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Why Do Progressive Athletes Still Get All the Crap for Speaking Out?

Longtime Celtic and outspoken political firebrand Bill Russell is being honored with a statue, but professional sports still have a long way to progress politically.

Bill Russell, the greatest Boston Celtic ever and arguably the NBA’s single most dominant player, probably didn’t want a statue. I don’t know that for sure, and even Russell—uncompromising and outspoken in the public eye, reclusive and cranky since—has his soft spots. When President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom this past fall, the 77-year-old giant made it clear that he wasn’t owed this honor. It was validation, recognition, that his struggles off the court had not been in vain.

With the exception of Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown, no athlete of the turbulent '60s more readily shared his opinions on race relations, the war in Vietnam, and the culture of sports, than Russell. And while Ali waxed poetic, and Brown talked tough, Russell was the era’s jock-intellectual. Russell was as restless as he was passionate, and part of what made fans so uneasy—including those in Boston—was just how hard it was to anticipate Russell’s next move. This was true on the court, and certainly, both during his career and in the years immediately following, defined him off of it. Nor did Russell share Ali or Brown’s penchant for the spotlight. Much of his most important work for civil rights was conducted without mainstream visibility. Speaking out is one thing; backing it up is, by comparison, thankless, or at least a far different, and less glamorous, job than inflaming the mainstream press.

But the fact remains that, if Boston was going to honor the likes of Bobby Orr, Ted Williams, and Russell’s coach Red Auerbach with statues, it was only right that Russell be granted one, too. It’s not a question of what Russell himself wanted or craved, or even what form of public recognition best matched his legacy. This question, posed first by Paul Flannery in Boston Magazine back in November, was a matter of justice (in that Greek sense we all learned back in college). Neither Orr nor Williams brought as many championships to the city, or looms as large in his sport as Russell.

During Russell’s playing days, the city eventually came to ignore his complexities. He was a good soldier on the court, albeit one whose talent was off the charts, and he didn’t make a spectacle of himself when it came to voicing his opinions or revealing his political leanings. But Russell’s best years were stung by Boston’s racial tensions, which lasted well into the '70s. The Celtics, however successful they were, remained the city’s third-most popular team—due in part to the racial milestones they broke during this period. The Celtics were the first to draft a black player (Chuck Cooper, 1950); the first to field an all-black starting line-up (1964); and in Russell’s last years, the first to have a black head coach (he won titles in 1968 and 1969). Russell called Boston “a flea market of racism” in his 1979 memoir Second Wind, but by that point, the relationship between that city and its championship magnate had already gone into deep freeze.

Plenty of folks in Boston probably could care less about Russell getting honored in the same way as Orr and Williams. Sure, great Beantown athletes. Those who still harbor some ill will against Russell probably wouldn’t outright object to it. Conveniently, Russell’s distance from the city and the team, which has only recently been resolved, as well as the seeming pettiness of denying the man a statue, provide cover for those who still might not like Russell. The point, though, is that if public monuments were a given for Williams and Orr, then Russell receiving any treatment but this stands out as unfair. Russell may be a very different kind of athlete, but with this kind of rote remembrance, Boston simply could not rationalize not treating him like his peers.