When D.C. United was painting Audi Field with the Black Lives Matter slogan, it was part of an organizational effort that included their USL team. But in Loudoun County, the members of Loudoun United FC have managed to find their own way towards the discussions that people should be having around race relations and the treatment of people of color in America.
“It was actually Robby Dambrot that went ahead and texted [Loudoun’s leadership group], but it was [Loudoun coach Ryan Martin’s] idea, and said, ‘Hey, I think this would be a good idea for us to talk about it, just be open as a group, you know, we’re all brothers,” said team captain Peabo Doue in the genesis of the discussions. “And Ryan took the initiative to say, ‘Look, this is something that’s important, that needs to be talked about.’ Even on Juneteeth, we had training, but he took the time beforehand to talk about it, and a lot of guys didn’t really know what [Juneteenth] was, just they see the social media. But Ryan’s a history guy, he knows... We talked about it, we shared our thoughts and that’s something I really appreciate from his end, not being afraid to open that door and just allowing players to voice how they feel about things.”
Martin was encouraging of the group before the protests and helped foster the environment for the connections. “We were talking with guys like ‘How are you dealing with things?’ and trying to encourage our leadership group to get to know their teammates more,” explained Martin. “Then it became a conversation, and I think it was really opening for all of our guys just to hear what certain players and teams have gone through, what they’ve experienced and just what their feelings about things are, as it goes down the line from everybody in the group.”
Those conversations have allowed a team who, before the pandemic break had just one month of preseason and one 90 minute outing together to acquaint themselves, to come closer together as teammates and friends.
“If anything, that has allowed us to become more open with each other, especially when we’re returning to play. Obviously that’s great news and everybody wants to be back and playing football, but I think it’s allowed us to be more open, in terms of communication,” Doue said. “I mean, things get difficult in soccer, you know, there’s so many different personalities, and it’s kind of difficult at least for what I see from, from a leadership perspective...to manage because everybody’s different, right? But I see guys who don’t normally speak a lot speak up more, not just on the field but off the field, guys are joking and laughing, and that’s something that we really missed in quarantine, so that might have something to do with it, but the group just seems a lot more open.”
Forward Joshua Fawole, who was drafted by D.C. United this year before signing with Loudoun, has taken a similar openness to his personal relationships. “I’ve had to confront some of my white friends about what’s going on. I know a few of them have needed more background in education, about how they can use their voice, and why it’s important, because people of privilege need to speak as well, because our race alone is not going to solve the issue. It’s systemic and it’s everything, and it’s predominantly white, so I’ve had to reach out to people I’ve spoken with already and let them know: your voice is important, don’t think that it’s not because you’re not working for the government or something like that, or you don’t have a lot of followers on Twitter or Instagram. Everyone counts.”
When spending any time with Fawole, his advocacy and passion are palpable. “I don’t want to make it seem like the death of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor was the turning point. In a sense it was, but it’s not like that was...the only racial injustice that happened, that is causing the outrage. This has been ongoing for so long. It’s been a silent war, and I think because everyone was able to see that nine-minute explicit video of the officer on George Floyd’s neck. That’s what really outraged people and was like ‘You know what? This is enough,’ (but) that was the tip of the iceberg, there’s so much underwater that has been going on for so long, like, the discrimination, gender, stereotypes, all the stuff that’s been built in, we don’t even notice daily,” said Fawole. “For example, I’m walking in a grocery store, sometimes I’m nervous to put my hoodie up just because of what’s gone on in the past, but I’m happy to see the protests of all races, you know, joining forces because what happened was not right. And now so many truths are coming to light (on) police brutality. The KKK (is) still around, not declared a terrorist organization but I believe it is, the amount of funding that police get is a bit absurd compared to other programs that could get that re-allocation of money. It’s time for change, it’s going to take a very long time, it’s going to be a long war. It is a revolution, I would say because this is going to change America forever, and it pretty much starts now.”
