Before the first match of the MLS tournament in Orlando began, a host of players in all black clothing, with individual and different phrases written on their shirts, such as “Black and Proud” and “Silence is Violence”, who were wearing black masks and black gloves on their right hands, made their way onto the field and stood by the touchlines.
When the Orlando City and Inter Miami players walked on, the two sets of teams lined up around the center circle and each player took a knee. The surrounding players then walked onto the field, forming a square around their colleagues who were on the perimeter of the circle, and then they began to raise their right fists one after another, in reference to the protest of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics.
The collective of players stayed on the field and demonstrated in silence for around six minutes, almost three minutes less than the 8 minutes and 46 seconds that police officer Derek Chauvin had his knee on George’s Floyd’s neck.
The players in black were part of the newly formed Black Players for Change (BPC), which is a group of 170 players who have recently partnered with the Players Coalition, led by former NFL wide receiver Anquan Boldin, in a “purely player-founded and player-driven effort to implement positive impacts on social justice and racial equality through advocacy, awareness, education and a shared allocation of resources.”
The demonstration comes on the back of similar demonstrations by other sports leagues that have restarted games, such as the NWSL and NASCAR. It is a bold way to begin the new MLS tournament, and a fresh start for a league which in past years was not the most vocal when it came to race and social justice. This new group of players plans to change that, and it seems that the league — which openly recognized the organization when the players first announced its formation — is standing behind them.
The nearly nine-minute gesture is one of the biggest symbolic acts so far by any sports league and is a line in the sand and declaration for what these MLS players want going forward. As the players were standing raised fists, one of the big television screens in the stadium displayed the words “MLS is Black”. Not only are the players making their voices known, but the league is taking a stance to work with the players towards a shared goal of a more equitable world.
Before the demonstration, I talked to Justin Morrow, who plays fullback for Toronto FC and is the executive director for BPC. I wanted to know, first of all, how much support they had received from non-Black players.
Morrow said: “We got tremendous feedback, starting from our initial press release. We got positive feedback from all over the world and the crazy part is managing all the people that want to help us. We’re going through the process now of looking at what help we need and where we should take it from there.”
I then asked him whether they were prepared for the potential backlash that might come, as it has for sports like NASCAR, as many fans, especially ones who stand on the opposite side of racial equality, would interpret such an act as divisive and as an interruption in the world of sports which they see as a way to escape everyday life.
“I think there’s a lot of positivity in our group, and what we’re doing is bold," Morrow said. "We all know that this work needs to be done. And so we’re ready for any backlash that might come.”
I was also concerned, as many skeptics are, about whether the organization would legitimately work towards material change. Or had a chance at doing so. Many times organizations which try to work towards racial equality, especially when backed by corporate entities, tend to find themselves stripped of their radical nature and relegated to symbolic gestures. MLS is publicly backing BPCMLS — though BPCMLS is independent of it — but that support needs to be real.
The change that the BPC is trying to work towards is not just about the external world, but it would also see the league itself radically change, such as a total reformation of hiring practices and representation of Black and other minorities in the coaching ranks and the front offices. Such a push can be seen as dangerous and it could lead to corporations reducing those radical demands and trying to appease those who demand a more equal world with acts of symbolism and donations which do nothing to actually change the conditions of the world around us.
“Those initiatives will happen over time," Morrow said. "The thing that we have established in this short period of time is open-minded communication directly with the [MLS] commissioner, directly with the executive director of the MLSPA, and directly with the GMs and coaches. So now that we have a line into all these different avenues, we’ll be able to bring up racial issues very quickly and efficiently. And on top of that to be able to collaborate with Major League Soccer in terms of diversity hiring and representation.”
BPC is still in its early days, and it's understandable that there are questions about what the lasting impact of the group will be for the league and for the greater world. Yet, so much of what the newly-formed organization has done so far has been inspiring. Not many people expected that such a group could exist in MLS a few short years ago, and even fewer would have figured to witness such a powerful demonstration before this tournament.
The longer impact will be evidenced over the coming years, but what seems clear in the moment is that there’s been a definite shift in how outspoken and empowered the Black players of MLS feel, and an even deeper shift in what the league wants to stand for.