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A's coach Ryan Christenson says apparent Nazi salute was unintentional

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A's coach Ryan Christenson says apparent Nazi salute was unintentional

A's bench coach Ryan Christenson said he "unintentionally" gave a Nazi salute during Oakland's celebratory handshake line after Thursday's win over the Texas Rangers.

"I made a mistake and will not deny it," Christenson said in a statement released by the team. "Today in the dugout I greeted players with a gesture that was offensive. In the world today of [COVID-19] I adapted our elbow bump, which we do after wins, to create some distance with the players. My gesture unintentionally resulted in a racist and horrible salute that I do not believe in. What I did is unacceptable, and I deeply apologize."

The NBC Sports California broadcast showed Christenson raising his right arm with his palm facing down while A's closer Liam Hendriks approached.  Hendriks quickly grabbed Christenson's arm, bending it at the elbow for the coach's "elbow bump" celebration, which he said is done due to MLB's coronavirus safety protocols. Christenson then turned around and repeated the initial gesture.

"No, no straight arm, you have to bend your elbow," Christenson said Hendriks told him in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle's Susan Slusser, referring to the coach's usual celebration.

"Oh, I see what you mean, oh no, it's like 'Heil Hitler,' " Christenson said after he turned, in his and Hendriks' recounting to Slusser.

The salute, typically followed by exclamations of "Heil Hitler" or "Sieg Heil," was a compulsory tribute to Adolf Hitler within the Nazi Party and, later, all of Germany under the Nazis' rule from 1933 through 1945. Still used by neo-Nazis and white supremacists long after the end of World War II, the Anti-Defamation League says the salute is "the most common white supremacist hand sign in the world."

The A's said in a statement that they were "deeply sorry this happened on our playing field."

"We do not support or condone this gesture, or the racist sentiment behind it," the A's said in a statement. "This is incredibly offensive, especially in these times when we as a [club] and many others are working to expose and address racial inequities in our country."

Before the A's released the pair of statements, Christenson told Slusser that he "wasn't doing that intentionally" and that "I just blacked out, my mind wasn't there and I spaced out."

"I'm cringing inside picturing myself," Christenson told Slusser. "Of course I'm sorry for it -- it's like standing there with my middle finger up. Anyone should know better."

How 49ers' parallels with Leeds United run deeper than financial ties

How 49ers' parallels with Leeds United run deeper than financial ties

The parallels weren't lost on Paraag Marathe.

Marathe, the president of 49ers Enterprises and the 49ers' executive vice president of football operations, officially joined Leeds United's board in May 2018 when the NFL franchise's investment group purchased a stake in the English soccer team. It had been 26 years since Leeds last won the title in England's top division and 14 since they had been relegated from the Premier League.

The 49ers could relate, considering they were 23 years removed from their last Super Bowl at the time.

"We would often talk about how it's a very similar story in terms of [Leeds having] such a decorated past," Marathe said of the newly-promoted Premier League club last week in an interview with NBC Sports Bay Area.

"Obviously, the club had fallen on some challenging times for almost 20 years and gone through multiple ownership groups, multiple coaches, lots of players in and out and hadn't yet gotten back to where they belong. But the brand was still there."

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

The 49ers have long had an interest in international soccer. Levi's Stadium has hosted club friendlies and competitive international fixtures alike, and the team joined the San Jose Earthquakes on the FIFA World Cup Bay Area Host Committee, which pitched FIFA and U.S. Soccer on naming the region one of 10 in the United States that will hold games during the men's World Cup in 2026.

But 49ers Enterprises' stake in Leeds United, reportedly worth around 10 percent of the club, is the 49ers' most important tie to the beautiful game. It took on newfound prominence earlier this month when Leeds secured Premier League promotion, as one of England's most storied clubs returned to the top flight for the first time since 2004.

"[There's] something special and there's something, certainly, that is a sense of pride in being a part of getting a club back to where they belong," Marathe said. "It's something that outlasts our investment, that will outlast my career, that will outlast, hopefully, my lifetime."

Marathe and the 49ers had arranged a "strategic partnership" with a prior Leeds United ownership group in 2014. Andrea Radrizzani assumed full control of the club in May 2017, but Marathe's relationship with Leeds' chairman pre-dated Radrizzani's ownership. Marathe said he had previously "hit it off" with Radrizzani after connecting through a mutual friend, even hosting him on a tour of Levi's Stadium in 2014 or 2015.

Radrizzani didn't know of Marathe's own ties with Leeds when they first met, and Marathe couldn't have known Radrizzani would purchase the club. "It kind of came full circle," then, once Radrizzani did, and Marathe reached out about the 49ers becoming more involved.

