Getty Images Adam Jones

Orioles outfielder Adam Jones did not arrive in Boston this week with the intention of becoming a civil rights activist. But when he revealed that a fan had shouted racial slurs at him Monday night at Fenway Park, the reaction was swift and emphatic in support of him. The event was condemned with the league, teams, fellow players, fans, media and others coming to Jones' side.

If this leads to greater civility from fans attending games, history shows that such progress should have a ripple effect outside the ballpark.

Consider the intense recruiting battle between Ohio State and Michigan in 1933. It wasn't for a football player. It was track star Jesse Owens. Big Ten schools didn't give track and field scholarships at the time, but Ohio State found a way to court Owens by promising him a part-time job as a freight-elevator operator. That would help Owens could pay to live in a boarding house. African Americans were not allowed in Ohio State's one male dorm at the time.

In 1942, the Brooklyn Dodgers hired long-time St. Louis Cardinals general manager Branch Rickey for the same role. Although one of baseball's oldest teams, the Dodgers had yet to win a World Series while the neighboring Yankees and Giants had 13 titles between them. Rickey planned to give the Dodgers a competitive advantage by signing a top player from the Negro Leagues, which he did in August 1945 with Jackie Robinson. Less than two years later, Robinson won Rookie of the Year and the Dodgers made the World Series in 1947, 1949, 1952 and 1953, finally winning in 1955. Although Rickey put together much of that team, he had by then moved on to the Pirates, where he drafted Roberto Clemente, the first Latin American MVP.

Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente were all household names before Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Washington. That isn't to say the athletes were more influential, but they showed how progress on racial matters can come sooner and more quickly in sports than other parts of society.

Adam Jones

It still isn't easy. When LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade opened the ESPYs with a powerful speech calling on athletes to use their star power to help on the issues of racism, social injustice and gun violence, there was backlash from the "stick to sports" crowd. But momentum was building. Colin Kaepernick kneeled. So did soccer star Megan Rapinoe. Gregg Popovich ripped Donald Trump on the president's second day in office. Several Patriots passed on visiting the White House.

It was Jones last September who said a Kaepernick-like protest could not happen in MLB because "baseball is a white man's sport." Jones' complaints had a similar effect in capturing headlines. But unlike Kaepernick, who earned scorn and respect for his protests during the national anthem, Jones received a standing ovation during his first at-bat Tuesday.

Jones is a five-time All-Star center fielder with four Gold Gloves and a Silver Slugger. He batted second for the United States in the World Baseball Classic Final. Fans pay money at home and on the road to see Jones play. Sponsors pay Jones to promote their products. MLB has TV and partnership deals, which revolve around Jones and his fellow stars. He has the kind of platform the NBA stars talked about at the ESPYs.

Saying "this stuff shouldn't happen in baseball" is short-sighted. This shouldn't happen, period. But let's not be naïve. Racism is not what it was a half-century ago, but it is still present. Sports can continue to be at the forefront of progress. Athletics are unique because the performance of athletes is visible, making it possible for fans and executives to determine who's good enough and who's not. If a general manager passes on a player because of race, another general manager is going to scoop that player up. Other professions may be more subjective.


Obviously players who are more productive tend to get the benefit of the doubt. In Kaepernick's case, are teams shying away because of his off-the-field "baggage?" Is race a factor? Maybe he is past his prime, but as a free agent in a league starving for competent quarterbacks, Kaepernick should be good enough to be on an NFL roster for the 2017 season. But also remember that Jay Cutler, a white Trump supporter with perhaps better football skills than Kaepernick, is also unsigned.

Jones signed a six-year, $85 million deal in 2012, which was the largest contract in Orioles' history at the time. (Chris Davis now holds that title). It'd be easy to say, for that kind of money, an athlete can deal with a fan who may have had too much to drink in Beantown. But there is a larger issue, which is why he deserves applause for talking about it. As Red Sox owner John Henry told Jones, "No, it shouldn't go with the territory."

MLB and other leagues could consider ways to penalize teams (suspensions, fines, salary-cap restrictions, etc.) for fans spewing hate rhetoric in the future. The fan who taunted Jones could get a lifetime ban, considering the Red Sox instituted one on a different fan Wednesday night. It's a bold strategy that would make patrons responsible for their actions.

"Stick to sports" is pretty hard to do when political and social issues aren't sticking to themselves.

-- Follow Jeff Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband. Like Jeff Eisenband on Facebook.

Story continues below