When we think about Black athletes, soccer is not top of mind in this country. After we cycle through what we call the major sports, then the corresponding women’s game, we basically only then land on MLS, and even that is truly for diehards of the sport, what with the greatest leagues on earth plastered across the television.
But with the league returning for what is basically an all-in tournament in Orlando, Florida, to make up for what they’ve lost due to the coronavirus, Black soccer players are speaking up. In America. What you saw Wednesday night before the first game – a protest that was classy enough, muted, but still colorful, sorta like the league itself – wasn’t an ad hoc effort that they threw together in order to appear in line with the rest of the nation when it comes to fighting against police brutality and discrimination. It was organic.
It started on Instagram, then moved to a group chat, and next thing we knew: Black Players for Change was born. Justin Morrow of Toronto FC is the executive director, and the initial group included Ray Gaddis (Philadelphia), C.J. Sapong (Chicago), Quincy Amarikwa (DC), Kendall Waston (Cincinnati), Jeremy Ebobisse (Portland), Sean Johnson (New York City), Bill Hamid (DC), Earl Edwards Jr. (DC), Jalil Anibaba (Nashville), Kei Kamara (Colorado), Ike Opara (Minnesota).
But once word got out, everyone wanted in. After George Floyd was killed, the soccer world stateside was moved. Obviously. Staffers joined in, creating a force with a number in the hundreds.
“We started having conversations, and really those conversations started with the question of what we’re going to do in Orlando because the league oftentimes takes control of these narratives and how they want to present the Black Lives Matter movement to the world,” Morrow said before the game Wednesday. “But we were adamant that this message had to be authentic coming from the Black players.”
They went through various machinations: T-shirts, goal celebrations, and a few other things that ultimately just didn’t feel important enough to get behind. Not to mention, they aren’t exactly first on this even in their own sport, since across the pond, teams have been playing for a while with varying degrees of solidarity to the resistance.
But again, the racism of America is no different from the racism of the globe when it comes to soccer. Except here, since the athletes simply aren’t the standouts that they are worldwide, we don’t think of them as impact athletes. Wednesday, that changed.
“Soccer across the world has a unique relationship with racism in that it’s so blatant,” Morrow noted. “And the leagues in Europe, you have fans do monkey clap, chant at Black players even to this day, booing them off of the field. That is something that they deal with over in Europe and other places that we don’t deal with here in North America. But the racism is systemic. Racism still exists in Major League Soccer and amongst the North American soccer community landscape.”
There’s a reason that the U.S. national team has never had a Black coach. And there’s a reason that the pay-to-play model is still something that keeps kids of certain backgrounds out of the developmental chances to become excellent on the pitch. Not everyone is necessarily Chad Ochocinco, but as a former high school soccer player myself, people are still surprised when I tell them that MLS is the reason I started playing in Washington.
Blackness might not be synonymous with the world’s game in the United States, but the culture of the sport doesn’t allow us to forget that said culture needs be protected. The days of guys such as Roy Lassiter, Eddie Pope and Eddie Johnson being quasi-stars are behind us as we’ve come to accept the dozens of teams that seem to be popping up across American pro soccer.
But Wednesday was a first step. One that if nothing else, will remind y’all that in soccer too, we ouchea. They know it won’t be easy, but they’re trying and taking all help.
“We announced yesterday our partnership with the Players Coalition founded by Anquan Boldin and Malcolm Jenkins. These guys are doing a wonderful job over there, and they’re leading the path for us,” Morrow explained. “And so our partnership is hopes that they can show us the ropes and we can help them with our dynamic and diverse player pool as well. But of course, the goal is that we unite all of these different leagues. And we see what’s happening in Europe. We see how the players are standing up against racism all over there. Definitely an inspiration for us, but our hope is that we can all be united on the same front moving forward.”
Ultimately, it’s still 2020, though. The worst year of our lives. Everything has been a learning experience.
“I would be lying if I didn’t say 2020 has been a tough year, man,” Morrow said. “I don’t think anybody else can say anything different. But the most important thing that I’ve learned is about our player pool coming together, how important that has been, how emotionally charging that has been and that because of everything that’s happened, we are ready to make change. And I think we have the guys, the message, the strength, the ingenuity to do that.”
Blackity black, tho? Not yet.