Passion for sports can traverse racial divides in Salt Lake City, some Black sports fans say 

Story by LEIF THULIN 

Former Utah Jazz star Deron Williams recently said on The Ringer’s podcast “Real Ones,” “I had been around all the best players in the world … I was trying to recruit everybody. I’m talking to everybody. Nobody’s coming to Utah.” 

Williams implied that no players wanted to join him in Utah due to Utah’s reputation of being inhospitable to African Americans. 

In interviews conducted over Zoom, three Black men involved with the Utah Jazz as journalists or fans acknowledged the reality of racism. However, when it comes to their personal experiences on the job and in the stands, they said that loyalty to the basketball team, not racial divisions, takes center stage. 

Contrary to the experience of many African Americans in America, Tony Jones, a sportswriter covering the Utah Jazz for The Athletic, said he has not experienced racism in his professional life in his many years in Utah. 

During his years covering first the Bountiful Braves, then the Utah State University Aggies and now the Utah Jazz for The Athletic, Jones’ affability and the unity he attributes to the culture of sports has helped him evade racial discrimination in his industry. Once he covered sports above the high school level, most of the athletes he covered were African American, which he said was one possible reason for his comfort. 

Jones has found his time in Salt Lake City to be seamless despite an 87 percent white population. 

He didn’t initially dream of being a sportswriter. However, with a mother he described as a “titan in the [journalism] industry,” he was introduced to Black sports journalism legends like Rob Parker and David Aldridge from a young age. 

Jones realized that many aspiring sports journalists did not have the advantages he modestly partially attributed to being Jackie Jones‘ son. Hard work paid off. 

“I worked on my craft and got good enough,” he said. 

Jones explained writing about the Jazz basketball team is especially rewarding because the entire state admires and supports the Jazz. There is no divisive viewpoint as there could be if he wrote for the University of Utah or Brigham Young University. 

When it comes to that college competition, “The rivalry can dehumanize the opponents’ fans,” Jones said. 

“The Utah Jazz speaks the universal language of the state,” he said. 

The concept of sports banding people of all races together within the context of a game is not an uncommon notion, but Jones’ personal avoidance of racial discrimination in his professional life in Utah was echoed by former Deseret News and current ESPN sportswriter, Eric Woodyard. Jones and Woodyard attribute this to their involvement with a basketball team, in which team goals and success take priority over individual goals or attributes — in this case, the color of their skin. 

Woodyard decided to take a leap of faith and moved to Salt Lake City from his hometown of Flint, Michigan, to cover the Utah Jazz in 2017. Woodyard described his move to Salt Lake City as a risk since he didn’t know what to expect, but he now calls Salt Lake City a second home. 

He said racism exists and he is extremely conscious of it, but he never experienced racism while covering the Utah Jazz. He credited the Deseret News for how it took care of him, as well as the culture and unifying aspects of sports for protecting him from racist encounters.

“People often asked me why I moved to Utah, and it was hard to find diversity in Salt Lake City.” He continued, “For example, I didn’t know who to go to as my barber or where to find good fried chicken initially, but I was treated excellently.” 

The Utah Jazz have had incidents in recent years where opposing players have received racist remarks from Jazz fans. The Jazz have even been labeled as a place that NBA players do not want to play due to these interactions and the numerical lack of African Americans in Salt Lake City. 

Woodyard released what became a viral video of a Jazz fan verbally and racially abusing then-Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, and he personally felt disturbed by the racial abuse from the Jazz fan. 

Woodyard said, “I know what’s right to me and it’s there for the reader to interpret and figure out what it means to them.” 

It can be difficult to try to reconcile seemingly opposite viewpoints — that Utah Jazz fans enthusiastically support the team and people affiliated with it like Jones and Woodyard, and yet have a racist reputation that makes new players hesitant to come to Utah.

Josh Nkoy, a member of the Stanford Rugby Team, is an activist who was born and raised in Salt Lake City. Nkoy, who is the son of Congolese refugees, considers his family to be “proud, proud” Jazz fans. 

 Like Jones and Woodyard, he has successfully traversed mostly white Utah without racial discrimination, attributing it to community support and the equalizing nature of sports. 

“Sports were the only time on the field, well, the only time growing up, I would say that there are no outside expectations in terms of how far you need to go,” Nkoy said in a Zoom interview. 

Josh Nkoy is throwing in the ball. Photo courtesy of Josh Nkoy.

However, he said he felt about the racial abuse Russell Westbrook received from fellow Jazz fans: “It’s frustrating in the 21st century, people still haven’t learned.”

Nkoy elaborated and alluded to the murder of Ahmaud Arbery while Arbery was running, “This is athletics, this is what we are stereotypically good at, and regardless of even that we are still in danger.” 

Woodyard spoke of being “numb” to Black Lives Matter because it is a continual fight he and others have to wage including in Utah outside of Jazz games. He referenced assuming stares he receives in grocery stores and the specific manner in which he has to wear hoodies, as everyday examples. 

Talking about Black Lives Matter, Jones said, “The racial issues are unfortunate and what has transpired has been unfortunate for hundreds and hundreds of years on some wavelength.” He said he was happy to see more recognition of the racial issues in the Salt Lake City community both after the incident involving a racist fan and surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“I recognize what I am and what my culture is, and where I’m from, and I’m passionate about where I’m from, and I’m passionate about being Black, and passionate about being African American,” Jones said, “and I have not shied away from stating my beliefs on it, but my primary obligation is to set a good example for myself and kids and those who look like me who want to be in my industry.” 

This self-knowledge is key to Jones’ comfort and liking of Utah. He said he feels appreciated for his work by fans at The Athletic, and not judged by his skin color. 

As a player on a sports team, Nkoy reflected, “Everybody is equal in terms of how much work they put in, how much love they have for their craft, and how many wins they want to rack up with their teammates, especially among teammates.” 

As deep racial tensions have gripped our world, lessons can be gleaned from the unity exemplified in certain communities. In Salt Lake City, racial tension can be superseded by strong communal bonds created within the environment cultivated through sports.