The Tampa Bay Rays are in favor of removing a 106-year-old Confederate monument from its current location in downtown Tampa, the baseball team told the Tampa Bay Times on Friday.
It's a stance that Hillsborough County officials will be forced to consider, as it's no secret many of them want to see the Rays move to Tampa.
Responding to a Times inquiry, the Rays organization said in a statement that the team has "long supported and are committed to diversity and inclusion."
"We understand and believe that these decisions belong in the hands of elected officials," the statement said. "At the same time, we are supportive of its removal from the courthouse."
An effort to remove the Confederate statue, called Memoria in Aeterna, was defeated by one vote last month by the Hillsborough County Commission. But Commissioner Les Miller said he will bring it up again at the July 19 meeting, and at least one of the prevailing commissioners is now open to moving the statue.
Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Lightning declined to weigh in on the controversy. The hockey team plays in Amalie Arena, within walking distance of the monument.
"We believe this important decision should rest with the county commissioners that have been elected to represent us and our county," the Lightning organization said in a statement. "We trust these officials to carefully study all considerations necessary as they make their decisions, trusting them to govern Hillsborough County in the best interest of all its people."
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers front office is closed this week and a spokesman was not available.
In its statement to the Times, the Rays noted that principal owner Stuart Sternberg "serves as chair of Major League Baseball's Diversity Committee and every season, we honor outstanding achievement in the African American community through our Jackie Robinson: Breaking Barriers celebration."
As one of the most recognizable businesses and brands in the Tampa Bay area, the Rays bring a prominent voice to the removal cause.
But the organization's clout may extend beyond symbolism. The Rays are actively weighing a move from St. Petersburg to Tampa and leaders there have coveted a ball club since before Major League Baseball even awarded the region an expansion team.
Among the front office's criteria for a new ballpark site are "iconic elements that positively impact the ballpark brand, the brand of the team and the image of the region."
Where it stands, the controversial Confederate monument is within a mile of some potential Tampa ballpark locations, including the area in and around Ybor City.
The most active recruiter of the Rays on the County Commission is Ken Hagan, who voted against removing the monument last month. However, he has been otherwise silent on the matter, choosing not to speak during debate before the vote. Hagan did not respond to a phone call Friday morning.
As large businesses with passionate followings, professional sports teams and leagues can carry considerable sway when they venture into social and political debates.
After the NCAA pulled postseason college basketball games from North Carolina, the state's legislature changed a law that banned transgender individuals from using a bathroom other than one for their assigned sex at birth.
The National Football League said it may not hold future Super Bowls in Texas if the state passed a bill similar to the North Carolina law. It made the same threat to Georgia in 2016 before the governor vetoed a bill that allowed businesses to turn away LGBT customers and employees for religious reasons.
"NFL policies emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness, and prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation and any other improper standard," the league said in the statement before the Georgia decision. "Whether the laws and regulations of a state and local community are consistent with these policies would be one of many factors NFL owners may use to evaluate potential Super Bowl host sites."
NFL owners recently awarded the 2021 Super Bowl to Tampa's Raymond James Stadium. League spokesman Brian McCarthy declined to comment on the Confederate memorial debate.
The NCAA, which will hold postseason events in Tampa for track and women's basketball in coming years, did not respond to a request for comment.
Nor did the NHL about the 2018 All-Star Game slated for Tampa's Amalie Arena.
Erected in 1911, the Confederate monument features two soldiers — one heading north to battle, and another, facing south, uniform tattered. Between them is a marble obelisk that bears the rebel flag. It was moved to its current location in 1932, outside what is now the old county courthouse, an office building that also holds traffic court and conducts weddings.
It is the oldest statue in Tampa and its unveiling drew 5,000 when the city was still a small port town.
At the monument's dedication, 50 years after the start of the Civil War, the keynote speaker called African-Americans an "ignorant and inferior race."
Since the vote against removal, County Commissioner Victor Crist said he would consider moving the monument to Oaklawn Cemetery, the city's oldest public burial ground and the final resting place for the city's earliest pioneers, Confederate soldiers and slaves.
That would require the approval of city leaders, and both Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Council member Frank Reddick are against the idea.
Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] Follow @scontorno.