As protests against racial injustice continue to roil the country, MLS finds itself navigating a fraught situation.
The league's players staged a near-complete boycott of the six games scheduled for Wednesday night, with only the match between Orlando City SC and Nashville SC taking place with the fluid nature of events not allowing the players to get sufficiently organized. One owner, Real Salt Lake's Dell Loy Hansen, then proceeded to make himself the subject of widespread criticism by making a series of immensely tone-deaf comments. He focused only on how he and his business had been impacted and in the process missed the entire point of the players' stand.
Hansen, in an interview with KXRK-FM's "Radio From Hell" morning show, spoke of the protest as being "like somebody stabbed you, and you're trying to figure out a way to pull the knife out and move forward. That's what it feels like. The disrespect is profound to me personally."
All of this was happening amid one of the more turbulent moments in the league's history. The league had successfully navigated its way through the MLS is Back Tournament bubble, and had returned to the field in some of its home markets. In the process it had pledged to address racial inequality in the wake of the George Floyd killing. Now that work could have been undermined.
With the players making themselves heard and standing up for racial equality, the next steps will be critical to determine if there is action behind the league's words.
How did the league and its players arrive at this moment?
Following the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last Sunday, and the subsequent fatal shooting by a civilian of two protesters two nights later, players of the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks decided to not take the court on Wednesday. Their counterparts across the league and in the WNBA soon announced they would do the same. Some MLB games were postponed as well, all of which generated considerable momentum for the players in MLS to engage in a boycott of their own.
Time pressure went some way toward limiting the options of the Orlando and Nashville players. The NBA games had been canceled by 5:30 p.m. ET. With cell phones banned in MLS locker rooms an hour before the scheduled 7:30 p.m. ET kickoff, there wasn't much time to organize. Players for Inter Miami CF and Atlanta United FC, had an extra half hour to work with given an 8:00 p.m. ET kickoff. That proved critical, and the players managed to organize themselves and agreed to postpone their match.
As Atlanta winger and Mexico international Jurgen Damm told ESPN Mexico, "The captains came to speak with the group about what they were proposing in support of [anti-racism]. Miami and ourselves were both in the same boat, and that's how it was decided. From the moment the decision was made and the players and people involved spoke, [the coaching staff and directors] respected the decision, and they are 100% with us.
"Everyone, absolutely everyone was in agreement in this topic that is very delicate and that something has to be done about so it doesn't keep happening."
Once that domino fell, players scheduled to take the field in other MLS markets soon followed suit.
Kei Kamara and the Colorado Rapids were due to face FC Dallas on Wednesday night. "It was a powerful moment, to be honest," he told ExtraTime Radio. "Personally, even before heading to the stadium, I was feeling funny, being on social media and seeing all the videos and all the things happening for the past couple of days ... For me personally I was like asking some of the guys on my team, 'Why are we even playing soccer right now?' Because our minds weren't even there. ...
"Obviously hearing also the positions from the NBA teams just really empowered us because when we were at the bubble, the demonstration that we put on empowered the NBA and the players that reached out and said, 'We're in full support of what you guys have done.' And for us to see our brothers and sisters, the WNBA also, out there standing up for what's right, we felt there was no way we could sit down and not continue to take a stand for what we're preaching."
Meanwhile, a meeting that included MLS commissioner Don Garber as well as owners and presidents of the teams playing that night took place. While a majority of the teams present wanted to postpone the matches, it wasn't unanimous. In a bid to avoid exposing any reluctant teams, as well as avoid potential labor issues if the players' action was interpreted as a strike, Garber opted to announce that the league was postponing the night's matches.
While well-intended, the statement put out by the league only served to raise the ire of the players who organized the boycott by insinuating that it was the league's and not the players' decision. LAFC midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye tweeted, "We as players made the decision. Fix this, please give the right narrative."
Are the players united?
For the most part yes, but as one would expect in an organization with nearly 700 members, there are differing views. In explaining why the Orlando-Nashville game went ahead, Nashville defender Jalil Anibaba stressed that any decision about playing or not playing required a united front.
"Whatever was going to happen, we weren't going to put Orlando on an island, and Orlando wasn't going to put us on an island," he said.
But Kaye tweeted that he was disappointed that Orlando didn't do more to see to it that the game was called off. During an exclusive interview with ESPN, he didn't back down from those comments.
"[Orlando] hosting the MLS is Back Tournament, and promoting Black Lives Matter, we had a monumental moment, a historic moment for the league where we had everyone with their fists raised for the first two minutes of the first game of the tournament. And it seems like these guys are all on board. And then when the going gets tough, they choose not to because, what, they're footballers? I'm a footballer, too, I care about my career. Eventually, I'm gonna have to provide for kids, a family, I still provide for my mom and my brothers back home. So it's not about that. It's about taking the opportunity to fight for something that is bigger than the game. And they say they didn't use that opportunity very well. So that's why I said I'm disappointed with them."
