In a year where the unthinkable has often occurred, the MLS’ return proved the remarkable still can, too.
North American soccer resuming at all amid a pandemic which has wrought incalculable losses strained belief — a glimmer of normalcy in 2020’s uncertainty. That matters. The games that have taken place — and will, hopefully, continue to — do, too.
But the sight of players taking to the field for the first time is the image that will endure. Some raised fists. Others knelt. All were unified in a simple, essential message: Black lives matter.
“Just being on that field with my brothers, who I’ve played with a number of years in this league, was the emotional point and probably the biggest moment of my career,” Justin Morrow, Toronto FC defender and executive director for the Black Players Coalition of MLS, said during a Wednesday appearance on Tim and Sid.
“And on top of that, you add in the fact that the Black coaches, Black executives, Black technical staff members joined us throughout Major League Soccer. That was just an incredible moment, the fact that we were able to get that done. Everyone felt really good about it afterwards.”
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) July 9, 2020
The weeks preceding it were filled with more turmoil for Morrow, though. As protests swept across the United States, spurred by the murder of George Floyd, demanding an end to anti-Black racism and police brutality, Morrow found himself in Toronto — far from his hometown of Cleveland. He remembers watching it unfold, the marches, the protests, the calls for Black lives to be valued. And he remembers wondering what he could do to do his part at this moment in history.
From that desire came his involvement with the founding of the Black Players Coalition of MLS, a player-led group whose guiding goal is to give Black players in MLS a voice and make systemic change both in and outside the league. The passion for change underlying The Coalition’s founding carried over to Orlando, where MLS is staging its return to play.
“When we got together for the first time as a group of players, there was so much energy there. And for me, it felt really cathartic to be a part of it,” Morrow said. “So to be a spearhead in this process has been really fulfilling for me, to make sure that I’m doing my part to help make the change.”
The advocacy has been wide-ranging. From on-field demonstrations, to donning jerseys with messages supporting the movement, to even acts as simple as raising social media awareness.
Morrow need look no further than Jozy Altidore, his TFC teammate, for proof of that.
“Breonna Taylor was murdered in her own home,” Altidore tweeted on July 14. “The officers who killed her are still walking free. Silence is violence.”
Taylor was a 26-year-old Black woman killed by police in Louisville in March, after plainclothes officers entered her home shortly after midnight and exchanged gunfire with her boyfriend. Eight bullets struck Taylor. To this day, nearly five months later, no charges have been filed against the officers who killed her.
Though the on-field advocacy is essential, structural change — the kind that may build a future where there is no next Breonna Taylor or George Floyd, where equality is achieved instead of strived for — requires action. Morrow knows that, too.
“What we’re excited to start doing now is start putting the action behind the words that our group has been speaking about for months, but Black people have been speaking out for decades, centuries,” Morrow said. “We’ve been speaking with the commissioner and Major League Soccer, about diversity hiring practices …and he’s been working in conjunction with the Black employees in Major League Soccer headquarters to come up with a platform and a program to do that.
“Hiring the chief diversity officer was part of that and so we’re are working closely with him to see the change and in Black hirings that we want to see in Major League Soccer. And then on top of that, you’re going to start seeing players in Major League Soccer being more active in their local communities in terms of social justice issues.”