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MLS and Black Players for Change collaborate on Juneteenth efforts

Indianapolis visual artist designed the education-inspired campaign


“I think of it less as a holiday and more as a moment of reflection.”

It’s Monday afternoon, and Sola Winley is talking about Juneteenth. Whatever you call the holiday that, on Wednesday afternoon, Congress passed legislation to give us all an extra day off, the executive vice president and chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer for Major League Soccer is more than prepared for June 19 and all it means as the person ostensibly responsible for the league that represents the men’s side of the world’s game in America. It’s been a short but productive road to this point.

Last June, MLS commissioner Don Garber released a statement on behalf of the league regarding the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by then-police officer Derek Chauvin. By July, Black Players for Change (BPC) was formed, which started as an Instagram group chat, and it was time for action.

That week, MLS players participated in a solidarity demonstration before Orlando City and Inter Miami faced off in their Florida bubble. It was the opening game of the season delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, and the image of players, wearing black shirts with fists in the air, along with the hashtag #MLSisBlack were not surprising in the context of the rest of America or even soccer globally, but for the average sports watcher, it was an introduction to a world that Black soccer fans had been eagerly awaiting. By November, players were kneeling during pregame ceremonies.

On Saturday, MLS, the league and BPC will roll out a collaborative effort: a multifaceted educational push to teach their players and fans, and thus larger ecosystems about a milestone in Black history. The jerseys you see in league matches this weekend will feature specially designed numbers and will come with custom-made Juneteenth boxes that will be auctioned off, with the proceeds going to organizations that, for lack of a better term, respect the resistance.

Additionally, through community outreach and installations, MLS is continuing to do its part. It isn’t just slapping colors on its league logo for a weekend.

Back in May, BPC joined forces with the National Basketball Players Association to push for the passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act on Capitol Hill. That partnership came three months into the job for Winley. He’s a person with an impressive array of experience across media, sports and corporate America. Now he’s looking at a quasi-newfound datapoint on the calendar for a community he’s served for a long time. Having landed in a space where the seeds were freshly planted for organic change, cultivating that growth came naturally.

“I think it’s probably been over the last year, where people have been forced — and that’s appropriate, and I don’t mean that in a negative sense — forced to pay attention to the truth of our history,” Winley explained. “And I think the truth of our history is under assault at this moment in time. I think over the past year, it’s become more front and center because people have made it a priority to make sure that history is not lost and that the freedom fighters of yesterday are remembered by the freedom fighters of today. So, I think corporations in particular have paid more attention to it. I think that has given more exposure to it appropriately. It’s a part of our American history.” Many “brands” try and fail, leaving everyone embarrassed to an extent, even if we do get these jokes off.

Considering that many Americans had never even heard of the day that commemorates the “last” slaves being legally freed from bondage in Texas in 1865, it’s remarkable that our elected officials came together to legally recognize a date so important to Black America. Does it do much for us materially? Not really. Is it borderline hypocritical if not an outright disingenuous political stunt, considering many states are legitimately voting to ban the mere mention of racism in schools? Absolutely.

Short version: Don’t celebrate us while simultaneously holding us back.

For MLS and BPC though, that was never an issue. Their plan came together as naturally as it could: A player liked an artist’s work from his hometown, and hit him up to collaborate.

The rest, as they say, is MLS making history.

Indianapolis is not a place that comes to mind these days when we think of thriving Black culture. Like many cities in the Midwest, its once robust community was steadily eradicated by the same sociological forces that we still fight today. But, as the kids say, we ouchea.

Ray Gaddis is from Indianapolis, and during the course of his nine-year MLS career, which ended before this season, he has always been a helper. Last year, he won MLS’ Jerry Yeagley Award for Exceptional Personal Achievement, and this year, as a founding member and executive board member of BPC, he was part of the group that won the MLS 2021 Humanitarian of the Year Award. His work includes participation in the project Black Pitch – which provides small side playing spaces in underserved communities – besides fighting hunger over the years in his playing home of Philadelphia, where he set records for the Union, and fed people in his hometown, as well.

He also happens to like art. So, when the idea of BPC celebrating Juneteenth came to mind, his brain leaned toward where he grew up.

