Words and photos by Tagwa Moyo
Words and photos by Tagwa Moyo
Tosaint Ricketts and Carl Valentine of the Vancouver Whitecaps on being Black in soccer and what it was like to see the movement for Black lives arrive on the pitch

S hut up and dribble. Leave politics out of sports.

These are the ugly responses professional athletes have had to put up with for decades, whenever they have voiced their opinions on the social issues that matter to them. These close-minded criticisms didn’t disappear in the last year, but amidst a global pandemic and nearly unprecedented social upheaval, many professional athletes still decided to take a stand and use their platforms for more than just sport.

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Most Canadians can recognize the heroic efforts and results put forth by Black athletes past and present. But I would argue that way too few Canadians are aware of the extent to which racism and inequality have impacted those athletes for generations — the way they continue to plague them. As a photographer, I try to speak to people through images, to move them and share ideas. My goal with this photo essay is to highlight the struggle for racial equality that is ongoing in sport and society, and hopefully stimulate a conversation about the role we all can play in creating a more just world for all.

In addition to the photos, though, I felt it was valuable to let my subjects speak for themselves on these issues. So I sat down with Vancouver Whitecaps player Tosaint Ricketts and Whitecaps legend Carl Valentine to talk about life as a Black footballer — past and present. We discussed current movements that are sparking change for Black communities, as well as the work that needs to be done.

Fans sometimes lose sight of this fact, but I hope that through their words and these images it will be evident that before they are athletes, they are human beings.

They matter. Black Lives Matter. These conversations matter.

TAGWA MOYO: The Black Lives Matter movement really elevated in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd. What was it like seeing so many big-name celebrities and athletes taking a stand?

TOSAINT RICKETTS: Obviously, being Black, I’ve experienced racism my whole life, in many different ways — subtle, passive, and aggressive forms. With the whole movement and everything that happened, it’s like something has been boiling up for a while, and now the time has come for people to speak up. So, when I was watching the movement — people speaking up; athletes using their platforms and taking a stance — it made me proud.

CARL VALENTINE: I was following it very closely to see where it was going to go. I thought to myself, “It’s not the first time a Black man has been gunned down; it’s not the first time there have been marches and incidents.” However, as things evolved, I felt that things seemed different this time.

Tos, you played a key role in planning Whitecaps players’ demonstration against systemic racism during the “MLS is Back” campaign. What was it like being part of that? And what was it like going into that?

TR: It started from an Instagram group. We started to share our experiences and our frustrations. It wasn’t something we planned for a long time; it was organic. We just decided that now’s the time. Just like that, it turned into something more organized: getting shirts made, speaking to the league — the owners and the commissioner of the league.

Carl, what was it like seeing that display? Back when you were playing, as a Black footballer could you ever picture doing something like what happened in MLS this year?

CV: No. I think it’s unique and I think the timing of it is obviously unique too. When you think about it, having all these Black athletes taking a stand in a big tournament: People can attack and they didn’t. It inspired others. In the Premier League and around the world, people are still taking a knee [before games in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement]. That means it really inspired people. The big thing is: It’s not just a Black thing anymore, and it’s not going to be solved by us alone.

Unfortunately, the Black Lives Matter protests and kneeling were also met with some criticism. What was that like, hearing fans booing, hearing members of other teams not being completely supportive?

TR: Yeah, it hurt the players. The negative responses that we’ve seen and what many players experienced in their markets, that was hurtful. I can recall two situations where players came back to the group feeling hurt. They couldn’t believe the response they were getting from their fans. We were not trying to be better than anyone else you know, it’s about equality.

Can you speak to some of the racism that you’ve dealt with?

TR: Yeah, I’ve had many experiences. My first experience which really hurt me was in Romania. We were playing against a lower third-division team in kind of a smaller village. When I got substituted in, players and the fans started chanting derogatory and racist things — monkey noises and racial slurs were thrown at me, they were really coming after me. I felt alone at the time, you know.

CV: Well, these are certainly different times. With what’s transpired with Black Lives Matter, I’ve talked about some things that I’ve never talked about before. Because I grew up in a different era, I just accepted it before. You know, we had places like Upton Park, where West Ham played, and Millwall, with The Den; there were places where the crowds were pretty hostile and pretty racist. I was playing, and the same as Tos, you got the monkey challenge, you got a banana thrown on the field. You know, you kind of just accepted it because it was a different time.

What kind of advice do you have for young Black folks who are trying to be pro footballers?

TR: Speak up! It’s very uncomfortable to speak about these things. Even now, speaking about it, it makes me a little bit uncomfortable. I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes, I don’t want to say the wrong thing, but that uncomfortableness needs to happen. Many times I have had to bite my tongue. But what I would say to young players is, “When things happen to you, speak up. Just share your experiences.”

CV: It remains a difficult subject, but one good approach is to just ask questions. In the end, you need to know your history. Racism comes in many different forms, it can be very subtle, and you may not even know it. So you just need to be educated. There’s a lot of ignorance out there.

What are some things that you think can be done, especially speaking to the sports and football community?

CV: I think, on the larger scale, we have to educate people more about what’s going on. The thing is, it’s not about just me, it’s a major issue. Racism is a major issue. I will keep talking about this. I will keep it at the forefront.

TR: I mean, I hate to say it, but I feel like I’m at a disadvantage just because of the colour of my skin. Until that changes, until opportunities are equal and you see more Black people in positions, where kids can aspire to be GMs, not just athletes, [where they can aspire to be] presidents, owners and such. Until then, we have our work cut out for us!

Photo Credits

Photography by Tagwa Moyo