A soccer brotherhood: The story behind Black Players for Change

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·11 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Before he became an executive director for a Black player coalition in Major League Soccer, Justin Morrow received death threats during high school in Cleveland when media coverage of his soccer talents became too much for some.

Before Jeremy Ebobisse became a board member for that same coalition, the Portland Timbers forward was a youngster from Bethesda, Maryland, enduring N-word taunts from opponents in his club soccer games.

Calling out systemic racism in society and vying for more opportunities for Black people in MLS is nothing new for Morrow and Ebobisse – but they used to do so on their own.

Now, as board members of Black Players for Change, an independent, player-led coalition that has more than 170 members, they are helping create tangible change for the Black community in MLS. The group, which was founded on Juneteenth one year ago, is not only impacting Black players, coaches and staff as professionals, it is also empowering members as Black men in America as they combat racial injustice.

The Black Players for Change assembled on the field July 8, 2020 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex ahead of the first match at the MLS Is Back Tournament.
The Black Players for Change assembled on the field July 8, 2020 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex ahead of the first match at the MLS Is Back Tournament.

In its first 12 months, the coalition has become a force. Members protested on the field at the MLS Is Back Tournament last July, raising their fists for 8 minutes and 46 seconds to remind the nation of how long Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd's neck, murdering him. The group also helped transform MLS stadiums into voting polls in November. It has vowed to build 12 soccer mini-pitches for Black communities, and it established the league's first diversity committee, which gave it a seat at the table with MLS owners and Commissioner Don Garber.

But to solely harvest one year of change as a feel-good highlight reel overlooks the emotional roller coaster the men representing the coalition are riding, as they seek to expand opportunities for Black individuals in American soccer while forging bonds as brothers.

“There’s already so much that goes into a player's career, in terms of being successful on the field," Morrow told The Tennessean. "But for me, this has been about leading a group of men in pursuit of a goal. We win sometimes, we fail sometimes, but we always do it together.”

A budding superstar and a death threat

Black Players for Change has grown from an Instagram group chat, started by Morrow to create a safe space for Black players expressing their frustrations after Floyd's murder, into a fully working organization that communicates and conducts business through WhatsApp and Slack.

The byproduct has been the creation of a tight-knit organization that allows Black players such as Morrow — the Toronto FC fullback in his 12th year in MLS — to connect with some of the league's youngest. The dynamic has created an atmosphere that encourages players to speak up and find their voices.

Justin Morrow, 33, is the executive director for Black Players for Change and is a fullback for Toronto FC in Major League Soccer.
Justin Morrow, 33, is the executive director for Black Players for Change and is a fullback for Toronto FC in Major League Soccer.

"If we can be the ones to empower (players) to do that," Morrow said, "that's exactly the reason why this organization exists.”

More than just a co-founder, Morrow, 33, is the group's elected leader. He has perfected walking the line between a serious focus for work and keeping things light with jokes.

Those skills, along with his passion for a cause bigger than himself, comes from his father, Leroy.

Starting as a 23-year-old patrol officer for the Cleveland Division of Police, when Morrow was 2, Leroy climbed the ranks to become a lieutenant by the time Morrow was 13 and eventually became a commander.

“He was just so dedicated and rose up the ranks,” Morrow said. “… I saw that he was always trying to work harder for our family, and pull us up, so that’s always in my mind like, ‘Don't mess around.' ”

Morrow heeded that advice as he blossomed into a star at Saint Ignatius High School, a prominent Catholic school in Cleveland. As a junior, Morrow had helped the Wildcats win their first state championship. His prominence grew as the Cleveland Plain Dealer published stories about both his talent and his team.

That prominence came full circle that fall, when Morrow was called to the principal's office with one of his close friends on the soccer team. The school had received a letter with death threats addressed toward them. Police were present and the FBI was involved.

The letter contained racist language, and according to The Athletic, it made reference to a photo that had appeared in the Plain Dealer of Morrow, his teammate and their white homecoming dates.

