The NBA and Major League Baseball players who decided on Wednesday night that continuing to play kids’ games while the United States reeled from yet another act of horrific police violence against a Black person caught on video deserve enormous respect for having the moral courage to take a stand.
Major League Soccer’s athletes deserve even more credit.
Unlike their NBA and MLB brethren, most of MLS’s 600-plus players aren’t millionaires. A significant portion earn less than $100,000 per year. Most will have to find regular jobs when their fleeting careers as professional jocks end. In other words, those employed by the 10 teams that refused to take the field Wednesday to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake seven times in the back by a Wisconsin cop last Sunday — almost three months to the day after another Black man, George Floyd, was killed in police custody in.Minnesota by an officer who knelt on the handcuffed Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes — were taking a far bigger risk.
Make no mistake: MLS officials wanted the show to go on. Clubs in the notoriously frugal league had already sent the five visiting teams that ended up participating in the wildcat strike out on chartered flights at significant expense; during non-pandemic times, teams typically fly commercial.
The NBA and WNBA players, who also called off their playoff games Wednesday night, remained their respective bubbles in Florida, easing the logistical and financial burden on its billionaire owners. MLS players considered those losses and acted anyway. Doing the right thing trumped the convenience, consequences be damned.
After the league said that they, not the players, made the decision to postpone the final five matches of the day — Wednesday’s early game between Orlando City and Nashville SC was played in its entirety — at least one player, LAFC midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye, who earned $166,248 last year, pushed back against MLS:
We as players made the decision. Fix this, please give the right narrative. https://t.co/0Qhb8L7dMc— Mark-Anthony Kaye (@MarkThEwizz) August 27, 2020
Hours later, one MLS owner, Real Salt Lake’s Dell Loy Hansen, publicly blasted his own players, saying their decision to stand with their fellow athletes — in total, 14 MLB, MLS, NBA and WNBA contests were postponed — and shine a light on the systemic racism and police brutality that continues to disproportionally impact communities of color in the United States was “like somebody stabbed you and you’re trying to figure out a way to pull the knife out.”
“That’s what it feels like,” Hansen added. “The disrespect is profound to me personally.”
While Hansen was dragged for his tone-deaf (at best) comments, it wouldn’t be surprising if privately, at least a few other MLS owners felt the same way.
MLS is probably the most progressive major American sports league this side of the NBA. But its owners are still mostly old and white and conservative, and its Players’ Association doesn’t wield anywhere close to the influence of the unions in any of other Big 5 men’s circuits, which also includes the NFL and the National Hockey League. MLS isn’t the world’s top destination for soccer players. Far from it. For the most part, its on-field employees are replaceable. Hansen went as fas as to say that Wednesday’s move left him reconsidering his investment in the roster going forward.
The MLSPA and the league had enjoyed the best relationship between labor and management in MLS’s 25-year history before the global coronavirus pandemic shut down the regular season in March. But the players were left furious after the owners walked back some of the concessions they’d signed off in a new collective bargaining agreement after the health crisis began but before the CBA had been ratified.
The players begrudgingly accepted being forced, more or less, to be guinea pigs for professional sports’ first large-scale “bubble” experiment ahead of the MLS is Back Tournament. Sure, they had the option to opt out for health or family reasons, just as athletes in other sports did. But it’s a lot harder to forgo your salary for a month or two when your paycheck is a lot closer to a teacher’s or a software engineer’s than to LeBron’s. Who knows were the relationship stands after this.
A dozen more MLS games are slated for this weekend. It remains to be seen if those will go ahead as planned. Either way, don’t overlook the high-wire act MLS players pulled off on Wednesday. The owners certainly won’t forget it.