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Amid nationwide protests, Black NWSL players train with feelings many teammates are only just beginning to understand

OL Reign forward Darian Jenkins (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

“If I could say one thing,” OL Reign forward Jasmyne Spencer begins, “it would just be that we are very much impacted by these events directly. I feel like sometimes, because we are in this very white community like the soccer world in America, we kind of get lost as if like, ‘oh, they’re different; they wouldn’t be caught up in that.’ No. We’ve all experienced racism. We’ve all been called racial slurs. Like, this hits home. We are directly impacted by that, and so when you see what’s going on, think of us, because that’s who’s hurting; we’re who’s hurting. And when you join the fight, you’re fighting for us directly.”

Spencer is speaking at the beginning of a third week of protests across the United States centered around racial injustice and police brutality, following the death of another Black man by the force of a white police officer. George Floyd was killed by police during an arrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, 2020. Floyd’s death was another in a line of Black lives taken by police officers, including Breonna Taylor earlier this year.

Protests — and incidents of further police brutality in response across the country — have pushed to the forefront necessary conversations about racism in the United States, including the overt and obvious, and the systemic racism to which many white people remain oblivious.

Spencer, who says she has been “openly and unapologetically Black [her] whole life,” has played professional soccer for nearly a decade. Racism in soccer has made headlines across the world for its repulsive appearance in stadiums in places like Italy, for example, but Spencer’s point is that the problem is not only in a far-off stadium on another continent; it is front and center at home, even in the relatively progressive world of women’s soccer.

Her teammate, Darian Jenkins, offers a real-life example from just days prior in Missoula, Montana, where the Reign are training to prepare for the National Women’s Soccer League Challenge Cup to be held in Utah later this month.

“The other day we were protesting by the city hall and there was this little boy who, he was in a minivan, he rolled down the window, flipped us off and said, ‘all lives matter,’” Jenkins says. “And I just thought, how unfortunate that that’s what this kid is being conditioned to think.”

Jenkins said she doesn’t believe that most people think that way, but she points to the need to begin educating kids about race from a young age, offering examples of her and other players getting involved in the Reign’s youth academy.

“We spoke about this the other day in our book club,” Jenkins says. “The implicit biases that we carry around specifically about Black people, people of color. I think recognizing that you even have those and consciously trying to dismantle why and what that actually means, and how you’ve been acting on it in your everyday life, especially around colored people.

“So, I think if you’re able to break that down yourself and then influence other people to do the same, it’s a cause and effect, you know. I hope that will just kind of be contagious, and more people talk about it and try to break this mental cycle that we have with all of these implicit biases that we carry around. And yeah, that’s absolutely starting with kids.”

Children not only need the education to better understand implicit biases, but they need to see successful adults and professionals who look like them, OL Reign defender Taylor Smith says.

“When I was younger, sometimes I wasn’t able to travel with my club team out of state because my family couldn’t afford it and that could, say, affect me getting recruited and stuff like that,” Smith said. “It kind of just has like a little domino effect, and if we can try to get started when they’re younger and help them on this track, I think that is something that’s sustainable and actually helps the community.”

Playing in a largely white league

The NWSL is a predominantly white league — not only the player pool, which is a product of the lack of diversity at the youth and college levels below it — but in its staffing as well. There are no Black head coaches in the league (and eight of nine are men), and team ownership across the league’s nine teams is almost exclusively white and male.

“After the murder of George Floyd and just a few days later in training… it was just a stark contrast to how my white teammates could just continue on with their lives or just train and just be fine,” Portland Thorns forward Simone Charley said.  “Whereas me and some of my other teammates, it was not fine. We were very much struggling. And so I think that for them, obviously, racism doesn’t have the same impact on them and so it’s harder for them to see. So, I think as far as addressing it as a league, it’s very important, but we’re literally just getting started and it’s a conversation that we have to continue on. I’m glad that this is being brought to the forefront, but like I said, it’s just getting started.”

Smith said that, at first, she had similar feelings about trying to return to training.

“When we first got here, it wasn’t really addressed,” she said of arriving in Montana as protests grew around the country, acknowledging the already difficult circumstances brought upon everyone in this time of social distancing and quarantine.

“That was kind of difficult because it really did affect Jas, Darian and I a lot. And so, you know, as time went on as we got here, we discussed [it] with Bill [Predmore, Reign CEO] and girls in our team and they’ve been great about having open conversations about it and making plans to see what we can do now and then also just back in our local community.”