Marathe said the 49ers had visited a lot of prospective soccer clubs when they looked into investing, but Leeds stood out all along. Only 12 English teams have won more major domestic and international trophies than them, for one, and Marathe said the club's social-media engagement and season-ticket base were both far greater than other clubs in the Championship, England's second division. But, Marathe said the 49ers' first visit to the city spoke for itself.

"There's one club that their fans and supporters get behind, and you just feel it when you get there," Marathe said, referring to Leeds United's unique status as a club with no in-city rival. "I remember this very vividly because ... before we met anybody, we already felt there was something special brewing here. They just needed to get back to where they belong."

[RELATED: How 49ers' Leeds 'learnings' can help in unprecedented year]

Leeds United have done just that since Marathe joined the club's board, narrowly missing out on promotion last season before winning the Championship earlier this month. Marathe said he and the 49ers are "helping and advising wherever we can," but he repeatedly credited Radrizzani, director of football Victor Orta and head coach Marcelo Bielsa for the club's achievement, noting that it's "their show."

Now, the 49ers want to take the partnership to the "next level," according to Marathe. Leeds eventually playing pre-season friendlies at Levi's Stadium is a possibility, as is even more "information- and idea-sharing," he said, even noting that Leeds' return to the Premier League means the club "today is almost like where we were" when the 49ers first built Levi's Stadium. Marathe even told The New York Times in a story published Friday that the 49ers "are absolutely hoping to" increase their stake in the club. 

Still, the 49ers' financial investment has become an emotional one for Marathe and others in the organization. He was there when Leeds lost to Derby County in the promotion play-off semi-final just over a year ago, saying he was "depressed" ordering midnight takeout after driving back to the city. Marathe even compared the "painful" feeling to his when the 49ers lost Super Bowls XLVII and LIV, and it's easy to see why.

Leeds United won a club-record 28 games after missing out on promotion a year ago, guided by a singular focus to return to the Premier League. That sounds a whole lot like the 49ers' Super Bowl-or-bust mentality after losing to the Kansas City Chiefs in February.

"Coach Bielsa stuck through it, and they stuck to their game plan," Marathe said of Leeds' season. "They stuck to the blueprint that got them to almost getting promoted last season, and they stuck with it and they dominated this year as a result."

How 49ers' Leeds United connection can help navigate 2020 NFL season

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How 49ers' Leeds United connection can help navigate 2020 NFL season

Before some players returned to the team facility Thursday for testing, the 49ers already had some experience with the new normal of return-to-play protocols amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Well, sort of.

Leeds United, the newly-promoted Premier League club that the 49ers own a stake in, completed their season a day before the 49ers' rookies, quarterbacks and injured players were tested for COVID-19. The Whites' season was suspended in March but resumed last month without a hitch, and only one player or staff member in their now-former division has tested positive this month.

"They've done a good job, so there's learnings there," 49ers executive vice president of football operations Paraag Marathe, who serves on Leeds' board, told NBC Sports Bay Area on Thursday. "And those learnings are probably also more on a league level, but there's certain things [the team can learn from]."

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

The now-completed Championship and soon-to-be-completed Premier League in England offer arguably the best point of comparison for the NFL's plans to conduct the 2020 NFL season. It's not a perfect one, considering the United Kingdom -- one of the countries in Europe hardest-hit by the coronavirus -- has a much flatter curve and a higher mortality rate than the United States.

But teams in England's top two divisions didn't play in a bubble, which NWSL, NBA and WNBA teams are doing. They also played far fewer games than, say, the Giants and A's will during the shortened MLB season. Leeds, for instance, had at least two (and as many as eight) days between all of their remaining matches when the campaign resumed on June 21. Marathe said the 49ers, for example, can learn a lot from how Leeds handled their road trips during the restarted season.

This level of communication isn't new. Marathe, who's also the President of 49ers Enterprises, said Collin Meador, the group's director, and 49ers CEO Jed York have visited Leeds "probably every four or five weeks" since the 49ers purchased a stake in the club two years ago. There are weekly calls with Leeds owner Andrea Radrizzani, managing director Angus Kinnear and director of football Victor Orta, so the 49ers have been "very, very attuned" with how Leeds is run since before the pandemic.

"There's information-sharing all the time," Marathe explained. "We're helping each other, both on the business side and on the football side, on just how we do things."

[RELATED: Shanahan confident NFL can pull off season]

Leeds United's restarted season ended with a title and promotion to the Premier League, ending a 16-year drought away from England's top flight. The 49ers, of course, would love to end their own long drought and win their first Super Bowl since the 1994 season.

But considering the uncertainty surrounding this NFL season, the 49ers surely will take any ending in which the season is safely completed. Luckily, their counterparts across the pond know a thing or two about that.