Real Salt Lake's Nedum Onuoha, Zac MacMath share thoughts on player protests, MLS postponements

Following the postponement of Real Salt Lake's game against LAFC and four other MLS games on Wednesday evening, RSL players Nedum Onuoha and Zac MacMath shared some powerful thoughts on a momentous day in US sports, and the message they're sending to fans throughout the country that are watching on.

Much of Wednesday's conversation — which was ignited by the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks and led to the postponement of three playoff games — has centered around players using their platforms and refusing to play to make an even stronger point about racial justice and police brutality in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May and recently the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin on Sunday. It was one of the themes Onuoha touched on in his extensive remarks to the media following confirmation that MLS players would follow the lead of their NBA counterparts and sit out Wednesday's slate in protest.

“Whenever you’re provided with a platform and you make a significant change or just try to create a new narrative or a new conversation, I think you have to capitalize on that moment and as players — barring things like on our social media where we can say or do whatever — if you are to protest and make a stand, you have to do it in a way which is unfortunately uncomfortable for a lot of people,” Onuoha said. “But that uncomfortable nature a lot of people have to live through on a day-to-day basis, and I think today in showing solidarity with what’s going on in Wisconsin and around the rest of the country, and showing solidarity towards what’s happening in the NBA and so on and so forth, I think for me personally it makes a very, very big statement.

“And people will miss out on entertainment — but at the end of the day it’s entertainment. There are other things that are going on, which are essentially life or death, which should be a bigger part of any conversation that exists today, as opposed to maybe just missing out on an MLS game or an NBA game.”

For those who might be feeling sore about missing out on that entertainment, Onuoha also offered up a vision of what he hopes these kinds of actions can lead to.

“I’d tell them … some of the things that have gone on in the country right now are things which definitely need to be spoken about and things which need to be addressed if we want to find ourselves in a position where the future isn’t necessarily going to be a utopian one, but one which is far better than what exists right now,” he said. “A society which is more equal — for everybody and not just certain people. 

“I think as far as that conversation goes, yes we are able to speak about it more, but it’s not had a big enough platform yet to reach absolutely everybody. I think if people understand that there are certain things going on in the country which are unacceptable and how, say, people with the biggest platforms like people in the NBA, the stuff that they’re saying — it’s not to take anything away from anybody, it’s to try and help people like them. Trying to help to help people who are American who deserve to be treated the same way as everybody else.”

Onuoha later added that he “could not be critical” of a fan who might initially be disappointed to miss out on an event they had been looking forward to, and said it's a feeling that players themselves can sympathize with.

“We love playing the game and wanted to be here to play this game, but there are bigger things going on right now than just in sport.” he said. “It’s a bigger issue thing. And yes, we’re sorry for them that we couldn’t play in the stadium, because we wanted to do that, but then how do we feel about what’s just happened to Jacob Blake or the people in the country who are really suffering at the hands of things which we can also put in quotation marks as ‘inconvenient’?”

In addition to their messaging on the purpose of their protests, Onuoha and MacMath also elaborated on how the conversations that ultimately led to the refusal to play and the postponement of the games went down. The duo said that discussions really kicked into gear in the afternoon following the news of the Bucks' refusal to play.

“Nedum and I both felt strongly that we did not want to play and that we were going to bring that to our team and make a decision with them as things unfolded,” said MacMath.

It cascaded from there, Onuoha said.

“The conversation started to happen, and more and more people were on board to the point where it almost felt like it was everybody. And the second game of the day – [when] we knew that was going to be postponed, I think all the other games just fell as well.”

The 33-year-old Onuoha, who was born in Nigeria and spent his childhood and entire pro career in England prior to joining RSL in 2018, has emerged as a strong voice among MLS players on social issues, also offered up a poignant viewpoint on why what's going on in the country he now calls home resonates so deeply with him.

“I’ve learned more about the history of the [United States], the history of certain injustices and so on and so forth,” he explained. “It’s troubling — when I saw the murder of George Floyd I cried. And I cried not because…well, I cried for many reasons, but when you look at it and I think that could be me and that could me regardless of wherever I’m from, that is really troubling. I live my life here the same way I did when I was in the UK … I'll be honest, in a way that’s different than most of the people I sit around. I view police in a certain way, I view society in a certain way and it’s sad when you see more and more cases, which are being recorded now or being spoken about now because we do have a bigger platform to share those experiences. This is one of the best countries in the world, but there are just certain things which are fundamentally, incredibly wrong.”

As for what comes next, Onuoha described Wednesday as a “reactive” night, following the tone set by the NBA players earlier in the day. He and MacMath also expressed hope that regardless of what comes next, both in the coming days and beyond, the collective actions taken on the day set a new tone for conversations about social justice.

“The hope is that this is going to be a very significant day in terms of trying to find ways to discuss injustices or trying to find a way to find justice for people that do deserve it,” Onuoha said “And we are all on board doing that today.”

“This,” MacMath added, “as we know over the last couple of months, is going to be a movement that lasts for quite a while until there’s real change throughout our community. ”

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