Harvard is helping teach Justin Morrow how to take Black Players For Change worldwide

When a professional athlete retires, it’s not uncommon for them to be attracted to a few careers. Some go into coaching, others work in the media, and still others become agents.

Former Toronto FC defender Justin Morrow is taking a different approach. He goes to Harvard.

To be clear, Morrow is still working in youth development with TFC, but he’s also six months on a two-year fellowship through the Global Sports Initiative at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard. His focus is on athlete activism to combat racial discrimination, and it’s an area Morrow is already familiar with.

Following the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, Morrow was among the driving forces behind the formation of Black Players For Change, a collective of more than 170 players, coaches and staff within MLS that has sought to address issues of systemic racial inequality in the league to tackle . He also served as the organization’s first executive director, and it was partly through the efforts of the BPC that MLS revised its diversity hiring policy.

Now Morrow wants to use the lessons learned from the BPC and other stakeholders to apply them on a global scale.

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“It’s like I’m doubling down on everything I’ve done so far,” Morrow told ESPN. “I wanted to understand the problem more deeply. I wanted to understand how athletes can come together to solve problems. I’m trying to figure out: What can we focus on? What can we do to make this a little more efficient?”

Prior to joining the BPC, Morrow was involved in social justice issues. Growing up in a multiracial household in Cleveland, a racially divided city, he recalled facing microaggression and hearing racial-related insults growing up. Later, while winning state championships at St. Ignatius High School, he received a death threat. Morrow called it “a big moment in my life.” On the one hand, so many aspects of his life paved the way for him, from football to the support of his family to his involvement with the University of Notre Dame. But he realized that not everyone would have the same level of support as he did.

“I realized in that moment that this was a very real thing,” he said of the threat he had to endure. “And so I just decided from there that if I had the platform to be a professional athlete, which I was already working toward, I would argue forever, and then it just kept growing over the years.”

The genesis for the scholarship took place in the summer of 2021. Morrow was invited to be part of a focus group led by the Weatherhead Center on behalf of Minnesota Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks who worked on criminal justice reform. Morrow was then invited to campus to learn about other projects the center had undertaken in the past, including that of recently retired New Orleans Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins, whose work focuses on black wealth and the impact of the massacre of the Tulsa breed in 1921. Steve Ortega, the Global Sports Initiative program coordinator, then began discussing with Morrow what a scholarship might look like.

“In academia, there is some exercise sociology and anthropology studies in the US, but there is a lot more in Europe,” Ortega said. “They specifically defined design departments. And that’s how we realized that sport in society is such an incredible lens for how to think about different social issues. In a way we live in the post[Colin] Kaepernick world too, right? Where people are genuinely interested in understanding what sports activism means.”

Morrow has a group of four faculty advisors, including Professor Marshall Ganz, who has worked in the Mississippi civil rights movement and the United Farm Workers. Cornell Brooks, former head of the NAACP and like Ganz a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, is another. The group also includes Shaun Harper, director of USC’s Race and Equity Center, and Chelsea Heyward, associate professor of physical education and US culture at Long Beach State University.

According to Morrow, so far the advisory group is providing advice on how to approach the research. Given that Morrow was a finance major at Notre Dame, this is new territory for him. He also delves deeper into the history of athlete activism and the civil rights movement, which he admitted he knew little about.

“I wasn’t taught that in high school,” Morrow said. “I know this sounds crazy, but to understand the milestones of the civil rights movement, how they achieved desegregation, I didn’t know about any of these things. And that’s why I read a lot about history. That was a big part of the initial setup of my research.”

Morrow added that the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56, which arose from Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat for a white passenger and was one of several events that sparked the civil rights movement, created a deep well of knowledge.

“[The boycott] is a great example of history that I think a lot of sports activists don’t know,” he said. “How strategic they were, what buttons they pushed and how they built their constituency; There are many lessons there, and those are the lessons I’m trying to bring to the fore.”

Morrow’s football background has its pros and cons when it comes to achieving his research goals. Football’s global reach has made it easier to connect with players and admins from around the world, which should make it easier to generate momentum on a specific topic.

But football had its own problems with racism and a poor view of sporting activism. One only needs to look at Marcus Rashford’s experience to see that the ‘shut up and play’ and ‘stick to the sport’ ethos are strong around the world. While the Manchester United striker was praised for his work tackling childhood hunger, then-manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer once told him to “put his football first” following his recovery from shoulder surgery. Morrow notes that this pressure can be both private and public.

“Once you go as far as pushing these issues, maybe sponsorship money will come into play,” Morrow said. “Will I lose my sponsorships? Do I face more public backlash that I already face in addition to being an athlete? I think that’s the challenge we face, to do it in some kind of public way.”

So how do you overcome that? Morrow said it’s about reaching critical mass.

“Strength in numbers, leadership too,” he said. “You know that people take responsibility and know what it means and what it takes and model it and then you can get others to follow you.”

But Morrow made it clear that he doesn’t want to fly blindly about his plans. To this end, he intends to conduct a survey among players in September. Once ready, this data will help inform decisions about where and how to engage. The hope is that it will provide insight into how to engage a larger cross-section of athletes across multiple sports.

“A lot of leagues have formed social justice coalitions where they now have more active players,” Morrow said. “But there’s no overarching coordination between the leagues themselves, not much close coordination between players. And so it will also be a big step to understand from the player’s point of view what they think works and what doesn’t work.”

Tomorrow think big. While he spoke well of grassroots efforts to address specific issues, his goal is to make an impact on a broader scale.

“Education, care structures, all of these structures are already oppressive in some ways,” he said. “And so when you’re supporting people at the grassroots level, you’re not really changing anything at the systemic level. You only help the people at the bottom, and that help disappears when you stop helping them. And you really didn’t change anything, you just helped some people and impacted some people’s lives. But when you’re talking about lasting impacts that happen across generations, what can we do at that level?

Recent events have created even more urgency for Morrow, whether it be the mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, or the backlash to social justice efforts unfolding in education, but the key is having a consistent one To provide presence when events occur.

“Yes, it’s important to be responsive and always let people know where you stand on these things,” he said. “But if you’re really there for the fight, you have to be there for the fight all year round. And you can’t just show up when bad things happen. And that doesn’t mean that there aren’t leagues, teams, players working on this theme throughout the year. I think what we need to do better is rely on the people who are doing the work.

Morrow added that the plight of WNBA star Brittney Griner, who the US government says remains “wrongly jailed” on drug-related charges in Russia, is an example of how athletes can work together to raise awareness of an issue , with the Boston Celtics “We Sind BG” jerseys to help the WNBA and WNBA Players Association reinforce Griner’s incarceration.

“It’s a good example of a coordinated effort between athletes and leagues and what we need to evaluate is: is this the most impactful thing we can do to help her?” Only time will tell, but we have to try. “

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