As racism fires rage on in America, Atlanta United and Inter Miami’s players remind us that listening and activism matter

MLS Boycott Activism

Those of us fortunate enough to cover a game we love for a living came to Inter Miami Stadium in Fort Lauderdale Wednesday night believing we’d cover a soccer game. It was supposed to be the inaugural meeting between the host, Club Internacional De Fútbol Miami, better known as Inter Miami, and Atlanta United, the fourth-year club from the market that was supposed to fail that has become in about every way, the image of everything MLS hopes it one day will be. 

We came to cover a soccer match, as some of the few individuals permitted into Inter Miami’s brand new stadium, a stadium of echoes populated only by cardboard cutouts thanks to the still sweltering embers of the COVID-19 pandemic that has swallowed up so much of 2020 in the United States. 

Little fires everywhere. 

From Kenosha, Wisconsin, where Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back in front of his children to Minneapolis where George Floyd cried out for his mother while a police officer suffocated the life out of him in eight minutes and 46 seconds to Louisville where police officers executing a no knock warrant and murdered Breonna Taylor in her bed and to this point, 166 days later, got away with it.

Little fires everywhere.

From Staten Island where Eric Garner couldn’t breathe to Central Park where the real estate tycoon who would become President called for the execution of juvenile boys to Charlottesville, Virginia, where I was told by that same President there were “very good people on both sides,” to Cleveland where Tamir Rice should have turned 18 this summer and been able to register to vote to Sanford, Florida, where Trayvon Martin might have watched the local Orlando Magic walk off the court in solidarity with their brothers from the Milwaukee Bucks this afternoon, had George Zimmerman not painted him a criminal due to an article of clothing and the color of his skin.

Little fires everywhere.

Subjected to the heavy, inescapable grief of it all, maybe we could, on a brighter, sunnier day, escape to Aurora, Colorado, where against the backdrop of sun-splashed mountains Elijah McClain may have played us a beautiful song on his violin, had his life not been snuffed out with a carotid hold with a grip almost as strong as the one systemic racism has had on this country for 244 years.

Little fires everywhere.

When will we strive to put them out? 

When will solidarity be understood as only a sufficient starting point?

When will empathy rule the day, even in a society that celebrates a brand of masculinity that shuns it? 

When will leagues, including MLS, a league I unapologetically have grown to love, understand that saying “police brutality” when you call for justice matters?

When will support for athletes go beyond their ability to score a winning touchdown, find the back of the net, bury the step-back 27 foot three for your beloved team and extend to the communities where you Saturday and Sunday heroes live, worship, raise families? 

When will be reflexive enough to understand it shouldn’t be our athletes leading us in a bloodsport fight to reconfigure society against racism — it should be our politicians and our leaders doing what they are elected to do — listen and serve and act. We shouldn’t need brave and transformative strikes by 20 and 30-something year old young men to serve as societal inflection points. But that’s where we are, and that’s what it has come to. And here’s what that means, I think. Until our support for these brave athletes and their humanity-affirming agenda is as unequivocal off the field as it is on it, prejudice, racism, police brutality and injustice will continue to fester and boil through our society, and it will be here long after the pandemic and plague that has shut our society down in 2020 is gone.

As a white man, I don’t know what I can do, really, save listen and try every day for the rest of my days to be an ally, to push our society to be better, to demand we craft solutions to the plague of racism and police brutality that makes every black mother shudder and silently pray when their daughter or son leaves the house in the morning. 

As a father, I have a multiracial daughter with autism. She’s only 5, and for now, I protect her, but there isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t wonder, with her proclivity for escape and her tendency to slip into her own beautiful world, what will happen should she have an encounter with the police. I can’t protect her from that, no matter how many times I have “the talk” every black parent has to have simply because they were born with melanin.

As an attorney, one with extensive civil rights experience, one could argue that I have tools that make me better equipped to fight antiracism fights than many. But even with those skills, some days I feel like what I do won’t matter. On better days, when I feel more optimistic, I still go to bed with a restlessness and uneasiness that I can do more, will do more, have to do more. 

As a journalist, I have yet another awesome platform to speak, even if my voice shakes.

The late John Lewis said we must all come together and listen and understand that change takes time and it rarely happens all at once. The struggle against racism and systemic inequality and police brutality is not the struggle of one day, one week, or one year. The battle won’t be won in one presidential election or term or with one act of Congress. It is a multi-generational battle that calls for a multi-generational commitment and it begins by listening first.

We must listen and when called upon, we must act.

The listening and acting Wednesday night involved two soccer teams, one from Miami, a PanAmerican cultural mecca and one from Atlanta, the crown jewel of the American south, the city too busy to hate, uniting in a moment of inspiring, real life activism. 

Having warmed up to play a game, the two teams came back on the field and elected not to. Efforts to get a representative from both clubs to speak to the media failed, but the powerful gesture of the players, who took a photo in unison before leaving the pitch, did not fail to speak.

These players, who play in a league increasingly populated by black lives and other men of color, have seen enough. 

Black Lives Matter, and yet again, they had to make a statement that enough is enough.

How many more gestures will we need to witness before something changes?

That question, and the powerful message sent by the players resonated with me as I walked out of Inter Miami Stadium Wednesday night wondering what was next, for me, for my two multiracial little girls, for MLS, for my country that I love and still believe can be more perfect. 

That question will stick with me. But I’ll be listening, and when called upon, I’ll act. Brick by brick, we have to stamp the fire of racism out, before it engulfs us all.