MLS, NWSL, and USL’s return to the field has been a breath of fresh air for the soccer community in the United States. With the professional leagues back in action, there is a renewed optimism for the rest of the levels to follow suit.
With so much attention on those leagues as the flag bearers for professional team sports in the United States, there have been some new stars that have emerged during this period - both on the field and off the field.
Friend of the site Kim McCauley wrote an excellent piece on how the national anthem is creating a hostile work environment back in June following the first weekend of action in the NWSL. MLS has elected not to play the national anthem prior to the games during the #MLSisBack Tournament, but rather recognize a minute of silence.
The men’s league, for better or worse, has an even larger platform as ESPN and Fox Sports have craved the live content the league is providing during this time while baseball and basketball are still slowly ramping up to their return to their respective leagues. MLS is Back viewership numbers are way up compared to last season for the league.
The increased attention has shined a light on new faces and put a heavy pressure on players in using the elevated platform to make a difference.
Portland Timbers forward Jeremy Ebobisse did not wait to be back on the field to start trying to make a change. The former Duke standout from Bethesda wrote a moving essay on June 1st about his feelings on social injustice and many other pressing topics.
He did not let his words be his only action. Ebobisse along with Toronto FC defender Justin Morrow discussed how the Black Players Coalition was formed on a podcast with Stars and Stripes back in June - which was announced on June 19th.
“This is what we came up with, an organization that was going to be able to be impactful, not only as joining together in a unity sense but also impactful in that we were going to create change through action and initiative which is going to change our world and Major League Soccer,” Morrow, the Executive Director of the Black Players Coalition said on the podcast.
MLS, as a whole, has taken notice. Players are able to customize their jerseys with messages. Montreal Impact head coach Thierry Henry took a knee for the first eight minutes and 46 seconds of Impact’s game against New England Revolution - a symbolic gesture to the murder of George Floyd.
Ebobisse designed the Portland Timbers’ pregame shirts from Monday in their opener against LA Galaxy. All of the shirts honored a different victim of police violence. Ebobisse wore a shirt honoring Fred Hampton.
"What you saw before the game and what you saw us warmup in, both of those separate shirts were a direct result of the hard work of many people to put the logistics into action so that we could send out a strong message, [with] both being that Black lives have always mattered," Ebobisse told MLS reporters after the game.
The message has been clear that MLS players and staff want to see change - from every avenue of systemic racism. The league has supported this and the broadcast partners have not shied away from airing those messages during the primetime events.
In June, MLS Commissioner Don Garber said he wanted the league to bring forward meaningful change. This could be a new leaf for MLS, which has a bit of a rocky past with social issues. Just this year FC Cincinnati head coach Ron Jans was accused of using a racial slur. Jans resigned in February. Following his removal, FC Cincinnati President Jeff Berding said it was more than just a racial slur that led to Jans being removed.
The league’s track record of hiring black coaches has been disappointing from any metric. The Athletic’s Pablo Maurer wrote an excellent piece on the subject in February of 2019. Journalist Brooke Tunstall pointed out that not much has changed in MLS’ diversity in the past year as he notes that more than half of MLS teams do not have any black coaches on the staff.
MLS’ issues are not contained to hiring practices. The league’s inability to denounce nazis drew plenty of scrutiny in 2019 as a NYCFC fan group was exposed for their extremist message. Garber was quoted as saying “our job is not to judge or profile any fan.”
If Garber was not ready to judge a fan then, hopefully Ebobisse and others have opened his eyes to being a strong voice to change now.
When MLS and NWSL lead with a powerful message, the rest of the levels will follow suit. US Club Soccer is hosting a webinar on the “Importance of Diversity and Inclusion in Youth Sports” on Thursday. Marti Reed, from the Positive Coaching Alliance, and Chance Daniel, from San Franscisco Elite Academy, are leading the discussion.
Youth sports needs more of that now more than ever, and hopefully brilliant minds like Ebobisse can continue to lead the charge for all of us.