On Jan. 9, when the Philadelphia 76ers play the Denver Nuggets, they’ll be wearing for the first time their new city edition uniform –with the white lights of Boathouse Row standing out against a black background.
Selecting Boathouse Row to represent the 76ers might seem an obvious choice. It is, after all, the most photographed site in Philadelphia. And All-Star player/designer Ben Simmons, along with 76ers president, Chris Heck, pointed to the idea of honoring the city’s history in the team’s first black shirt in over a decade.
But some see the jerseys as an opportunity to possibly help bring more diversity to a place that is often stereotyped as elitist. From the perspective of economic diversity, that image has been wrong for more than a century when more working class rowers took to the sport (most notably bricklayer John B. Kelly Sr., who in 1920 became the world’s greatest sculler.)
Racial diversity remains a challenge.
Marqus Brown, 26, who is training on Boathouse Row for a spot on the national rowing team, says the Sixers sought out a Black rower for the video that touts their new jersey.
Brown was excited to oblige, in part because he feels it’s important for city kids to see a role model –someone who looks like themselves– on the Schuylkill River. Brown himself began rowing just before 9th grade through a Fairmount Park learn-to-row program. He later captained the La Salle University crew. He says that his “younger self, seeing that ’76ers video with a Black rower in it, would have loved it.” Now, as a coach for Philadelphia high school students through the non-profit Philadelphia City Rowing as well as Boys Latin, Brown tries to show kids of color that there’s a place for them on the river. And one way to do it is to be present on the river as he is six days a week, training. “From I-76 and Kelly Drive, you can see the river easily and a Black rower stands out there. I want to make sure I’m seen.”
While a handful of Black rowers have long been members of the clubs of Boathouse Row, including John Izzard (whose story I previously reported), the Row is trying to do better.
“Many clubs have started internal diversity committees,” said Bonnie Mueller, vice-commodore of the Schuylkill Navy, which is made up of the clubs of the Row.
And the Schuylkill Navy is working with a Community Access and Advisory Board for the Schuylkill River, funded by the William Penn Foundation, to find ways to engage nearby residents in the life of the river.
“The 76ers have a powerful microphone to amplify the message, especially to under-represented populuations in the city,” Mueller said.
Marqus Brown, who finished first in the world indoor rowing competition last year, known as the C.R.A.S.H. -B., says he feels comfortable as a Black rower in a largely white sport and as the only Black among about a dozen men in the high performance group training at the Penn Athletic Club Rowing Association. Indeed, he has seen it as a refuge. “Rowing is a sanctuary, to get away from everything,” he said, referring to the chaos of the past year, including the protests and looting the city experienced. At practice, Brown said, fellow athletes “didn’t treat me any differently.”
See the video, narrated by Alan Iverson and including Ben Simmons and Marqus Brown here.
For a longer interview with Marqus Brown, see the podcast Rowing in Color.