Ahead of their Dec. 24 Inspire Change game against the Washington Commanders, the San Francisco 49ers have unveiled a new exhibit as part of the 49ers museum, one that celebrates the Bay Area’s tradition of spearheading change through sports.
“It really started to take some form a couple years ago, I think,” said 49ers’ Vice President and Senior Advisor to the General Manager, Keena Turner. “And obviously [Professor Emeritus, the University of California Berkeley, Dr. Harry Edwards] influence and involvement was critical and crucial simply because of his knowledge and perspective on it all. And so it was his idea in putting together the committee that came to be, to actually set the direction and get us started.”
The exhibit, called “The Long Game”, features five stories of sports figures in the Bay Area who faced racial, social and housing discrimination and the ways in which they sparked national movements for change:
- Willie Mays and housing discrimination in San Francisco
- Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ silent protest on the Olympic podium
- The diversification of professional sports team leadership starting with Bill Russell as the first post-segregation Black head coach of a major professional sports team
- Brandi Chastain’s historic goal that won the United States the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup in the broader context of Title IX and gender issues
- Colin Kaepernick’s iconic protest that pushed the conversation about anti-Black racism, particularly police brutality, on a global scale.
“We have to share,” said 49ers Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Christina Jefferson. “It’s part of our history, it’s part of our legacy. [Kaepernick] is part of our legacy. I don’t think I would be here if it wasn’t for the legacy of so many people like him. And so I think in order for us to tell the entire story of the 49ers, in order for us to tell the story of the Bay Area, we had to make sure that we told his story as well.”
Turner echoed this sentiment.
“…The inclusion of Kap’s story, obviously, is very personal for the organization,” Turner said. “Kap brought about a national awareness to a message. It wasn’t a new message, but it was a message that needed to continue be talked about. And he represented himself and the organization and the organization’s support for his willingness to speak out about things. It’s critically important, and obviously the organization over time has shown that they are willing to support and be out front on these efforts.”
The stories were put together by a committee of leaders in sports, culture and social justice, including: Turner, Edwards, Jefferson, 49ers alum Antoine Bethea, former Deputy Director and Chief Content Officer, Oakland Museum of California Valerie Huaco, Dr. Michael Omi from the University of California Berkeley – Ethnic Studies and Dr. Damion Thomas from the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“We’re a strong, women-fronted team and so that was one of the stories that we wanted to make sure that we could tell,” Jefferson said. “…Willie Mays’ story, how can you not tell the story? And there are so many people who just don’t know the story of his housing situation and how he really brought that into the forefront. So it was really an idea of making sure that we were talking about not only gender, but also ethnicity, and bringing some stories that maybe not everybody understands or maybe people only understand pieces of, so that we can really help to educate and inspire.”
Starting with the 2022 season, the NFL created the “Inspire Change Changemaker Award.” Each team will award a “changemaker” with a $10,000 donation from the NFL Foundation.
“It is exciting to see the league take a national position and encourage these conversations,” Turner said. “And obviously a lot of that happened very directly here at our organization over the last number of years, so I think it’s critically important. Our museum is something that was built with the idea that it would represent our past, talk about our present and set some framework for some conversations about our future. And so I think this exhibit represents that. It has come along at a fantastic time.”
The award is given to a person, or persons, who are working in the community through social justice work. The awardee will be recognized at each team’s Inspire Change home game.
“Inspire Change was already something that the NFL was doing, but what could we do to really highlight the stories of the Bay Area and how we have inspired change in sports?,” said 49ers Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Christina Jefferson. “For me, coming onto it, they were like, ‘Do you want to work on this?’ I’m like, ‘What question is that?’ It is being able to just come on and help to bring another voice into the voices that are creating this amazing story.”
The 49ers have long been at the forefront of community work and social justice reform. From the work of the 49ers Foundation to the organization’s Social Justice Grant Program, creating positive change in the Bay Area and beyond has been a priority.
“I tell people all the time that I really grew up here,” Turner said. “You think about when I got to the organization in 1980, at I don’t know, 22 years old, obviously a very special time for us as an organization and football-wise. And then to have Dr. Edwards’ influence on me as a young man, and now an adult, was kind of unique for me…Seeing the organization go through the many different experiences of success and working hard to get back there along with all of the social dynamics that have happened in our area. And having someone like Dr. Edwards who experienced a lot of it, like the Olympic Project for Human Rights, that he was critically involved in the ’68 Olympics…To have those kinds of conversations has been really, really fascinating.”
The exhibit opens to the public on December 23 and will be open on December 24 from 10:05 am to 12:50 pm before the game. You can learn more about the exhibit and the stories it tells here.