Since the killing of George Floyd six months ago, almost every American sport has undergone an intense racial self-examination. Add another to the list: The New York City Marathon.
A New York Times story detailed what’s been one of the worst kept secrets in the marathon world. The New York Road Runners, organizers of the marathon, have long ignored Black and brown people, the protestations of Black and brown people, and pleas to diversify its ranks.
This will all seem familiar because these discussions happened in other sports, from the NBA to the NFL, to hockey and baseball, to auto racing. But the most significant marathon in the world wasn't prominent during the primordial stages of the post-Floyd world. Certainly not the way football and basketball were (and are). There’s no distance running version of Colin Kaepernick or LeBron James. Right wing talk show hosts didn't say “shut up and run.”
Runners participate in the 2018 New York City Marathon. (Photo: Derik Hamilton, USA TODAY Sports)
Still, the marathon is one of the beating hearts of American sporting life, with approximately 50,000 participants running every year, attracting the best marathoners in the world (many of whom are from Africa). For decades it’s scampered along, ignoring pleas to diversify its ranks, and pay more attention to runners and athletes in neighborhoods of color throughout New York.
It was OK to run through those neighborhoods. But stop and look around and listen? Nah. Just keep running.
The Road Runners largely ignored the issue of race because they could.
That's finally stopped. The chief executive of the Road Runners, Michael Capiraso, is leaving at the end of the year, the Times reported, following questions about the group’s commitment to diversity and years of ignoring rank acts of racism. Capiraso leaving is the marathon equivalent of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell saying “Black Lives Matter” on a pre-recorded video following Floyd’s death.
One of the biggest questions constantly asked is how long, and how far, would the changes pushed by Floyd’s death last? Would leagues wait until people forgot about Floyd and go back to ignoring social justice issues?
The answer is complex, but mostly, the changes seem sincere, broad and powerful. What’s mostly happened is leagues that made promises to change kept them, and the others that were in the background watching, are now taking actions themselves.
Capiraso discovered that leagues, and leaders, ignore these issues at their own peril.
The Road Runners started its self-examination after Floyd’s death, and that look intensified after current and former employees posted a highly critical letter on social media in August. The Road Runners recently hired a diversity officer.
The Times notes that following Capiraso's departure, some current and former employees spoke about the culture of the Road Runners. One woman, Frances Alvarado, said she left last year after being called an “educated Puerto Rican woman” several different times. Alvarado also said she was ridiculed for speaking Spanish.
Distance running, and even just jogging, have long presented some interesting dynamics for people of color. Jogging has long been marketed as something that isn't for Black people. If you run, and you're Black, you have to be careful about what neighborhoods you go through. You debate about if you should run only in the daylight. You may have heard about Driving While Black but Running While Black is also a thing.
This was terrifyingly obvious with the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, the Black jogger shot in Georgia in February.
The problems with the New York Marathon represent a symptom of a larger issue in the running world. Or maybe, like so many other things, what's happened in sports is a bigger symptom of what's happening in the country.
The marathon, like other sports, has finally started to listen.
Better late than never.
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