FBI officials eventually identified the person who made the threat. The person had also sent similar racist messages to professional athletes.

The incident was an eye-opener, Morrow admits, but not a detriment.

“Those things happen to you and maybe you don't consciously let it affect you, but subconsciously you know it's always there,” he said. “It's always there. It shapes the way you see things, so it's just been as a steppingstone to get to where I am today.”

Morrow matriculated through majority-white Catholic schools at every level of his education. He played four seasons at Notre Dame from 2006-10 and was the treasurer of the campus NAACP chapter, which he helped start. It was his way of making change in a predominantly white environment.

"I just wanted to create something that lasts longer than I do," Morrow said. "My time studying at Notre Dame was fantastic, but it's always short for everyone. The same will be with Major League Soccer in my professional career."

Gaslighting and the N-word

Ebobisse, 24, also grasped racism from an early age. Growing up in affluent Bethesda, Maryland, the Timbers forward was one of two Black kids in his grade during elementary school and was naturally exposed to politics near the nation's capital. He played for Bethesda SC as a youth, which included Alex Van Hollen, the son of U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).

“I was in and around his campaign events and got to understand from a distance what it took to run successful campaigns and to legislate,” Ebobisse told The Tennessean.

But as Ebobisse grew older, his Bethesda SC squad became more diverse with players from Potomac, Bowie and Baltimore. But he still endured gaslighting. Some of his peers in Bethesda and at Walter Johnson High School – where he graduated in three years – insisted racism didn't exist, as they spewed the N-word in Ebobisse's presence.

It wasn't until his sophomore year that Michael Williams – who played soccer at Howard University, an HBCU in Washington – became Ebobisse's AP World History teacher. Williams, who also coached Walter Johnson's soccer team, gave Ebobisse a new way of attacking racism and oppression.

Jeremy Ebobisse, 24, is a board member with Black Players for Change and a forward for the Portland Timbers in Major League Soccer.
Jeremy Ebobisse, 24, is a board member with Black Players for Change and a forward for the Portland Timbers in Major League Soccer.

"The way he taught me to look at the world from where I was, breaking down the Eurocentrism in everything that I received up until that point, definitely set me on a course to challenge narratives as I see them and to understand biases everywhere," Ebobisse said. "And if I can understand the bias, then I can understand information a little bit better."

Ebobisse is still on that course. Now as a five-year veteran with the Timbers, he collaborated with the Players Coalition, which consists of NFL players, in the spring to help pass the Juvenile Restoration Act.Maryland Senate Bill 494 would abolish life without parole for youths and institute a judicial review for sentence reduction after 20 years of confinement. In September, Morrow did the same in tandem with Players Coalition members in Ohio, helping pass Ohio Senate Bill 256.

Such a platform is new to Ebobisse, who is revered by his teammates and respected by Portland's activism community, including Rose City Justice, which led several intense protests in the city last June. In a way, Ebobisse is empowered and it's credit to Black Players for Change.

“In 2017, 2018, 2019, I would have never had the chance to use, for example, my club in order to further my message directly or to create content or to change internal policy,” Ebobisse said. “It was pretty nonexistent, whether it was because I was a draft pick that hadn't broken into the team yet, or because the social climate wasn't there for it. I think it was a little bit of both.

"Now that's not the case. ... We're asking the tough questions, not only in Portland, but nationwide and at the league office. I think it's really important and that's a testament to BPC.”

Breaking the player-owner barrier

Black Players for Change sparked unprecedented progress in its relationship with MLS last summer.

BPC’s board of directors secured a meeting with Garber after 10 MLS clubs chose not to play after the August shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by Kenosha police in Wisconsin. In that Sept. 24 meeting with Garber, MLS owners and BPC, the league committed to a $1 million contribution to BPC through 2024, coupled with a package of six initiatives.

