Toronto FC are unbeaten and at the top of the league coming off their 1-0 victory over the Montreal Impact on Friday, but after the match, the first question at each of the postgame press conferences featuring head coach Greg Vanney and captain Michael Bradley had to do with their respective decision to stand during the pregame playing of the Canadian national anthem.
Both Vanney and Bradley knelt with the rest of the players during a moment of silence in support of the Black Lives Matter movement after standing for the anthem.
Toronto defender Justin Morrow, who is also the executive director of the Black Players for Change coalition, said he supported the decision Bradley and Vanney made, noting the support he says they've given him and the club's other Black players amid the ongoing fight for racial justice and the end to police brutality against the Black community.
"First and foremost, I completely support them. There's no other two people that have been in my corner more than those two guys," Morrow said. "I explained to you how difficult this whole situation has been for me in the past couple of days because I'm the leader of Black Players for Change and how much has been on my plate. And these guys have been behind me every second of the way. So nobody should be coming at them. I said from the very beginning that standing or kneeling for the national anthem is acceptable because the conversation at the end of the day gets turned sideways. These guys show their support in so many different ways for us.
"And it wasn't with the national anthem tonight, but they've taken knees other times, they wear shirts, they support us behind the scenes. And for me that's more than enough. These conversations are incredibly hard, it was something that we talked about as a team before. But even up until the last minutes before you're walking on the pitch, players are still making decisions. For me, it was just important that we talked about it beforehand so that guys knew what was coming because the worst thing that can happen is if guys are unsure if the anthem is even going to be played and they get caught in the moment and then they're just awkwardly doing what their teammates are doing without thinking it through.
"And so I know those two have thoroughly thought it through and they'll be speaking on that. But like I said, no one should be coming at them, because they support us more than anybody."
And Vanney and Bradley did speak about it, each explaining their thought process after the match.
Bradley said he feels as though the issue of kneeling or not kneeling creates rhetoric that takes the focus away from the real issues.
"It's obviously something that I've thought a lot about and I spent a lot of time reading, speaking to different people and I could talk about myself and give you some of my thought process, but it's not about me," Bradley said. "Thirty seconds talking about myself is 30 seconds that we should be talking about the issues that exist in our society. The conversation and the rhetoric that has been created around the decision for people to basically protest by kneeling — it's designed by the people who don't want change to take away from the real conversations that we all need to be having every single day. That's what they want. They want this divisive, hateful rhetoric, conversation, where there is no nuance, there's no middle ground.
"So for me, I will always be a strong voice for racial equality and I will continue to try to use the platform I have to talk about things that I believe are important. When you look at our society right now, it's heartbreaking to see the systemic racism that still exists after hundreds of years. The social injustice, the police brutality — it all has to end. I wholeheartedly support Black Lives Matter, I will continue to try to live my life in a way where the people that I deal with on a daily basis, the things that I do — I'm able to help in any way that I can and enact that change. So for me, I spent that moment during the national anthem thinking of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Jacob Blake, thinking of them, thinking of their families. I want justice for them and I want to live in a world and a society where the hateful, hurtful things that have been going on for hundreds of years come to an end."
For Vanney, his gesture was a simple show of support for assistant coach Jason Bent, who had planned on standing for the anthem (video below).
"Really it's for two reasons: I have one assistant coach on my staff, Jason Bent, who's Canadian and he was going to stand through the anthem. That's his choice and we stood with him. In addition to that, I knew there was going to be a moment of silence for Black Lives Matter and I was going to take a knee during that period to honor that cause. So I tried to do both at those two times."
Several of the questions directed at Morrow seemed to relate to his work with the Black Players for Change (BPC).
Although Morrow, who started and played 81 minutes on Friday, talked about being "exhausted," he chose to highlight the support that he and the Black Players for Change have received across the league, including for the powerful protest on Wednesday that led to the postponement of five MLS matches.
"The thing that lifts me up is knowing how many allies that we've had in this fight, not only over the past several days but in the past months," Morrow said. "But Wednesday night was chaotic in a lot of ways because it wasn't planned. All I can say is that the narrative gets spun that it was a lot of the Black players driving it and it was. But I can't understate how many players of other races joined in this fight and were real leaders. And honestly, not all those games get postponed if other people outside of Black players don't step up to the plate. And they did for us. And because of that we were able to show a unified front, and that makes an impact. I want to say thank you to those guys, thank you to everyone that put their necks on the line. That's what makes me feel better. That's what lifts me up in this moment."
Next up is a meeting between the Black Players for Change with MLS owners that resulted from the conversations with the league which in turn emerged from Wednesday's protests.
"For me and the players, the most important thing is that out of Wednesday night, something positive comes out of it," Morrow said. "The reason why we do any of these things and use our platform is so that we can effect real change. And so now we're going to be meeting with the owners so that we can use MLS, which is our platform, as a vehicle for change. And we'll be meeting with them pretty soon to work on something together.
"Now we can say we do have something positive that came out of Wednesday night. So for me, incredibly tough to play tonight. I know there was a lot of players on Montreal that didn't want to play, there was a lot of other players around the league that didn't want to play. But like I said, the most important thing is that Wednesday night meant something. And so that's what we accomplished by starting [to play] again today and starting again tomorrow."
Justin Morrow (No. 2) kneels with his fist raised before kickoff in Montreal | Eric Bolte - USA Today Sports Images