The image of Black MLS players lining the field prior to the opening match of the MLS Is Back Tournament, gloved fists in the air with messages of power emblazoned across their shirts, was one of unity and strength.
Since Tommie Smith and John Carlos rose gloved fists on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics, generations of athletes had dreamed of a moment so empowering on such a grand stage. And here, as Major League Soccer returned to action in front of a nationally televised audience on ESPN, the league’s Black players took the opportunity to make a profound statement.
For eight minutes and 46 seconds, players from across every team in the league let their collective silence speak volumes. In their silence, they felt more heard than ever before.
“It felt powerful,” said Real Salt Lake defender Ashtone Morgan. “That was the mood for all of us. Making sure our voice and our presence was felt and heard was a moving experience.”
In a movement led by the Black Players for Change – a coalition of more than 170 Black MLS players that was formed to give Black players in MLS a voice and assist in making systemic change both inside and outside of MLS – players spent weeks preparing for that moment. Meetings and conference calls amongst each other to coordinate a clear and distinct message. Once they landed on a method, they approached the league to let them know what they had planned and, with the full support of MLS, executed it in a flawless and emotional moment.
Early in that process, RSL defender Nedum Onuoha was actively involved in conveying the message. Although he wasn’t in attendance, as he opted to stay at home to support his wife and three daughters rather than travel to Orlando for the tournament, Onuoha felt the impact of the moment from afar while watching on ESPN.
“Since the group was created, there were five or six people that were really trying to drive something and bring something significant to the table,” he said. “The idea of the moment was created a few weeks ago and to see the work that they put in to get everything to look the way that it did – the way they had to coordinate with the league, the way they had to coordinate with all the players – and to deliver the message was a special moment. I wish I was there with my teammates but I know I was a part of its creation.”
Morgan credits former teammate of Black Players for Change Executive Director Justin Morrow with uniting the players in the league in amplifying their message. In addition to the unity and support from the players within Black Players for Change, the group also has had support from around the league.
RSL Head Coach Freddy Juarez watched on his hotel television and felt the strength of those eight minutes and 46 seconds. As a minority head coach in the league – and just the second Mexican-American to hold that position in league history – he has had his own experiences with discrimination in his life and he was moved by the moment and offered his full support for the players in their movement.
“I love it. I’m not African-American, but I’m Mexican-American and I’ve been on the wrong side of discrimination. When you see collaboration and unity, it’s a great feeling,” Juarez said. “I’m not speaking for them, but from my experience when you feel accepted you can let your guard down. You get to be you. When you have your guard up, it’s tough and exhausting. For me, that’s the direction we all have to go.”
Onuoha views the moment of unity as a genesis of things to come as players learn how to use their voices for change knowing that they will be taken seriously or empowered to raise their voices in ways they hadn’t felt before.
“It could be a really iconic moment in terms of American soccer history because it’s the start of something which can bring huge change not just for this generation but for generations to come,” he said. “That truly is special.”
Added Morgan, “The world has changed in a massive way. It can’t continue the way it was. This is just the beginning.”