Moments before Major League Soccer became the biggest North American team sports league to return to the field of play amid the coronavirus pandemic on Wednesday night, a coalition of Black players in the league led an lengthy moment of silence before Orlando City and Inter Miami kicked off the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando.
The Tennessean reported that more than 170 players from around the league took part in the protest. The unusually long length of the display was intentional. On May 25, unarmed African-American George Floyd was killed in police custody after a Minneapolis officer kneeled on the handcuffed man’s neck for almost nine minutes. The viral video of that incident — and other like it in recent months — has sparked ongoing worldwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism.
Members MLS’s Black Players for Change coalition and other players entered the field alongside the two teams at Walt Disney World’s ESPN Wide World of Sports complex, host of the monthlong, World Cup-style event. Clad in black t-shirts emblazoned with different messages calling for social justice, they held up their fists in a manner reminiscent of United States Olympic medal winners John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics. All 22 starters for Orlando and Miami — plus the match officials — lowered themselves to one knee in solidarity.
And they did it again moments later, seconds before the game began, just as teams in the English Premier League have been since that league returned last month.
Interviewed at halftime of ESPN’s broadcast, veteran Toronto FC fullback Justin Morrow, the executive director of Black Players for Change explained the thinking behind the protest.
“What you just saw was a moment of solidarity, standing up with our brothers and sisters, fighting the fight for racial equality and human rights,” said Morrow, noting that the recently formed organization has had “a direct line of communication with MLS commissioner Don Garber. “We as professional athletes we see what’s happening across the sports landscape in America and the world and how us black players have been galvanized by the death of George Floyd.
“When we first organized as a group, we talked about a protest because Orlando gave us a unique opportunity to all be together, he added. “Tonight was our responsibility to carry on this conversation, to make sure the cycle of violence stops.”
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