Under normal circumstances, the remote press conference D.C. United held yesterday would have been about issues like handling the Philadelphia Union’s high-pressing tactics, or injured players, or the Black-and-Red’s efforts to improve in a new formation after a frustrating defeat on Tuesday.
2020 does not offer normal circumstances, however, and with the recent police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the focus in the American sporting landscape has shifted — for good reason — away from the field. As such, United head coach Ben Olsen, goalkeeper Earl Edwards Jr. (a member of the Black Players for Change’s executive board), and wide man Julian Gressel were not speaking to the media with soccer on their minds.
“I don’t really want to speak too much about the game,” said Gressel. “We’ll get ready, we’ll play the game. But I think the conversations need to stay where they should be, and that’s about the Black Lives Matter movement and how we can change this country to move towards a better future.”
While United played on Tuesday, a fast-developing situation on Wednesday saw the Milwaukee Bucks refuse to take the court for their NBA playoff game. Eventually, players in the remaining NBA playoff games, the WNBA, MLS, and in some Major League Baseball games opted for what players in those leagues have referred to as a boycott. Edwards, through his role with the BPC, was able to detail what went into the collective choice to not play.
“Through the BPC, we were able to coordinate what we did, with help from obviously the entire player pool. And I think in terms of an impact and a statement that could be made in sports, it’s one of the bigger ones that’s taken place in this century, that’s for sure,” said Edwards. “I think it had a tremendous impact.”
Edwards also said that as a team, United was “fully in support, fully willing to boycott the game this weekend,” but that the BPC felt that their push for change from MLS itself had been successful. “As the BPC, we decided it’s important for us to get back to playing. We were happy with the impact in the statement that we made by boycotting the games on Wednesday. I think now, with the...steps that will take place and getting together ownership in the MLS, I think we’ll be able to put together a concrete plan moving forward where we can truly start to affect social injustice.”
That was not an easy decision, however, and Edwards said that the choice to not play came both in solidarity with the athletes in other sports, and because the BPC felt that the country’s general willingness to continue pushing for an end to police brutality was waning. “I strongly felt — I know other members of the BPC were starting to feel it — that there was this cycle taking place, of people being really involved in the movement of George Floyd, [followed by] people starting to lose interest,” explained Edwards. “Something as tragic as Jacob Blake’s shooting takes place, and obviously it’s a reminder to the whole country [of] what’s going on. For Black people specifically, the fact that something like that could happen so soon after George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks, while the movement is so strong as it is, for a cop to take that action during this time really reiterates that Black lives aren’t viewed as equal.”
The BPC also wanted tangible changes made by MLS, and after Wednesday’s games weren’t played, Edwards said that as a group they were able to speak with commissioner Don Garber to discuss how to make real progress as a league. “We were able to get in touch with the commissioner, and at least talk about things that we can do moving forward, and how we’ll collaborate moving forward and start to put real concrete plans into place, where we’re collaborating between the BPC and ownership and MLS itself,” said Edwards. “Understanding that [the willingness to collaborate] will be the case here moving forward provided us with the confidence that getting back to play makes sense for us, knowing that we’re in a league that is going to start to prioritize our lives and fighting [for] the movement.”
In his role with the BPC, Edwards plays a major role in the group’s meetings, which include weekly remote discussions among the executive board and full membership meetings once every two weeks. The meetings are an opportunity to organize, of course, but Edwards pointed out that they were also “really therapeutic,” adding that “stuff we experience on a daily basis, stuff that Black people are taught at a young age that that’s life in America. You have to be able to deal with it. You have to have a thick skin. And a lot of that stuff is bottled up, and I think I’m in a place now with the group that we formed, where I’m able to discuss that stuff more often. I’m not having to bottle up as much.”
Edwards was clear that in his view, MLS has not come close to doing enough in terms of concrete action for its Black players. Asked by Black and Red United about his thoughts on whether the league’s actions were satisfactory, Edwards was unsparing. “The word ‘actions’ that you used, I’ve yet to see that part of it. So for me, taking a step in that direction at all would be a positive thing,” said Edwards, before later explaining that after plenty of talk during the MLS is Back Tournament, there had been a lack of follow-through on the league’s part.
“Since [MLS is Back], it’s been reactionary statements to killings, to owners having ridiculous statements following what happened to Jacob Blake. A lot of reactionary stuff. I don’t know what action...has been taken, whether that’s financial commitments, anything. Mentorship programs put in place, any program put in place. I haven’t seen any action whatsoever,” stated Edwards, who later added that after “almost a month and a half, two months of hearing” talk from the league, the players felt compelled to act.
