It was the last day of the Major League Soccer regular season and the moment came to kneel right on schedule.
When the messages “MLS Unites Against Racism” and “Black Lives Matter” appeared on the billboards on the digital sideline, the referee and players from Chicago Fire and New York City F.C. fell to one knee and solemnly bowed his heads. Well some of them did. Others stood and stared ahead with steely focus. Two more, a little outside the midfield circle, used the moment to have a confidential conversation.
The variety of displays, four months later a dramatic protest in the field That was the league’s return to Florida amid the pandemic. She was not inherently rebellious or disrespectful. However, they did reflect how easy it can become to overlook gestures, even when surrounded by clear reminders of why they are important.
Across North America, where George Floyd’s assassination by a white Minneapolis policeman sparked a summer of international protests, demonstrations of social justice in the major professional team sports have been almost universal: Women soccer players kneeled in Utah. It did Basketball stars in Florida, Hockey player in Canada and baseball and soccer players in dozens of American cities.
In the MLS, dozens of the league’s black players stood on the field for 8 minutes and 46 seconds before the league’s first rescheduled game – what was commonly referred to as the time a cop knelt on Floyd’s neck before his death – and on each Since then, dozens of players, coaches and officials are still kneeling.
But what began as solemn group gestures has turned into another in some places Tick the box on the list of rituals before the game. However, for an increasingly activist cohort of black athletes, what comes next is of the utmost importance.
“Protests are great,” said renowned sociologist and activist Harry Edwards Black M.L.S. Players when they called him for advice on how to be heard in their league. “But it depends on getting through.”
From the start, most players kept their focus in the moment. But almost five months later, and as the league’s postseason kicks off this weekend, black footballers in America continue to heed Edward’s words. Their gestures in the field, they said, are only part of their mission.
Behind the scenes, players have tried to convert their protest currency into tangible, permanent change. They have LED voter registration drives in their cities and in their changing rooms; convinced the League to use its resources to intensify these efforts; public announcements created be broadcast during the Games; and designed shirts to raise money for racial justice organizations.
The goal of several prominent Black M.L.S. Players have said in interviews over the past few weeks to get the league to embrace their efforts and challenge the way the football world deals with black activism.
Much of the work was done through organization – in M.L.S. by Black players for change – and through the connection and partnership with black player groups in better known sports like the N.B.A. and N.F.L.
The playoffs now offer a bigger stage and a new chance. Justin Morrow, the veteran Toronto defender and executive director of Black Players for Change, said his group of approximately 170 players, coaches and M.L.S. The staff are at a planned transition point in their struggle.
“It is time for us to step back and develop programs and initiatives that will impact our local markets and our local communities,” he said. The ultimate goal – the follow-up – are not public statements of support, but concrete measures to improve access and representation at all levels of football.
“We will challenge the league at every opportunity,” said Morrow, “to make sure they make progress toward racial equality, access and in-game representation.”
Black women gamblers have adopted similar activism. Tziarra King, a black player with the National Women’s Soccer League’s Utah Royals, said she had an idea of kneeling down with her mostly white teammates ahead of the league’s Challenge Cup in June. Two months later, King, a 22-year-old rookie, publicly took over team owner Dell Loy Hansen – also the owner of Real Salt Lake in M.L.S. – After telling a radio interviewer that he was “personally disregarded” by his team’s decision to boycott a game after police shot and killed Jacob Blake, a black man in Wisconsin.
“Messages of inclusion and diversity are in complete contradiction to an owner who refuses to understand the relevance of a gambler’s strike to racial equality,” said King wrote on Twitter. Other prominent black women players, including several prominent members of the US women’s national team that won the World Cup and others in the newly formed Black women’s collective of playersquickly gathered behind her.
Morrow said part of what Black M.L.S. Players had a “growing feeling in Major League Soccer that they haven’t done enough for the Black community”.
A recent report from Fare, an organization dedicated to combating discrimination in football, highlighted some of the issues that players said needed to be addressed. For example, as of August 1, black players made up 25 percent of the 26 M.L.S. Club lists, but had no representation at owner level or as club president. The league currently has a single black general manager, Ali Curtis of Toronto FC. a black sporting director, Denis Hamlett of the Red Bulls; and only two black head coaches. (The N.W.S.L. has no black representation across the board in corresponding positions.)
M.L.S. Commissioner Don Garber said the protests, and the realities that drive them, are a reflection of “we as a nation must come together and accept that where we are is not good enough.”
“It’s about standing up for what’s right and opposing wrong, and realizing this incredible moment in our country’s history when we accept that there has been systemic racism for hundreds of years,” said Garber. “As a popular global sports league, we have an important and valuable platform and at appropriate times we will use this platform for matters that we believe are of vital social concern.”
Garber admitted the league needs to do better. The league has begun recruiting a Diversity, Justice and Inclusion Director, a leadership position who will report directly to Garber. And it has reassured black gamblers and administrators that they will sit at the table as they develop proactive plans to increase representation, and not just in areas related to diversity and inclusion.
“They wanted to know what the league is doing and how we are using our platforms together to make sure the league tackles racism and social injustice,” he said. “They never lost focus on the areas where they could make a difference.”
Several Black M.L.S. Players said there were small wins. In October, the league, in partnership with Black Players for Change, announced several new initiatives to fight racism and increase the representation of blacks in positions of authority in both the league office and their teams.
Edwards warns players to be wary of participating in a league in racial justice campaigns and only to be cautious about cynicism if they see concrete action. The idea is that initiatives themselves are not results, just a platform on which to create the actual plans to increase representation. It is a principle that M.L.S. Players said they will carry with them.
“Our challenge as an organization is to ensure that Major League Soccer continues to take these steps in the right way,” said Morrow, “and to use our voice and influence to keep them on fire.”