For Doue, the specifics of Breonna Taylor’s slaying hit particularly close to home. “That was when I opened up a lot, because in high school I actually experienced something similar to that. [At] about 3am, the police came into my house on a no-knock warrant, and literally woke me up with guns and flashlights to my face, put me in cuffs, put my mom in cuffs. When I heard that Breonna Taylor news for me, I wouldn’t go as far as saying it traumatized me, but it brought back memories and made me think about it more, because when it happened in high school, it’s like, ‘Oh man this is crazy.’ It happened to me, but just hearing how that went down, it forced me to think a lot,” explained Doue. “Obviously it could happen to everybody, but just being in that situation I experienced that firsthand, I wouldn’t say messed me up, but kind of got me thinking, like deep thinking, for a while. And that’s why I decided to share [that story]. I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback, but I figured people would appreciate opening up like that, and hearing that side that they probably never expected before. Most of the time it’s just people that I come in contact with, my close friends share stuff with me and even on this panel that we have on Zoom, I think the the first meeting was three hours long just chatting, and we’re actually making jokes like, ‘Yo, you gotta get the pro plan, we can’t grab enough time.”
Fawole added that the news can be difficult to grapple with on a day-to-day basis. “I’ve had to probably work more on my mentality, because every day I’m on this roller coaster of emotions. I wake up and I thank God for the day, because not everyone gets to see another day, but then I go on Twitter and Instagram. It’s like, another killing or another form of police brutality. My mood goes down, I get so in my head, so angry and I just have to take a break and I try to find like an outlet for myself, and whether that’s going to training or talking to my friends, it helps a lot,” said Fawole. “I find myself in that cycle a lot. It’s hard... I cannot completely ignore this issue because my brothers and sisters are suffering, and they’re innocent. I don’t believe the way police have been treating black people has been anywhere close to where it should be.”
Doue and Fawole have observed small things around those they train with as well. “I’ve had teammates reach out to me personally, send texts like ‘You know, we know you’re going through [something], we can’t probably relate because we’re not the same race, but we fully stand behind you, what the police [are] doing is not right,’” Fawole said.
From a club perspective, the first-year pro is pleased with how Loudoun has handled the situation. “The club has made statements on social media. That was good, that they’re backing their players. The [USL] released their statement saying that they will not punish players for kneeling during the anthem if we don’t believe in that, so that was good as well. We had one session where Ryan concluded it and asked if we wanted to speak up or say anything, so we just shared a little bit about what’s going on. We recognize Juneteenth as a holiday, as it should be recognized, talked about that background, took the team photo kneeling. So I think we’re taking the correct approach. There’s never been any form of discrimination anywhere in this club. I’ve always felt completely comfortable, I love those guys man, they’re my brothers so it’s all been, it’s all been really good I’ve been feeling really good recently.”
Doue also notes the support he’s received from the organization from the top down, including D.C.’s Bill Hamid and Earl Edwards Jr. (who have both been active with MLS’s Black Players for Change). According to Doue, it extends to the club’s ownership as well. “I know that Jason [Levien] also is thinking about these type of things, he’s always an open book, in terms of ideas that some guys might have. It’s been good, because this organization has been completely supportive. One thing I appreciated that Jason said, after everybody got together, we have a little speech, he’s like, ‘This isn’t it. There’s there’s more work to be done,’ and I’m sure in the future, once things go back to normal, there’ll be some things that we see that kind of justify that.”
“The biggest thing I’ve challenged the group is to not let this be a one Zoom call or one conversation. For us as a group, it’s got to be a continuing conversation: How can we continue to progress?,” Martin said. “This group has done a really good job with it, even from Juneteenth, all the guys wanted to train together and be together.
Keeping those conversations requires some changes from the normal routine, which for Martin hasn’t been a problem. ”We trained on July 4th, and it was a very different July 4th than it was a year ago. So we kind of went around and spent 30 minutes and asked, ‘Where are you with things?’ Can you reflect what their feelings are...maybe put themselves in someone else’s shoes [in a way] that they never really thought of, and just take a minute and reflect on society in lots of ways. That was our biggest encouragement for the Fourth of July. So now our hope is this conversation continues. They can use their platform to spark change, whether it’s one person’s mind that changes or a lot of people. It’s been a great conversation, it’s been open, it’s been a very just good, healthy thing.”