First it was the killing of Breonna Taylor. Then the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery. But the final straw was the inescapable image of George Floyd calling out to his deceased mother while a police officer fatally knelt on his neck.
“Enough had been enough,” says Jeremy Ebobisse, Portland Timbers forward and co-founder of Black Players for Change. “But enough was enough again.”
Soon the Black players of MLS were venting over group chats on Instagram. When those groups became too big they moved to Whatsapp. Before long their righteous anger turned into meetings to plan how they could proactively effect change.
“We were all in this pandemic and filled with a ton of emotions with the world stopped,” Ebobisse says. “And then we see this repeated assault on Black bodies and we felt we had to take a stand.”
Defining a moment
On 19 June 2020, Black MLS players launched Black Players for Change, an organization dedicated to racial and social justice on and off the pitch. The group decided to protest during the 8 July season opening Orlando City v Inter Miami match. The eight minute and 46 second moment of silence, the amount of time George Floyd was pinned to the ground, overshadowed the game.
“Nothing we did would have been inappropriate,” says Ebobisse. “At first I was scared because of what they did to Colin. The NFL did Colin Kaepernick wrong. I thought if they blackballed him what would they do to me?”
But Ebobisse says Giovanni Savarese, head coach for the Portland Timbers, was 100% behind what they wanted to do. However, the league’s commissioner, Don Garber, had the last say. Tunde Oguntimein, senior director at the commissioner’s office, says Garber kept his promise to BPC and the arrangements were made for a pre-game demonstration.
It was a bold move for MLS to support a demonstration for racial justice amid other professional sports associations discouraging athletes from participating in protests. And with a predominantly white upper middle class fanbase, it was also a huge risk. But Oguntimein says Garber was determined to make it happen. They called in 27 buses to get 107 players to the stadium. Free agent Warren Creavalle designed the pre-game t-shirt in partnership with Adidas while BPC created the hashtag #MLSisBlack. The successful campaign brought awareness to BPC, who recently partnered with the Players Coalition.
This year to celebrate the anniversary of the partnership with BPC, MLS is debuting a limited edition jersey with numbers in red, green, and black to commemorate Juneteenth, the federal holiday to observe Black Americans’ official freedom from slavery on 19 June 1865.
Changing the game
But for players like Quincy Amarikwa, founder of BPC, racial and social justice is more than powerful visuals. Juneteenth is about equity and ownership, says Amarikwa.
“MLS is 20% Black and there is limited representation within coaching, executives, or ownership,” Amarikwa says. “If there is Black ownership it’s players from other leagues [such as the NBA] who have made enough money to own a club.”
The other players brought Amarikwa into the fold because of his experience building organizations and his knowledge on issues that matter to Black MLS players. Amarikwa, a free agent, says it was crucial the players established an organization that advocates on their behalf and is completely independent of MLS in order to maintain control of the narrative.
During his career Amarikwa attempted to work his way into executive positions within MLS, but failed. Looking back, he feels it’s because he was advocating too strongly for Black players who, in his opinion, were undervalued.
“I had a natural inclination to understand the business mechanics of the league and to advocate for those underserved who are an influential and a large body of the MLS that happen to be Black,” Amarikwa says.
After its initial work with BPC, MLS hired Sola Winley, the league’s first chief diversity and inclusion officer. Winley admits the position would not have been created without BPC and MLS is taking the organization’s concerns seriously. Last year, the league launched the Black Executive Leadership Program to train former players on the executive track. In addition, MLS launched the Soccer Upward Mobility Initiative which focuses on providing access, exposure, and clearly defined career paths for underrepresented groups within the league.
“Ownership equates to a more equitable and inclusive business community,” says Winley. “We’re looking at how we can increase representation in the executive ranks, in the coaching and technical ranks, and how we can increase awareness and interest in ownership.”
MLS also established a diversity committee that includes five club owners, representatives from the retired players’ group, representatives from the youth organization, an internal ERG, and representatives from BPC.
“It’s important for career development to get a seat at the table and the hardest thing is to get a seat at the table,” Winley says.
It’s a concept BPC understands all too well. So they are using their platform to carve out a path for Black youth soccer players. Sean Johnson, co-founder of BPC and a goalkeeper for NYC FC, says it’s important because soccer is a predominantly white sport and he was forced to learn how to navigate it in real time. One of his biggest lessons came at 10 years old when a player from another team called him a racial slur and spit on him. A scuffle ensued and his parents, who are originally from Jamaica and were also navigating the racial caste system in the US, told him to be careful of his reactions.
“My father was happy the kid learned a lesson, but he also told me to be careful because I could get in trouble and the other person could walk away even though they were wrong,” Johnson recalls. “Those are difficult conversations to have with your kids”.
He says organizations like BPC are important because they knock down many of the invisible barriers that keep Black kids out of soccer. BPC has an initiative to build mini pitches in low-income areas giving children safe places to play soccer. Johnson says the project eradicates the initial barrier of access.
“Soccer is a pay to play sport and can become very expensive, so providing kids with tools and resources is important,” Johnson says. “I didn’t know I could play in college until I saw my friends committing. I had to navigate that myself.”
His vision is to create a pathway that goes beyond childhood and affects the community. He hopes BPC will provide college kids with support, so there’s no “gray area” or gap where kids don’t have the resources to play.
“I think it’s most important that they know they can get into the professional ranks, and once they’re here they see a path post-career, and are always supported,” says Johnson.