Compared to their millionaire NBA and MLB brethren, MLS players' walkout comes with added risks

·4 min read

The NBA and Major League Baseball athletes who decided on Wednesday night that continuing to play sports while the United States reeled from yet another police shooting of a Black person caught on video deserve enormous respect for having the moral courage to take a stand.

Don’t undersell what Major League Soccer’s athletes did, either.

Unlike their NBA and MLB brethren, most of MLS’s 600-plus players aren’t millionaires. A significant portion earn less than $100,000 per year. Most will have to find regular jobs when their fleeting careers as professional athletes end. In other words, those employed by the 10 teams that refused to take the field Wednesday to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake were taking considerable risk.

Make no mistake: MLS officials wanted the show to go on. Clubs in the notoriously frugal league had already sent the five visiting teams that ended up participating in the wildcat strike on chartered flights at significant expense; during non-pandemic times, teams typically fly commercial.

The NBA and WNBA players, who also called off their games Wednesday night, remained their respective bubbles in Florida, easing the logistical and financial burden on its billionaire owners. MLS players considered those losses and acted anyway. Doing the right thing trumped the convenience, consequences be damned.

FC Dallas and the Colorado Rapids pose after refusing to play Wednesday’s scheduled MLS game between the teams in protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha, Wisconsin police. (Omar Vega/Getty Images)
FC Dallas and the Colorado Rapids pose after refusing to play Wednesday’s scheduled MLS game between the teams in protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha, Wisconsin police. (Omar Vega/Getty Images)

After the league said that they, not the players, made the decision to postpone the final five matches of the day — Wednesday’s early game between Orlando City and Nashville SC was played in its entirety — at least one player, LAFC midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye, pushed back against MLS.

Hours later, one MLS owner, Real Salt Lake’s Dell Loy Hansen, publicly blasted his own players by saying their decision to stand with their fellow athletes — in total, 14 MLB, MLS, NBA and WNBA contests were postponed — and shine a light on the systemic racism and police brutality that continues to disproportionally impact communities of color in the United States was “like somebody stabbed you and you’re trying to figure out a way to pull the knife out.”

“That’s what it feels like,” Hansen added. “The disrespect is profound to me personally.”

While Hansen was dragged for his tone-deaf (at best) comments, it wouldn’t be surprising if privately, at least a few other MLS owners felt the same way.

MLS is probably the most progressive major American sports league this side of the NBA. But its owners are still mostly old and white and conservative, and its Players’ Association doesn’t wield anywhere close to the influence of the unions in the NBA, NFL, NHL or MLB.

MLS isn’t the world’s top destination for soccer players. Far from it. For the most part, its on-field employees are replaceable. Hansen went as far as to say that Wednesday’s move left him reconsidering his investment in the roster going forward.

The MLSPA and the league had enjoyed the best relationship between labor and management in MLS’s 25-year history before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the regular season in March. But the players were left furious after the owners walked back some of the concessions they’d signed off on in a new collective bargaining agreement after the health crisis began but before the CBA had been ratified.

The players begrudgingly accepted being forced, more or less, to be guinea pigs for men’s professional sports’ first “bubble” experiment ahead of the MLS is Back Tournament. Sure, they had the option to opt out for health or family reasons, just as athletes in other sports did. But it’s a lot harder to forgo your salary for a month or two when your paycheck is a lot closer to a teacher’s or a software engineer’s than to LeBron James’s. Who knows were the relationship stands after this?

A dozen more MLS games are slated for this weekend. It remains to be seen if those will go ahead as planned. Either way, don’t overlook the high-wire act MLS players pulled off on Wednesday. The owners certainly won’t forget it.

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