MLS's Black players speaking out against racial injustice is the start of much-needed change | Zito Madu

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It can sometimes be jarring to see the speed at which acceptable norms change. As the protests against police brutality have consumed city streets all across the United States and have been met with international support, many American athletes have been spotted participating in what is turning out to be a historical moment.

Such activism has been commonly associated with players in the National Basketball Association and many others in the National Football League, who have spoken up in the past against racism and the violence of police brutality. What has been such a positive surprise this time around is the widespread inclusion of players from Major League Soccer. Not only have some Black players gone out into the streets to march with protesters and give voice to their own story, but white players and coaches like Michael Bradley and Ben Olsen, have openly spoken up about the issue and the need for a more equal world. These actions have come within the context of the league itself releasing a statement standing with the Black community and condemning the murder of George Floyd.

But this same level of outspokenness from MLS or its players, and from the pro sports landscape in general, was absent during the Ferguson protests and the demonstrations sparked by the death of Eric Garner in 2014. Black people across America were as angry back then as they are now, about a problem that has existed for so long in American history.

Now the tides seem to have changed. It may be in part that these protests in the present have become such a global phenomenon that it has made it impossible for any entity or individual to not take a moral stand. There are such moments in history: events which demand that people who are witnesses to it reckon with their own ethics and take sides against the competing visions of the world, this situation being a fight between a world where Black people continue to be the victims of state-sanctioned violence and a possible future in which Black life is valued and protected as much as its white counterpart.

Regardless, MLS and its players have chosen their side in an open way that it has never done before. It is always a dangerous thing to put too much stock into sentimental actions and symbolism, such as statement releases and praises for the notion of equality. Those are often the least that an entity could do in the fight against racism. Yet this seems to be a legitimate new era of activism for MLS and its players.

Some of that is a result of younger players who are more vocal about their personal experiences away from the field and the social issues which they are passionate about, but perhaps those individuals are comfortable being vocal today because speaking out doesn’t seem to come with the fear of losing their careers and positions in the way that it did for the older generation.

That lack of support is something that Sean Johnson alluded to when discussing the formation of the Black Players Coalition of MLS, which was announced on Friday as part of the commemoration of Juneteenth. While determined to do external work in the long fight for justice, the group, the NYCFC goalkeeper said, was created from small discussions in text and Instagram groups to serve as a place of comfort and solidarity for many of the Black players in the league.

“We talked about just how we were just feeling,” Johnson said on a call with media members. "And in the moment, I think we were all upset. We felt this sense of hopelessness up until that point. I remember discussing with the guys the thought of coming together as a group to have a place of solidarity, of comfort, forming an organization where our voices could be heard.

“For so long, being a player in this league for 11 years, there were moments where you didn’t want to speak up. You didn’t feel represented. But coming together, slowly building to over 70 players, being on Zoom calls over the following weeks after the initial discussion, there was a sense of hope. There was a sense of togetherness. There was a sense that we could do something bigger to bring about change, not only in the league but outside the league as well.”

MLS players speaking up has many positives to it. For one, it does the immediate thing of signaling to fans and those in the protest movement that the players are behind them, and that the collective fight will also take place in the sporting world. It’s an act of solidarity. If a just world is to be created, it has to be a total transformation of society and soccer is not and should not be exempt from that process.

Athletes publicly standing against racism also helps destroy the myth of exceptionalism and respectability. That one can achieve their way out of the violence of racism. It helps those on the outside of the issue understand how wide-ranging and deep the problem is — with the athletes, who they may admire or at least support, being an avatar for that understanding. There are many people who are so distanced from the issues of racial bigotry that it may never cross their minds or enter into their world, but athletes have the range to penetrate those bubbles in a way that many ordinary activists do not.

Of course, speaking up about such a clear moral problem is just the beginning of building a more equal and just world. Racism is not often as visually violent as the death of George Floyd. It manifests itself in many banal and unseen ways.

While it is indeed heartening to see MLS players of different backgrounds come out against police brutality and racism, and to see the league support their activism, this has to be the beginning of a long and consistent effort. Unfortunately the world that we live in has made deaths like that of George Floyd’s a normal event, and in more hidden ways, has degraded the potential of Black life in America. MLS and its players have decided that they stand against such degradation. Joining a movement in the moment is the easy part, the true test of that solidarity will be what the league and its players do going forward.

A good start came on the morning of Juneteenth, a day commemorating the emancipation of the last remaining enslaved African Americans, when over 70 of the league’s Black players came together to create the Black Players Coalition of MLS — a standalone organization which will be partnered with MLSPA and MLS to further their goals.

In their announcement, the coalition wrote about the long battle ahead for a more equal world and the place they wish to have in that fight:

“As we celebrate Juneteenth and the coming together of our coalition, we must remind ourselves that such progressivism was once met with vehement backlash. May this reminder serve as a warning to us all that confronting systemic racism head-on will never be a smooth, constantly upward trending path, but rather a timeless battle that will force us to reinvent the very essence of our institutions. We hope our organization can be an extension of our ancestors’ sacrifice for the next generation to live in a more equitable society as we seek to forge our own path forward under one united voice.”

Speaking on a call before the announcement of the group, in which many players expressed the need for the existence of the coalition and how empowered they feel in being part of it, Executive Director Justin Morrow began by expressing the three major ideas that are foundational to their existence.

“We needed a voice to speak up for ourselves in matters of Major League Soccer and all racial matters," he said. "When we looked at the representation in the MLSPA and at the high levels of MLS we didn’t see much Black representation there so we wanted to change that. We can have a huge impact in our communities as well, so we want to do good in our Black communities.”

The league has immediately come out in support of the group, stating that it “looks forward to continued and longstanding collaborations with the Black Players Coalition of MLS through efforts aimed at developing the game in Black communities, prioritizing diversity, and addressing implicit bias through league-wide cultural and educational initiatives.”

The words are again the easiest part of the support. The Coalition explicitly references the backlash that has come in movements like these, backlash which is also sure to come again this time, from some fans and even others around the league who might see the demands made by the coalition and the uncomfortable reformation of the league, as unnecessary.

None of this will be comfortable. None of it will be easy. It will take constant vigilance from those in power in MLS to understand that the fight for equality will sometimes challenge what they hold as common sense or right, but that the issues raised aren’t an attack on the entity or the world around it, but part of a mission to uplift everyone collectively by addressing the pains and needs of those who have been ostracized and underrepresented in the highest offices. 

For instance, it will have to look at the hiring practices for coaching and front office positions across the clubs and league office and work to remedy the clear discrepancies in those areas. It will also have to be continually attentive to creating an environment where its Black players and fans feel welcome and comfortable enough in expressing themselves. It will constantly have to reiterate its stance against bigotry because this is not a problem that is isolated or that goes away after these protests are over.

It is a strange thing to see how quickly MLS and its players have gone from being silent a few years ago to over 70 Black players forming a coalition focused on justice and the league openly recognizing and supporting them, but it is a good strangeness.

It is unfortunate that things are changing on the back of the deaths of more Black people and the trauma of the collective, but the tragedy seems to have sparked a consciousness in people and certain institutions that the world we live in, as a whole, can’t go on as it is. While the greater fight to reform the conditions of the world itself will be a longer and harder fight, the battle to reckon with one’s role in the system and the determination to do better is a welcome change. The first steps have been taken by the league and its players, and hopefully it will be the first of many in a longer and mutually beneficial adventure forward.