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When a professional athlete retires, it’s not unusual 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’s going to Harvard.
To be clear, Morrow is still working in youth development with TFC, but he is also six months into a two-year fellowship via the Global Sports Initiative at Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. His focus is on athlete activism as it pertains to combatting racial discrimination, and it’s an area in which Morrow is already familiar.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, Morrow was among the driving forces in forming 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. He also served as the organization’s first executive director, and it was partially through the efforts of the BPC that MLS overhauled its diversity hiring policy.
Now Morrow wants to take the lessons learned by the BPC and other advocacy groups in order to apply them on a global scale.
“It’s kind of like doubling down on all of my past efforts,” Morrow told ESPN. “I wanted to understand the issue deeper. I wanted to understand how athletes can come together to solve problems. I’m trying to figure out: Where can we focus effort? What can we do to make this a little more efficient?”
Even prior to his work with the BPC, Morrow was driven to engage on social justice issues. He grew up in a biracial household in Cleveland, a racially divided city, and during his childhood he recalled facing microaggressions and hearing slurs related to race. Later, amid 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, he had so many aspects of his life breaking his way, from soccer to the backing of his family to his commitment to the University of Notre Dame. But he realized not everyone would have the same level of support he did.
“I realized at that moment that this 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 of being a professional athlete, which was something that I had already had my mindset on working towards, I would argue for good, and then it just continued to grow over the years.”
The genesis for the fellowship took place 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 criminal justice reform. Morrow was then invited to campus to learn about other projects the center had taken on in the past, including that of recently retired New Orleans Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins, whose work focused on Black wealth and the impact of the Tulsa race massacre in 1921. Steve Ortega, the program coordinator for the Global Sports Initiative, then began discussing with Morrow what a fellowship might look like.
“In academia, there is some study of sports sociology and anthropology in the U.S., but there’s much more in Europe,” Ortega said. “They have specifically defined design departments. And so we realized that sports in society, it’s such an incredible lens on how to think about different social issues. In a sense, we’re kind of living in the post-[Colin] Kaepernick world as well, right? Where people are really interested in trying to understand what sports activism means.”
Morrow has a group of four faculty advisors including professor Marshall Ganz, who worked in the civil rights movement in Mississippi as well as the United Farm Workers. Cornell Brooks, a former head of the NAACP, and like Ganz, a professor in Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, is another. The group also includes Shaun Harper, the head of USC’s Race and Equity Center, as well as Chelsea Heyward, an adjunct professor of Sport and U.S. Culture at Long Beach State University.
Morrow says the advisory group is so far giving advice on how to tackle the research. Given that Morrow was a finance major at Notre Dame, this is new territory for him. He’s also delving deeper into the history of athlete activism and the civil rights movement, the latter of which he admitted he knew little about.
“I wasn’t taught that in high school,” Morrow said. “I know that sounds crazy, but to understand the milestones of the civil rights movement, how they achieved desegregation, I didn’t know about any of those things. And so I’ve been doing a lot of reading on history as well. That’s been a big part of the setup of the beginning to do my research.”
Morrow added that the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56, which grew out of Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger and was one of several events that sparked the civil rights movement, has provided a deep well of knowledge.
“[The boycott] is a great example of history that I think a lot of athlete activists don’t know,” he said. “How strategic they were, what buttons they pushed and how they built their constituency; there’s a lot of lessons there, and those are the lessons that I’m trying to bring to the forefront.”
That Morrow comes from a soccer background has its advantages and disadvantages when it comes to achieving the goals of his research. Soccer’s global reach has made it easier to connect with players and administrators from across the globe, which ought to make it easier to generate momentum on a given issue.
But soccer has had its own issues with racism and casting a dim view toward athlete activism. One only has to look at the experience of Marcus Rashford to realize that the “shut up and play” and “stick to sports” ethos remain strong throughout the world. While the Manchester United forward was lauded for his work in tackling childhood hunger, at one point he was told by then-manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to “prioritize his football” upon his recovery from shoulder surgery. Morrow notes that these pressures can play out in private as well as in public.
“Once you go so far as to push on those issues, maybe sponsorship dollars come into effect,” Morrow said. “Am I gonna lose my sponsorships? Am I facing more public backlash that I’m already facing on top of being an athlete? So I think that’s the challenge that we face, to do it in some type of public fashion.”
So how does one overcome that? Morrow said that it’s a matter of achieving critical mass.
“Strength in numbers, also leadership,” he said. “You know, having people accept responsibility and in knowing what it means and what it takes and modeling it, and then you can get others to follow.”
But Morrow made it clear he doesn’t want to be flying blind in terms of what plans to make. To that end, he intends to deliver a survey to players in September. Once completed, that data will help drive decisions on where and how to engage. The hope is that it will provide some insight as to how to involve a greater cross section of athletes from multiple sports.
“A lot of leagues have started social justice coalitions where they have players more active now,” Morrow said. “But there’s not any cross coordination between the leagues themselves, not much close coordination between the players. And so understanding from the player standpoint, what they think is working and what’s not working, will be a big step too.”
Morrow is thinking big. While he spoke well of grassroots efforts to address certain issues, his aim is to have an impact on a broader level.
“Education, structure of care, any of these structures are already oppressive in some type of ways,” he said. “And so if you’re supporting people at the grassroots level, you’re not really changing anything at the systemic level. You’re just helping the people at the bottom, and then that help goes away when you stop helping them. And you really haven’t changed anything, you’ve just helped some people and made an impact in some people’s lives. But when you’re talking about lasting impact that happens over generations, what can we be doing at that level?”
Recent events have created even more urgency for Morrow, be it the mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, or the backlash to social justice efforts playing out in education, but the key is to provide a consistent presence when events arise.
“Yes, it is important to react and always let people know where you stand on these things,” he said. “But if you’re truly there for the fight, you have to be there for the fight year-round. And you can’t just show up when bad things happen. And that’s not to say there aren’t leagues, teams, players working on that issue year-round. I think what we have to do a better job of is falling back on those people that are doing the work.”
Morrow added that the plight of WNBA star Brittney Griner, who according to the U.S. government remains “wrongfully detained” in Russia on drug charges, is one example of how athletes can collaborate to call attention to an issue, with the Boston Celtics wearing “We Are BG” shirts to help the WNBA and the WNBA Players Association amplify Griner’s detention.
“It’s a good example of a coordinated effort among athletes and leagues, and what we have to assess is: Is this the most impactful thing that we can do to help her? Only time will really tell that but we have to make that effort.”