SBJ/May 15-21, 2017/Opinion

Red Sox’s swift reaction smart, welcome but tricky

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We talk about the fan experience. The “fan experience” at its root was evident earlier this month at Fenway Park. When Adam Jones of the Baltimore Orioles went public that a fan at the game used racial slurs toward him, it spoke to the heart of the fan experience. Too often it’s about Wi-Fi connectivity, concessions and parking. Sure, those are all major components. But the fan experience is truly about safety and comfort, the opportunity to have a great time with friends and family. Boorish behavior is too often tolerated as part of the experience, and when Jones went public, he started a discussion about those elements that are too frequent at games.

People say, “Well, it’s Boston. That happens there.” And it does. I still remember a game in 1978, where my father took me, my sister and a friend to Fenway. We sat in the bleachers, and it was the perfect storm: A hot summer Saturday, a close pennant race with a choking team, and a doubleheader. It wasn’t an enjoyable experience. So, yes, unpleasant experiences happen in Boston — but they can happen in New York, Philadelphia and L.A.

I give the Boston Red Sox ownership and Sam Kennedy credit for how strongly they dealt with the Jones situation. Kennedy immediately went on talk radio and local TV, he was angry and clear — such behavior would not be tolerated. There was no questioning Jones’ credibility or doubting what he heard or felt. The Red Sox engaged with both MLB and the Orioles, they were visible, accessible and didn’t send out PR people to speak off the record. As one top sports executive told me, “I don’t know how you could have handled it any better.”

The fact that Kennedy was so angry and forthright about the issue shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows him. He grew up in the shadows of Fenway and has done so much to market the baseball experience to parents and children that he potentially saw years of hard work destroyed over a few short days. He noted that fans could help, and a day later, the Red Sox announced they revoked the rights of a fan who had allegedly used a racial slur toward the anthem singer after being tipped off by a fan. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said the league would review policies of every team to make sure players and fans feel they are in a nonthreatening environment. This is all welcome. But it’s also tricky territory. Kennedy admitted the team had little recourse to enforce a ban. And these actions walk a fine line of what is acceptable and freedom of expression.

Everyone knows there are lines that shouldn’t be crossed, but those lines move, and elements can be judged differently. I bet the comments one might hear at a baseball game, a football game, a UFC bout, a boxing match or a motorsports race would differ. There are such polarizing perceptions of each “other” — driven by fear or hate or prejudice. Most sports have elements in the underbelly of their fan base who cannot accept the fact that the “other” occupies the same venue that they do. This puts a difficult onus on teams and leagues as enforcers. Difficult yes, but welcome and needed.

The incident in Boston — and the swift reaction — will elevate the conversation across the country and across sports. The Red Sox’s resolute reaction was noble, but policies are difficult to mandate and enforce going forward. Hate is prevalent in our society, and sports can serve as agents of change. The fan experience shouldn’t be impeded by racism, threatening language or ignorance. We all know what defines racism and likely hate speech, but what defines threatening language or ignorance? I wish the rulebook for doing the right thing was unequivocal. Unfortunately, it’s not.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com
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