high profile-athletes, and I think athletes and people in management have the opportunity to demonstrate leadership in different areas. But we also do respect and acknowledge, for the most part, that baseball teams, sports teams, have fans who share a number of different political views, and you have to be mindful of that as well. But something as important as this that affects our players and affects our employees and affects our fans, we need to step up.
Do you hope baseball players begin to open up and speak out about the things that matter to them socially?
Yes. Players have their own views. I’ve found with our players, maybe if they’re not doing it as much publicly as other players in other leagues, they are certainly doing it privately. We’ve had some very powerful private conversations with members of our front office and members of the planning staff, maybe not as high-profile as other sports. I think it’s really important that players are allowed to express themselves, express their opinions and their views, and hopefully can serve as role models for kids because they are in an elevated position. We encourage our players to be very active in the community, examples and role models.
What has shaped your understanding of how racism works, and that outside of your lived experiences, there are others who experience life in a very different manner?
I think growing up in a house with the parents that I have. My parents are my role models and mentors. I feel fortunate that I grew up in a house where tolerance and acceptance was preached and discussed in the area where I grew up [Brookline, Massachusetts]. It was a topic of conversation around my house. I went to a big public high school, and one of the things I was always really proud of and liked was the diversity in my class each and every year. It was really something that I appreciated. I played on a lot of different sports teams, and we were always better when we had people of all walks of life contributing. I think it’s a lot of your background and how you were brought up.
Can you explain why diversity is good to have in an organization?
I think diverse and collective wisdom always proves to win the day when you’re making decisions within management of any company, institution or sports team. We’re big — John Henry and Tom Werner — believers in collective wisdom and taking ideas from people with a whole different set of experiences. Baseball is a team game, and you need people that bring different perspectives on and off the field.
What made you all comfortable, ultimately, moving forward with the renaming of Yawkey Way [named after former owner Thomas Yawkey, who fought against integrating the Red Sox]?
John Henry sent a bold, powerful message that he was for the Red Sox petitioning for a change. It was something that we’ve discussed for many years on and off. The process is underway. I think it’s a reflection of John’s and Tom’s commitment to ensuring we’re making sure our fans and employees feel that Fenway is as inclusive and tolerant an environment as possible.