The ongoing issues were not lost on Olsen, who said it had been “an emotionally taxing” week for the entire team.
“What happened here in the MLS, or at least in our group, is we have a few influential players within the [Black Players for Change] and, we as a group decided that we will support what they feel is right in this moment. And we’ve got some great guys in Bill [Hamid] and Earl, Chris [Odoi-Atsem], who are extremely engaged and sharp, and have a real good pulse of what’s going on with that coalition,” said Olsen. “We put a lot of stock in them and their opinions and, again, are supportive. But yeah, I think there were real discussions about whether or not to sit” for another game.
Addressing the spate of league and team statements, many of which failed to mention police brutality or its victims, Edwards was clear: in his opinion, they simply weren’t enough. “Other statements have been weak, for lack of a better word, reactionary and there’s been no action. It’s truly hurtful. We’re being murdered, for people to see, on a regular basis, and the league just hasn’t seemed to have stepped up to really combat that. So I think they have a long way to go, and like I said,it’s just genuinely as a Black person, this is hurtful, and it seems like our lives don’t matter.”
On the other hand, Edwards indicated that as an individual MLS club, United has paired strong words with real action. The symbolic gestures, like painting the pitch at Audi Field, came quickly, and in Edwards’ estimation they have been followed up on with action. According to him, United has made concrete moves behind the scenes, including adding him to the team’s Diversity and Inclusion group. Edwards added that GM Dave Kasper suggested purchases the organization could make that would support the BPC and other related causes.
Edwards said that the Black-and-Red have worn shirts emblazoned with the phrase “SAY THEIR NAMES” on the front and a list of victims of police brutality on the back in the aftermath of an attempt to wear those names on their backs during games at MLS is Back that didn’t quite work out.
“The open communication I’ve been able to have with Ben himself, with Dave, [I] was on phone Jason [Levien] yesterday. As a whole, the locker room, the players, staff, our weightlifting coach, everybody has been really open and really communicative with me, and I really feel like I’m fortunate to be at a club where we’re on the right side of history with this thing,” explained Edwards. “We’ve been at the forefront of this. The statement we put out yesterday in support of the BPC, the first club to openly, publicly support the BPC. We’re on the right side of history on this thing. We’re at the forefront and I trust that we’ll continue to be in that stance.”
Olsen said that the last few days have involved training “with a little bit of heavy hearts, and a lot of emotion,” but emphasized an open, collective approach for the group. “There’s been a lot of good conversation per usual here at our club and within the group, on what steps to take, both as a group and as an organization... I’m here, listening to the players and the staff, and you know, be understanding and still listen and understand that we have a long way to go.”
Those discussions are of great importance to Olsen, who was clear that they are open dialogues with the idea of using the entire group’s platform. “I think those are very, very healthy conversations to have right now, on what is the best road [forward],” said Olsen. “Whether it’s protesting, whether it’s doubling down on messaging and actions, or within organizations, whether it’s leaning on influential people that are close to us to affect change, and maybe some of the circles that we don’t have access to.”
Gressel struck a similar note, and noted how important Edwards had been in team discussions. “I think we’re all on the same page on this issue,” said Gressel. “We spoke about it obviously a lot with Earl...with him being so involved in all of this. And we’re on the same page in terms of, whatever they [United’s Black players] think is a right thing for us to do, we would be on board with that. If that’s cancelling games, then that would have been our stance as well as a team.”
Despite choosing to play, though, the emotional toil of seeing more violence against Black people and inaction from those in power was clear, and became a recurring theme throughout the press conference. Edwards wanted to make clear the cost that these moments have on MLS’s Black players.
“Jacob Blake’s case obviously is something that hadn’t enough of an impact on the country as a whole, where it reminds people that the issue hasn’t gone away and won’t go away for a long time. But just to reiterate: as Black people, our lives are our priority. And it took precedent [over] games on Wednesday,” said Edwards. “Hopefully the league understands that without their support, it’s really hard as Black people in this league to feel that we want to contribute to it. It’s hurtful to not see action from the MLS when these things happen as Black people in this league. It truly makes us feel like our lives don’t matter. So, until action is taken, that’s kind of — and this is as a BPC board member and someone that’s deeply involved in that — that’s how we feel. We’re deeply hurt by how the MLS has not taken action.”