TORONTO – More and more, pro athletes who use their celebrity to speak out on a number of political and social issues are incurring the wrath of fans and sports journalists who want them to stay in their respective lanes.
A fervent debate over whether or not athletes should just “stick to sports” has ensued, especially in the aftermath of the recent presidential election when the United States appears to be a nation divided.
Jozy Altidore gets it. He understands why people want their sporting heroes to “stick to sports.” But the Toronto FC forward feels athletes should not be excluded from the public debates that people are having on a variety of important issues just because they are athletes.
“I understand [the ‘stick to sports’ argument] actually. At the end of the day, people don’t turn on the TFC game to hear me talk about Donald Trump. They turn it on to watch me play soccer, and play for the team they support,” Altidore said on Wednesday.
“But saying that, it’s a conversation for all citizens, for all people to always be having—not just about who’s president, but about race and different types of issues that are going on in the world.”
As part of Black History Month, Major League Soccer recently invited Altidore to participate in a roundtable discussion to talk about issues that black players face in American soccer. During a 40-minute video that was produced, Altidore eloquently spoke about his views on race and racism, and he also told the story of how he grew up playing soccer in Florida before an Austrian coach spotted him in a park as an eight-year old, and invited him to attend his private academy for free. Altidore credited the coach, Josef Schulz, with giving him an opportunity and allowing him to pursue his dream of playing professional soccer.
Altidore found the entire experience rewarding and enlightening, and now that he has spoken out a bit, he has a taste for doing it more often.
“It’s easier said than done. As professionals, we have our own lives, and our own families, and our own things to take care of. But we’re in a great position to let our voices be heard. I think people look to us a lot to see what we have to say, and how we act and how we behave,” Altidore said.
During the panel discussion, Altidore talked about his frustration over the tone of the many public dialogues that are currently going on, feeling that people have to do a much better job of listening to each other; that the U.S. has become such a divided nation that people have to find a way to sit down together, have a peaceful discussion and talk to each other—not at each other.
“I know it sounds really basic, but I think a lot of times you see a lot of issues that arise—whether it be race, whether it be politics—we don’t take the time to really sit down and hear the other side. If [after listening to the other side] then you don’t agree, fine. At least you understand what is going on with that side and why that side believes what they believe. I think that’s really important [and] we need to get back to that,” Altidore offered.
“It’s hard to do because of everything that comes in between. Everybody has their own beliefs, their own religions, and we get away from the simple [act] of having conversations. I know it sounds easy but it’s hard to do.”
Altidore was racially abused by opposing fans when he played for AZ Alkmaar in Holland earlier in his career—supporters directed monkey chants towards him during a Dutch Cup match between AZ and Den Bosch.
After the game, he told a Dutch TV station, “It’s a bit disappointing that these things still happen in this time that we’re in. But what are you going to do? You just hope these people can find a way to improve themselves. You can only pray for them.”
Looking back at the incident, Altidore remains as philosophical now as he did when it happened four years ago.
“It’s not something I feel hatred for; it’s sad that that kind of thing still happens. All you can do is hope that those people educate themselves and educate their kids so they don’t [follow suit]. You can see in moments like that that [racism is] still alive, and it’s just a topic that we have to keep talking about until we find a way to move forward,” Altidore said.
NOTES: Toronto FC opens the 2017 Major League Soccer season on Saturday, away to Real Salt Lake… TFC coach Greg Vanney confirmed Wednesday that they released French defender Clement Simonin. Vanney also confirmed that striker Ben Spencer, who spent last year with the TFC 2 farm club, will be signed to the first team for the new MLS season… With six roster spots still open (MLS clubs can carry 30 players), Vanney said he could still add a few more players before the start of the campaign. Possible candidates include Canadian Raheem Edwards, a standout with TFC 2, Finish trialist Johan Bruneel, and fellow defender Oyvind Alseth, a third-round draft pick… Fullback Jordan McCrary and Trinidad and Tobago forward Aikim Andrews, two other trialists, are working out with TFC 2, as are draft picks Lars Eckenrode and Juan Pablo Saavedra, both defenders.