The meeting accelerated MLS' hiring of Sola Winley as vice president and chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer. Winley, who is Black, had championed diversity and inclusion as executive vice president of corporate strategy at A+E Networks.

The meeting also helped establish the MLS Diversity Committee. Winley sits on the committee with Morrow, Sean Johnson of New York City FC, and Earl Edwards Jr. of the New England Revolution. Garber, a crew of MLS owners, a resource group of Black MLS employees and the Soccer Collective on Racial Equity (S.C.O.R.E) also make up the committee.

“We're players in a room with MLS employees, front office employees and owners of our teams,” Edwards said. “In those spaces – granted, we're players – we want to be viewed more as men, as Black men that are trying to make a change.

Earl Edwards Jr., 29, is a board member with Black Players for Change and goalkeeper for the New England Revolution.
Earl Edwards Jr., 29, is a board member with Black Players for Change and goalkeeper for the New England Revolution.

“I think that dynamic of us being players – feeling like players – and them being owners looking at players a certain way, being in the front office looking at players a certain way – (it’s) that border of interactions we don't normally have. Now (they're) taking feedback from players, specifically Black players,. I think it's just new for them and for us to be outspoken, demanding certain things or telling them what we want is new for us, too.”

For Johnson, sitting on the committee has made an impact on him. The committee’s April 20 meeting happened as the Chauvin guilty verdict was being revealed. Chauvin killing Floyd sparked a national reckoning for social injustice and police brutality.

“I remember specifically – I shut off my (Zoom) video. I went into the living room," Johnson said. "I took about 15, maybe 20 (minutes) which felt like forever because it was it was a very emotional moment for me, sitting there with my girlfriend and hearing the verdict.”

‘Turn the page. On to the next.’

Johnson called BPC’s impact on him an emotional ride. For Morrow, leading the group has created a series of life lessons. And for Ebobisse, the power of the platform makes him proud.

But after a long pause, all three elected to focus on what impact Black Players for Change will have on the Black community beyond the coalition's first year in existence.

“Youth soccer into college soccer into professional soccer has not been the most welcoming of environments for Black people in this country – Black men and women,” Ebobisse said. “So alongside BPC and other organizations, we have a big role to play in changing that and I think we've already put a lot of people on alert and gained a lot of collaboration as well.”

BPC's work impacts stretches outside the American soccer bubble. Morrow and Ebobisse represent BPC in working with the NBA Players’ Association on advocating the passage of the George Floyd Justice In Policing Act, which prohibits racial profiling, reforms qualified immunity, bans chokeholds and federal no-knock warrants, such as the one used in the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman, in Louisville, Kentucky.

Juneteenth is a celebration for Black liberation and the end of slavery in the U.S. To Black Players for Change, the holiday also marks the birth of a brotherhood, whose work in American soccer continues.

“If we don't do it, nobody else is going to and that's exactly how we feel," Morrow said. "That's what's so special about this organization.

“I'm not a guy that looks back very often,” he continued. “I just turn the page and get on to the next thing. And maybe there’s a minute for us to pause and appreciate what we’ve created and at the same time, continue to teach about Juneteenth, which is only growing. So, we have a big job to connect the older generation to the current generation and understanding of how we've gotten here today.”

Black Players for Change board members

  • Justin Morrow, Toronto FC

  • Jeremy Ebobisse, Portland Timbers

  • Quincy Amarikwa, MLS free agent

  • Jalil Anibaba, Nashville SC

  • Earl Edwards Jr., New England Revolution

  • Ray Gaddis, retired MLS player

  • Bill Hamid, D.C United

  • Sean Johnson, New York City FC

  • Ike Opara, Minnesota United FC

  • CJ Sapong, Nashville SC

For stories about Nashville SC or Soccer in Tennessee, contact Drake Hills at DHills@gannett.com. Follow Drake on Twitter at @LiveLifeDrake. Connect with Drake on Instagram at @drakehillssocer.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: MLS' Black Players for Change making their voices heard in US soccer