Major League Soccer, as with a large number of other sports leagues in the United States and across the world, is back in full swing. And like other athletes, the Black Players for Change in MLS (BPC) are looking for a way that they can lend their support to the fight against systemic racism – beyond statements of support, and images of solidarity.
On Wednesday night, MLS players joined athletes across the United States taking action via a walkout. After the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks took that unprecendented step in the early afternoon, only one of six MLS games was played
Inter Miami and Atlanta United were the first teams in the league to walk away after Orlando City SC and Nashville SC went ahead as scheduled, with many players taking a knee prior to the match.
The Black Players for Change put out a statement on Twitter that read: “We fully support the actions today of our peers in MLS, NBA, WNBA & MLB, as well as the recent actions of Atlanta United and Inter Miami CF.
“We continue to stand with those in the struggle for racial equality and human rights. As professional athletes we must continue to speak out about these injustices and use our various platforms until we see change.”
The walkout helped facilitate further dialogue with the league in terms of bringing recognition to the issues of racial justice. After what the MLS called a “period of reflection and conversation”, matches have resumed with the BPC scheduled to meet team owners to discuss solutions for “long term change both inside and outside the MLS.”
‘Fight against systemic racism’
In July, when the MLS is Back tournament began, players carried out a protest lasting eight minutes and 46 seconds in reference to the death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer. Derek Chauvin held his knee on Floyd for seven minutes and 46 seconds, prosecutors later told CNN, correcting the longer period listed in the initial criminal complaint.
The protest has been recorded in the “Say It Loud” documentary, which was released earlier this month.
Prior to Jacob Blake’s shooting and the protests that followed, Portland Timbers forward Jeremy Ebobisse, a board member of BPC, spoke to CNN about the documentary and what concrete steps need to be taken.
Ebobisse says that there’s better reception from individual teams and Major League Soccer to conversations surrounding social justice than when he entered the league, but that it’s a minor start.
“We have to be cognizant of the fact that at this moment – it is very easy to get involved in the fight. We have to ask ourselves: in three months or six months or eight months when this will have passed, will people still be as enthused to maintain their fight against systemic racism?”
That’s why the Black Players for Change organization has sought to maintain momentum since its announcement on Juneteenth, the historic date that signifies the abolition of slavery in the United States.
The symbolic power of the coalition was on display when the group opened the MLS is Back tournament in July with the 8 minute 46 second long protest.
But Ebobisse and other players aren’t planning on stopping at protest.
“I can tell you that just from working with these guys … that this symbolic gesture of this protest, they were already thinking past that of like, what are we actually going to do?,” says Aaron Dolores, the founder of Black Arrow FC and producer of “Say It Loud,” which includes footage of the protest as well as interviews with the BPC.
“Say It Loud” was one such example of a way to continue the conversation. Ebobisse spoke of his gratitude for Dolores and his company, a brand focused on acting as a platform for the intersection of Black Culture and soccer.
“We’re appreciative of all the partners involved and particularly Black Arrow … who followed us in more depth as far as speaking to us about how we felt about the climate in this country.”
The feeling was mutual, as Dolores told CNN Sport: “The MLS players coming together and then reaching out to us and saying, ‘Hey, would you come cover this because we want you to tell our story’ … that was super powerful.”
Dolores and his company also plan to continue their own work of showcasing the efforts of Black Americans in soccer.
“Our role is really to highlight the role of black people in soccer and to show … that when you think about some of the racism or the different ways that black people are being held back in the sport, why?”
Ebobisse is glad for the conversations the protest and the documentary can start.
“Ultimately, photo ops are powerful,” the 23-year-old explained in an interview with CNN Sport. “They drive narratives, symbols drive narratives, and that’s what we put out before that first game.”
But just like statements of support, the Ebobisse doesn’t want the words – or images – to ring hollow.
“We want those symbols and those narratives that we are pushing to lead to tangible action as well. Now it’s our job to continue to use our organization to push for those changes that we want to see within the MLS ecosystem, but also within the local communities.”
Beyond soccer, Black Players for Change are already working towards meaningful impact. Ebobisse has lent his support to efforts to support food banks and voter registration, and BPC executive director Justin Morrow co-wrote a piece asking for the end of juvenile life without parole sentences.
These efforts of advocacy and action are what Ebobisse envisioned when the BPC was formed.
“As a Black American, I wanted to make sure that I was speaking for people who didn’t have that voice that would carry. BPC has been a vehicle for continued conversation and we’re looking forward to enhancing public education and discourse.”
The conversation has continued as another round of protests occurred in the US following the shooting of Blake in Wisconsin.
Philadelphia Union player Mark McKenzie used his media availability following his match against the New York Red Bulls Tuesday to talk about Blake and police brutality.
“He’s shot seven times in the back in front of his children, his three sons in the back seat. What does that do for them now the traumatic experience at such a young age, to see that happen to a father?
‘This is a reality of being black in America. We are still waiting on justice for Breonna Taylor’s killers. Now we’re demanding justice for Jacob Blake.”