Jasmyne Spencer (Photo by Lewis Gettier)

The lack of initial, overt attention to the mental health of Black players is part of the more ingrained issue of white culture shaping the sport.

“This is the most diverse team I’ve been on,” Jenkins said, noting that she grew up in Utah, which is 90% white, according to the 2010 census. “Being around a lot of other strong Black girls has been really great to even make me more comfortable having conversations about race and our history and what to do when moving forward. Being able to share experiences that I’ve never quite been able to articulate or wrap my mind around has really helped me personally and really inspired me to get more comfortable being uncomfortable talking about these things and mentoring other young Black girls who have dealt with the same thing.”

Those uncomfortable conversations are merely starting points for a wider, global shift in mindset.

Houston Dash forward Jamia Fields attended her first protest last week, with Dash teammates. It was in downtown Houston, the hometown of Floyd and place of his funeral earlier this week. Among an estimated 60,000 protesters were Floyd’s family members.

“The last few weeks really have been different,” Fields said. “I’ve had so many conversations about race with Black people and white people, people of different races. It’s been tough for me because these are my first conversations, really, about race outside my family, and I’m 26 and that’s just crazy to think that that’s the case. I’ve had many conversations with coaches in the past. So, that’s definitely been overwhelming, but I think these are the conversations that we have to have. These uncomfortable conversations are what’s going to lead to change.”

Sustaining that positive shift is at the core of each players’ desires — and figuring out how to do that remains the essential next step. Spencer said she didn’t find it hard to focus on soccer despite the more intense conversations happening around her and around the country. “This is something that I feel like I’m well-versed [in] and accustomed to,” she says. “This isn’t the first movement; it’s definitely the largest and most influential in our lifetime.”

Spencer runs a sustainable lifestyle apparel company, which has recently been using extra material to make and donate face masks amid the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a proponent of supporting Black-owned businesses. What she found difficult, at least initially, was figuring out which other organizations to support at a time when societal pressure has many brands changing their tone, some perhaps out of convenience rather than belief.

“A lot of the things I’ve been struggling with is just deciphering who and what organizations are actually being authentic with their social platforms and the messages that they’re presenting,” Spencer said. “Like, this is obviously something that’s huge and important but it’s also very trendy.”

A conversation with her mom helped Spencer change her view. Rather than worrying about newcomers and non-Black people, and their motives in the conversation, Spencer says she realized that it would benefit her Black teammates to engage in these conversations. Being in Montana, away from her closer support circle, Spencer is also forced to listen to and engage with a wider community in a way that she might not have if she were at home, she says.

Kickin’ Back with Crystal Dunn Soubrier

Washington Spirit rookie Kaiya McCullough said she had some similar questions in the back of her head, seeing people she has known for a long time posting support to their social media feeds in the past two weeks, having never spoken up on racism before. Overall, however, she’s happy that the issue is being addressed by so many people, and she sees the immediate future as a critical period.

“I think the individual education piece is so important, especially right now, with an election coming up,” she said. “Because being informed is what’s going to help inform your decisions about who you are electing in office, whether that is locally or at a state level or nationally, for our president.

“I think that really educating yourself and others around you about some of these issues and the way that everything is interconnected — I don’t feel like people really necessarily recognized up to this point the magnitude that racial injustice in this country is really interwoven, and it’s definitely embedded in the fabrics of our country. So, I think that on an individual basis, it’s really important to just keep educating yourself so that when you do go to the voting booth in November, you’re able to make a very informed decision and really put into action the words you are saying.”

Moving the conversation forward

McCullough has been kneeling for the national anthem since 2017, when she was a sophomore at UCLA. She will continue to do so when the NWSL Challenge Cup begins, she said.

“Whatever my role is on this team in this tournament, I will be kneeling,” she said.

NWSL rosters will be larger than usual for the Challenge Cup because of the number of games truncated into a short time span. McCullough was a standout at a major NCAA program, but as a fourth-round pick in this year’s draft, it is unclear how she will factor in the Spirit’s immediate plans. That ostensibly adds a layer of pressure to speaking up, given that players in other leagues — and even at the highest level of women’s soccer — have faced repercussions.