Another player who asked not to be identified noted that the MLS player pool is only 30% Black, and that it might be difficult to get everyone on board with a sustained boycott. This is on top of the fact that roughly 30% of the league makes $100,000 or less.
"I don't think [the boycott is] something we can extend for too long because then it really starts to affect the well-being of other people," said one player who asked not to be identified.
Hansen misses the point
The RSL owner has long had a reputation for investing considerable amounts of money into soccer, be it for RSL, the NWSL's Utah Royals FC or the USL's Real Monarchs. The team's training facility in Herriman, Utah, is but one example. But that has come with a reputation for treating employees poorly and engaging in outright racist remarks, as detailed by The Athletic. When Hansen acquired a controlling interest in the team in 2014, a steady stream of front office departures followed.
One former staffer summed up Hansen thusly: "He's an amazingly intelligent businessman, and he's got a photographic memory when it comes to Excel spreadsheets and stuff," the source said. "But there seems to be no empathy, no sympathy, no heart, and really no humanistic kinds of qualities at times. That's his downfall. That's gonna be his death."
Hansen walked back some of his comments during an interview on Salt Lake City radio station ESPN700, apologizing to Garber, but tellingly, not the players. The league has since vowed to launch an investigation. The allegations against Hansen as well as his comments have led to calls that he be forced to sell the team. But that is more difficult than it sounds. While there are bylaws that can force a sale with three-quarters majority of vote of the owners, Hansen would have to be paid fair market value for the team. When the league bought out Jorge Vergara in 2014 after he ran Chivas USA into the ground, it paid $70 million for the privilege. Forbes' valuation of Real Salt Lake in late 2019 was $235 million.
Without question, Hansen has become radioactive.
Said one MLS player, "This is bigger than a game, and he should be somehow punished. It's not what soccer in this country is about. I'm not sure if MLS can make him sell or whatever, but imagine if you are a Black player in that locker room and you hear that? How are you supposed to go out and practice and play the next day? I really don't know what the next move is there."
"This is about us, this is about people, humans," Kamara said. "If we're taking a stand, it's not really about business right now and [Wednesday] I said it's the first time in my life I've felt ... when you're really mad about a game and they say, '"It's just a game' and I'm, 'What do you mean it's just a game?'"
What are the next steps?
On Thursday, the Black Players for Change held meetings as to how to proceed. Kaye said that Garber participated in a portion of a conference call "for about 10 minutes."
The big question is: Will the games this weekend will go on? (Editor's note: On Friday afternoon, the league announced that, after conversations with Black Players for Change, matches scheduled for the weekend will go ahead as planned.) Friday sees the Montreal Impact host Toronto FC, with another nine fixtures to follow on Saturday. In talking to players across the league, there is a sense that they will. D.C. United goalkeeper Earl Edwards said: "As the Black Players for Change, we decided that it is important to get back to play."
Said Damm: "We are training normally, preparing for the next game. [Potential postponements] will be talked about among the people in MLS, in different leagues and they'll reach an agreement, but it'll always be in support of what we are living through and to show that union and that solidarity is what there should be."
Kaye said he wasn't sure, and that the BPC was attempting to find common ground with MLS while not backing the league into a corner.
"I want to be respectful to [Garber] so he doesn't feel blindsided," said Kaye. "I truly believe he does want to help, you know. So I just want to give him the courtesy of allowing to bring it publicly first, so that he can be in front of it."
As for how much of those talks are centered on Hansen, one source with knowledge of the talks said, "Not much at all."
An MLS player based in California told ESPN, "We're with our Black teammates 100% and what happens moving forward will depend on what they decide. There is unity among our players, and we'll continue to support them and fight for change. If they think not playing the weekend games is the best thing to do, we won't play them."
So what steps are the players hoping the league will take?
It has been three months since Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police. New York City FC announced a partnership with the Jackie Robinson Foundation in support of Black Lives Matter, which will consist of a grant to sponsor a Jackie Robinson Foundation Scholar. MLS has pledged support for Black Players for Change. Yet there is a sense of impatience about the tangible steps the league has taken to combat racial inequality.
"I feel that there is a very disturbing pattern that, candidly, has only been brought to my attention in the last year or so," former LA Galaxy and United States star Landon Donovan told ESPN. "I feel bad about that. I feel embarrassed that I didn't recognize the magnitude of this sooner than I did. But I feel there is a disgusting pattern of behavior by police officers towards people of color. As someone who has African heritage and middle eastern heritage, it hits home with me ... I'm disgusted by it... Something needs to be done. The only way that happens is by people continuing to voice their opinion."
"I don't think the response has been anything great, other than coming out with statements," Kaye said. "I mean, there needs to be real action, and I understand that I have the responsibility to drive that within my local market and within my club, so that's also on me to step up and demand change from my owners and from my club. So MLS has done the bare minimum. Owners have done the bare minimum. They're doing something but they have the power to do so much more."
Additional reporting from Tom Marshall, Sam Borden and Arch Bell was used in this report.