The owner of the Baltimore Blast is defending a T-shirt listed on the professional indoor soccer team’s website that drew criticism for its anti-Chinese sentiment.
The $20 shirt, which reads “Strong” and features an American flag and the Blast logo on the front, has a circle-backslash symbol over the word “China” and an outline of the country on the back.
The shirt was temporarily removed from the team’s website Tuesday morning, but Baltimore Blast owner Edwin F. Hale Sr. said that he hoped to have it back online as soon as possible. He said the shirts have been listed on the website since March and are now sold out, however three adults sizes — medium, large and extra large — were available for purchase before The Baltimore Sun called for comment.
The “Blast Strong” shirt was reposted and listed as sold out without showing the backside design by mid-afternoon.
“A lot of people thought it was timely, and most people thought it was funny,” Hale, a developer and former CEO of First Mariner Bancorp, said. He said people who take offense to the shirt are “incorrect,” as it relates to the Chinese government and not its citizens or descendants.
“I have a great affinity for the people of China,” Hale said. He added he disagrees with the Chinese government’s use of force against its citizens and blamed the country for the deaths of nearly 145,000 Americans from the coronavirus.
“It has affected our country to the effect that I don’t like it,” he said.
But Asian American and Pacific Islander groups said the T-shirt is more than just harmless fun, as it unjustly discriminates against several racial and ethnic groups and incites racism. Leaders of organizations representing those groups have called for an apology from team leaders.
In a statement, Clarissa Chen, member of the Chinatown Collective and Charm City Night Market — which celebrate and promote Asian artists and culture in Baltimore — said the shirt reflects the same anti-Chinese rhetoric espoused by President Donald Trump and other top Republicans in Congress, who have referred to the coronavirus as the “China Virus” or “Kung Flu.”
“We’re not claiming the Chinese government to be without faults, but this graphic lacks nuance and does not open discourse. Rather, it suggests exclusionary nationalism, which we cannot condone as a collective that promotes cultural exchange,” Chen said.
In a statement, Dana Vickers Shelley, executive director of the ACLU of Maryland, said stigmatizing China as the whole world struggles to contain COVID-19 is “dangerous, reckless, and racist.”
“Racism and xenophobia have no place anywhere,” she said.
In the months since COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, swept into the United States, groups representing Asian Americans have reported a rise in xenophobic incidents, ranging from targeted harassment to vandalism of Asian American-owned businesses. Some Americans have placed blame on Chinese Americans for the coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China, but has disrupted life around the world.
The U.S. leads the world in confirmed coronavirus cases, with more than 4.3 million as of Tuesday. China ranks 26th, with over 86,000 infections reported, according to data maintained by Johns Hopkins University.
The T-shirt sparked anger and condemnation online, with several city residents calling for its removal.
Owen Silverman Andrews, a Baltimore Blast fan, said a boycott of the organization might be necessary to drive the message home that hateful speech has no place in the city.
“Institutions need to be held accountable for their mistakes,” he said. “Fans who care about racial justice should hit these institutions where it hurts: in the pocketbook.”
Hale said people who don’t like the message of the T-shirt simply shouldn’t buy it, nor should they come to Blast games if they’re uncomfortable.
Anyone complaining should “get out of the basement where they’re living,” he said, and recognize his contributions as a patriot and a businessman, including his work in the shipping industry and his relationships with Asian countries and people of Asian descent.
“I don’t care what they think because they’re wrong. They want to talk about me for being insensitive — what, are you kidding me?” he said. “It’s not about the people. It’s about the Chinese Communists.”
The situation follows weeks of protest, demonstration and boycotts around the country following the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police. The killing sparked renewed fervor among supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement to spotlight racism and cut it off at the root.
The Baltimore Blast posted a statement on Facebook last month voicing support of the group’s mission, using the hashtag #RiseAsOne.
“The Baltimore Blast strongly condemns racism in all forms,” the team’s statement said. “We stand arm and arm, hand in hand with those who seek to inspire change. Black lives matter and we stand by those living in fear.”
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Chen said the team’s words ring hollow.
“If the Baltimore Blast claims they do not have ‘room for violence, bigotry, or prejudice,' they should remove this shirt, publicly apologize for it, and take additional action to repair their internal staff culture that allowed this to occur,” she said.
The Blast have been a Baltimore institution for decades, winning at least 10 national championships since the 1980s. The Blast were relocated in 2017 from their home turf in Baltimore at what is now called Royal Farms Arena to Towson University’s SECU Arena, a significantly smaller venue.
Hale said he was not sure, given the coronavirus, when the Blast will be able to play again. He has more T-shirt designs in mind to put up online in the meantime.
Baltimore Sun reporter John-John Williams IV contributed to this article.