By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 24, 2020) US Soccer Players – From a deadly global pandemic and widespread economic suffering to political dysfunction and police killings, 2020 visited plenty of pain on MLS players, just like the rest of the world. One silver lining amid that woe was the founding of Black Players for Change.
BPC officially launched on Juneteenth, a date rich with historic symbolism for Black Americans, as the nation grappled with the fallout from the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis the previous month. The new organization seeks to bridge racial gaps in MLS and beyond via expression, education, advocacy, and activism on the part of its nearly 200 members, including players, coaches, and staff. The organization’s creation is an achievement unto itself, though it has already gotten involved in a range of projects and has plans for more in the coming years.
First BPC made its presence known with a powerful collective demonstration at the kickoff of the MLS is Back tournament in Orlando, the first in a series of league-wide gestures of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. It led a sweeping effort to get out the vote in November’s elections, among MLS players and the soccer community at large. They’ve inked a seven-figure partnership with the US Soccer Foundation to build a dozen mini-pitches across the country to make the sport more accessible to communities of color. They completed the first one in Newark, New Jersey in October.
“I think it’s lost upon people how much effort has really gone into that to make this a reality,” the Philadelphia Union’s Ray Gaddis told USSoccerPlayers.com in a recent conversation with three members of BPC’s executive board. “Due to COVID there are a lot of different juggling pieces, and guys have stepped up to really make sure that the initiative still progressed and moved in the right direction.”
MLS itself has pledged support for BPC’s goals. To help keep the league honest in that regard, there’s a new initiative underway in conjunction with the MLS Players Association and the Soccer Collective on Racial Equality (SCORE) to combat structural racism and push for fair representation and equality at all levels of the sport. All this and more earned BPC the MLS WORKS Humanitarian of the Year award, the first time that honor has gone to a group.
“The foundation of this organization has definitely been something that will be historic, maybe not in the right now so much, but something that we can look back on and say that we’re proud of,” said Gaddis. “I think the soccer community’s had to really open up and really see things through the lens of their black cohorts in this space. I just also think that the work that’s been done already, it’s just been a great year, from voting initiatives to pushing the spectrum to see where we stand in front-office and various capacities and roles of that nature.”
The year’s events have inflicted trauma on Black communities across the world, and those who are a part of MLS are no exception. That fits into a much larger experience of inequality that goes back centuries. What may be different this time is a growing sense of shared awareness among Black players, and a deep resolve to take sustained, cohesive action in pursuit of change.
“That’s really what’s so special about our group. A bunch of guys that, week in week out, year after year are used to competing against each other have come to fight with each other side by side,” said Toronto FC defender Justin Morrow. “Where we’re at in the process is all collectively trying to figure out how this thing comes together so we can accomplish the goals that our organization is made to accomplish, but also the Black soccer community is screaming for. We’re not the only ones in this battle. I think you’ve seen that along the way, with all the different voices that have been speaking out. and so we’re at the point now where really the rubber meets the road.”
While challenges like police violence, economic insecurity, and lack of access to healthcare are not new to the Black experience per se, the coverage and conversations of 2020 have made that pain harder for BPC members’ colleagues to overlook.
“Technology has presented itself to allow a lot of things to be more visible, things that do go on,” noted Gaddis. “The reality – especially in certain locker rooms, I know at least in my locker room – set in that my reality is not the same as my counterparts. And having meaningful dialogue due to the death of the late George Floyd and Breonna Taylor has really opened the eyes of some in the soccer community, but also those who follow us as athletes on various platforms.”
In this regard Gaddis’s fellow BPC executive board member Quincy Amarikwa saw some positives emerge from wave after wave of adversity.
“When I see the George Floyd event, to be honest, it doesn’t affect me emotionally because I’m not surprised by it, however that sounds,” said the striker, who’s played for six MLS clubs before joining USL side Las Vegas Lights this fall. “What surprised me in terms of the watershed moment that you’re talking about was how much it resonated with our Black player pool at that particular point in time. And that’s where I’m grateful for the pandemic. Because I think it allowed the space for everyone to have time to think about what that was, what that means and how wrong we should all agree that is.”
As an institution, MLS and its clubs have generally been quicker than other sports entities to express support for the ideas espoused by the BPC and similar movements. The league has provided some resources to help them further their mission. Still, MLS carries its own legacy of inequality. BPC must find the balance between being an ally of the league and holding it accountable.
“We’ve had a lot of successes this year, and that was in partnership with the league in some ways,” said Morrow. “And that was all really important to tell our story and increase education and awareness, acknowledgment of the problem. But as we continue on this path and move past all that, now it’s a time where you have to implement policies and bylaws. We’ve said from the very beginning, we want to hire more black head coaches or hire black executives. And when you start saying that and dealing in those terms, the conversation changes a little bit.”
The makeup of MLS coaching and front office staff and investor/operator groups has consistently failed to match its player pool’s diversity. When DC United named Danita Johnson its new president of business operations this week, the former WNBA executive became the first-ever Black president of an MLS club, and only the third woman to hold such a role.
BPC is determined to hold feet to the fire to make hires like Johnson’s a trend rather than a one-off. Meanwhile, such advocacy at the top of the pyramid matches the grassroots work at the bottom of it.
“All of us were those young Black kids wanting to play this game and go far in this game back in the day, and we achieved that through numerous different ways, but most importantly because we saw our role models ahead of us doing it,” said Morrow. “And so we want to be that for the next generation of young kids and do more in the sense of being in touch with them. And that’s why we’re building [mini-pitches] in our hometown communities, so that we can go back and really strengthen this sense of community between the Black professional players and the communities that need it the most.”
Extending BPC’s work to the local levels is a key priority in the months ahead. Morrow’s club was the first to announce a formal push in this sphere, launching the “UNITE” initiative to inspire TFC fans and partners to contribute to efforts to increase equitable access to youth sports across Canada’s largest city. The plan is to build many more alliances like this in the years to come.
“Now we want to get our hands dirty. We want to actually be doing grassroots work,” said Morrow. “And I think that’s the most important thing for us in 2021.”
Charles Boehm is a Washington, DC-based writer and the editor of The Soccer Wire. Contact him at:firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at:http://twitter.com/cboehm.
More from Charles Boehm:
- MLS players and the threat of an unwelcome deja vu
- USMNT takes care of business to cap a strange 2020
- USMNT squeeze in one more game before a tumultuous year’s end
- The MLS playoffs as entertainment
Graphic courtesy of Black Players for Change