Harvard helps teach Justin Morrow how to take Black Players For Change around the world


When a professional athlete retires, it’s not uncommon to see them gravitate toward a few select careers. Some go into coaching, others work in the media and there are those who become agents.

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


To be clear, Morrow still works in youth development with TFC, but he’s also been engaged for six months on a two-year fellowship through the Global Sports Initiative at Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. It focuses on athlete activism as it relates to the fight against racial discrimination, and it’s an area Morrow is already familiar with.

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

Now, Morrow wants to take the lessons learned by the BPC and other advocacy groups to apply them globally.

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“It’s kind of like doubling all my past efforts,” Morrow told ESPN. “I wanted to understand the problem in more depth. I wanted to understand how athletes can come together to solve problems. I’m trying to understand: where can we focus our efforts? What can we do to make this a little more efficient ?”

Even before his work with the BPC, Morrow was driven to engage with social justice issues. He grew up in a biracial family in Cleveland, a racially divided city, and as a child he recalled facing microaggressions and hearing racially related slurs. Later, while winning state championships at St. Ignatius High School, he received a death threat. Morrow called it “a great moment in my life”. On the one hand, so many aspects of his life have been shattered, from football to supporting his family to his commitment to the University of Notre Dame. But he realized that not everyone would have the same level of support as him.

“I realized then that it was a very real thing,” he said of the threat he endured. “And so I just decided from there that if I had the platform to be a professional athlete, which I had already intended to work on, I would plead in earnest, and then it went. continued to grow over the years.”

The genesis of the fellowship was in the summer of 2021. Morrow was invited to be part of a focus group run by the Weatherhead Center on behalf of Minnesota Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks, who was working on reforming the criminal justice. 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 s focused on black wealth and the impact of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Steve Ortega, the program coordinator for the Global Sports Initiative, then began talking with Morrow about what a scholarship might look like. .

“In academia, there are studies on the sociology and anthropology of sport in the United States, but there are many more in Europe,” Ortega said. “They have specifically defined design departments. And so we realized that sports in society, it’s such an amazing lens on how to think about different social issues. In a sense, we kind of live in the ‘after-[Colin] Kaepernick’s world too, right? Where people are really interested in trying to figure out what sports activism means.”

Morrow has a group of four educational advisers, including Professor Marshall Ganz, who has worked in the civil rights movement in Mississippi as well as 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, the head of the Race and Equity Center at USC, as well as Chelsea Heyward, adjunct professor of American sport and culture at Long Beach State University.

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

“I wasn’t taught that in high school,” Morrow said. “I know it sounds crazy, but to understand the milestones of the civil rights movement, how they achieved desegregation, I didn’t know any of that stuff. And so I read a lot about the history as well. It was much of the early setup to do my research.”

Morrow added that the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott, which grew out of Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger and was one of many events that sparked the civil rights movement, provided a wealth of knowledge.

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

The fact that Morrow comes from a football background has its pros and cons when it comes to achieving his research goals. Football’s global reach has made it easy to connect with players and administrators around the world, which should make it easier to build momentum on any given issue.

But football has had its own issues with racism and a negative view of athlete activism. One only has to look at Marcus Rashford’s experience to realize that the philosophy of “shut up and play” and “stick to the sport” remains strong around the world. While the Manchester United striker has been praised for his work in tackling child hunger, at one point then-manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer told him to ‘prioritize his football’ after recovering from shoulder surgery. Morrow notes that these pressures can manifest in private as well as in public.

“Once you’ve gone so far as to push on those issues, maybe the referral dollars kick in,” Morrow said. “Am I going to lose my sponsorships? Am I facing more public backlash than I already face in addition to being an athlete? So I think that’s the challenge we face, from do it one way or another.”

So how to overcome this? Morrow said it was about reaching critical mass.

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

But Morrow has made it clear that he doesn’t want to fly blind when it comes to what plans to make. To that end, he intends to deliver a survey to players in September. Once complete, this data will help make decisions about where and how to engage. The hope is that it will provide insight into how to involve a larger cross-section of athletes from multiple sports.

“A lot of leagues have started social justice coalitions where they have more active players now,” Morrow said. “But there’s no cross-coordination between the leagues themselves, not a lot of close coordination between the players. And so understanding from the players’ perspective, what they think works and what doesn’t. , will also be a big step forward.”

Morrow thinks big. While he spoke well of local efforts to address certain issues, his goal is to have an impact on a broader level.

“The education, the care structure, all of those structures are already oppressive in some way,” he said. “And so if you’re supporting people at the grassroots level, you’re not changing anything at the systemic level. You’re just helping people down there, and then that support disappears when you stop helping them. And you really haven’t changed anything, you you’ve just helped some people and made an impact in some people’s lives. But when you’re talking about a lasting impact that happens over generations, what can we do on that level?”

Recent events have created even more urgency for Morrow, whether it’s the mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, or the backlash to social justice efforts unfolding in education, but key is to ensure a constant presence when events occur. .

“Yeah, 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. And you can’t just show up when bad things happen. And that doesn’t mean there isn’t. no leagues, teams, players working on this problem all year I think what we have to do best is to fall back on the people who do the work.

Morrow added that the fate of WNBA star Brittney Griner, who the US government says remains “wrongfully detained” in Russia for drug trafficking, is an example of how athletes can work together to attract attention. attention to one issue, the Boston Celtics wearing “We Are BG” shirts to help the WNBA and WNBA Players Association amp up Griner’s detention.

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