“Of course, there is the pressure of not wanting to do anything to take away from our success at the tournament,” McCullough said. “I think it’s a very fine line that we walk with this, but again, this is so much bigger than any individual soccer game or any individual soccer tournament, or any individual team or league. So, I think that just, the club has really embraced me and this cause. I don’t really fear being a rookie and having these things to say, because again, the support has been amazing.”

Simone Charley (Photo by Lewis Gettier)

Colin Kaepernick hasn’t played in the NFL since 2016, when he knelt for the national anthem throughout the regular season. Megan Rapinoe knelt during the national anthem that same fall, prompting U.S. Soccer to create a policy requiring national team members to “stand respectfully during the national anthems.” U.S. Soccer’s board of directors, under heavy pressure from players and the general public, repealed that policy this week. McCullough has experience with U.S. youth national teams but said her time with them, and the time period U.S. Soccer’s policy was in place, did not overlap much.

Protest is nothing new to McCullough, who midway through high school refused to stand for or say the Pledge of Allegiance. She said one person she had considered a friend told her to “go back to Africa,” and multiple homeroom teachers attempted to make her stand.

UCLA was a more inclusive experience, aside from the occasional road fan, and the Spirit have been supportive of her beliefs and her plans to continue peacefully protesting in Utah.

“The club is very supportive,” McCullough said. “They have told me that they support me and my beliefs, that they are there for me. I think that’s something that’s really empowering, and that’s a lot more than a lot of other professional sports teams and leagues can say.”

The NWSL Players Association is still working on a collective plan for how it will use the spotlight of national television, (the opening game and final will be on CBS) and an international audience on Twitch, to present a collective action or message from players. There are discussions about warm-up shirts with “Black Lives Matter” written on them. There is talk of a moment of silence for George Floyd. Some players will kneel (McCullough is the only player to explicitly confirm that so far). None of the ideas are finalized yet, but the players’ goal is to do something that furthers the conversation beyond just that moment.

A league spokesperson said that, as of now, the plan is to play the United States national anthem before each of the 25 matches at the Challenge Cup. The league is expected to support players in whatever capacity they choose to demonstrate.

More locally, the Reign have discussed the idea of honoring a member of the Seattle/Tacoma Black community before every home game, in a similar way that they have an honorary captain each game. Charley says she hasn’t been able to join protests in Portland due to social distancing protocols ahead of the Challenge Cup, but the team chipped in to buy supplies for protesters and a club employee bought and distributed them.

OL Reign’s book club started as more of a history lesson on systemic racism in the United States. The Portland Thorns have started their own, Charley said, with Ijeoma Oluo’s book, “So You Want to Talk About Race.”

Smith and Jenkins spoke about staying connected with youth in the Reign’s academy through personal mentorship and hosting camps for underprivileged kids. Spencer hosts an annual free clinic for mostly Black children in the Orlando area, in partnership with a local YMCA.

All of these things, players say, are steps in the right direction — and, in particular, they provide a vision for children to see Black heroes in positions that they can aspire to.

“I even think back to when I was younger and I would watch the U.S. team,” Smith says. “I think it was Briana Scurry and then I remember this one player, Tina Ellertson, and they were the only Black girls that I got to see at that level. I think it’s just important for younger girls to see they can achieve the dream, that it’s just not out of their reach. I think implementing Black people and staff in developmental academies is huge to help them navigate this journey so they don’t feel as isolated and like they can’t do this.”

Taylor Smith, out all year with a torn ACL, rediscovered herself with Reign FC

Fields said that, at times in her youth career in California, she was the only Black player on her team. In 2011, she arrived at Florida State University, which has a women’s soccer program known for consistently recruiting international players. There, at Florida State, she had a half-dozen Black teammates for the first time in her career. “It was like a turning point, I would say, for life and on the field,” she said.

The need for Black representation and overall diversity is true at the youth level. It is needed at the professional level. It remains true in much of society.

“You’re never really gonna understand unless you walk in the shoes [of Black players],” Spencer said. “And so, without that, how could you possibly take into full consideration what your Black players or minority players are feeling if you don’t have anyone on staff or on your board or at the top of your organization to think for them, make them their first priority.

“And it’s not just in the league; it’s in business in general. But specifically in the league, it’s something that I think everybody should be looking to address in the immediate future. Where can we add diversity to our staffs, and to the boards of each of the teams?”


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