Israel Solomon is not necessarily a sports fan. The 41-year-old dreadlocked visual artist says he can barely dribble a basketball, but might be good for a rebound or two. But, as a self-described “quiet guy,” he does know art, and he knows how to teach. Inspired by his grandfather’s sense of purpose, and his father and brother’s passion for drawing, he majored in art education for his college degree because he just didn’t think he could make a living as an actual artist. Since then, now a family man, he’s been an art teacher at the middle school level, all while working on his own game, if you will.

“I would play with things like Photoshop and Illustrator, what I could come up with, you know, and I got to a point in my life, probably in my late 20s, where I knew that I was going to have to make a professional change,” Solomon said this week with the patience of a guy who once taught children how to express themselves in a classroom. “I was going to need to do something that was going to make me happy and feel fulfilled within my life. And I started figuring out ways to do that. So I began to take painting seriously.”

So, when Gaddis, who had followed his work for a while, reached out? He was thrilled.

A while back he was asked to coordinate a Black Lives Matter mural commissioned in Indy on the very road that was basically once the town’s Black centerpiece: the Madam C. J. Walker Building. He saw that process as an important one to his psyche, but overall doesn’t view himself as any more of an activist than the next Black person, he just happens to be a tremendous artist.

“What I like to do in my work is I like to use it as a tool of documentation, a tool of representation, and also just a tool of reflection for myself as well,” Solomon explained. “So one of the main things that I do with my work, especially recently, is I really want to document the things that are happening around me, in the city that I work in, with my family, you know, what’s going on in our society.”

What you’ll see on the field this weekend, with the “holiday”-inspired jersey numbers that read “Juneteenth 1865, Celebrate Freedom,” is only part of the experience. Each player will receive a commemorative package that has its own lesson inside as well. As an educator, this part dovetailed nicely with not just what Solomon does, but who he is. Jacob Lawrence, the Harlem Renaissance painter, is a big influence of his.

“One of the things that I think that he did extremely well was he used rhythm within his work. And it felt like when you’re looking at one of his images, it’s like, it’s moving,” said Solomon, who is from Kokomo, Indiana. “I’m hoping that, you know, when I’m creating something, maybe that’s occurring as well. When the viewer looks at my work, maybe they can catch a shape, catch a color and move their eyes around the image, you know, with those shapes and color.”

How’d they figure out what messages they wanted to send to soccer America? They did it the old-fashioned way. Everyone just talked to each other. What they came up with is a delightfully Black rollout that teaches as much as it titillates.

“I spoke with some of the players and individuals within that organization to hear their vision and their passion. I spoke with individuals within MLS to hear their vision and their passion,” he said. “My thing is this. [For] MLS, BPC, those are things that don’t have to happen. Every sports league, every organization around the country, every group wasn’t doing things like that. So I knew from there that there was some intention in what it is, and the messaging that MLS and Black Players for Change wants to have moving forward.

“And, for the progression of our culture as Black people, I’m totally in agreement with that. As a middle school teacher, there would be a lot of times that I would tell my students like, ‘Look, if, if you can’t control your emotion, you can’t control your behavior. You can’t own those things. But, you get to control your voice. If you can’t control your emotions and your feelings, then ultimately somebody else or something else is going to control you.’ ”

With the soccer world focused on the high-profile international tournaments and World Cup qualifiers of the summer, quite frankly, the domestic American pro league is not top of mind on most soccer menus. And in a landscape where the WNBA leads the pack in sports activism, while other more high-profile leagues follow, MLS finds itself in an interesting place.

In the CONCACAF Nations League final in Denver this month, Weston McKennie, a 22-year-old brotha from Texas, scored an incredible equalizer against Mexico, a game the U.S. men’s national team eventually won, arguably the most thrilling moment in that team’s recent history since Landon Donovan shocked Algeria.

The 2020 U.S. Male Footballer of the Year has great hair and an even more fun personality to go with it, but he plays his club soccer in Italy. Point being, for a sport that in the U.S. already is not exactly an afterthought but definitely still growing, the visibility factor is even lower for Black players in that league.

No bother: The point here is not to create star revolutionaries. The goal is to teach the larger soccer community and keep building. So, that lack of proverbial spotlight is perhaps a blessing. You can do the actual work unencumbered by rampant questions and concern trolling from inherently non-allied parties or participants.

“I think we also just have, we just have a long way to go in terms of education,” MLS senior director Tunde Oguntimein noted this week. “To me, the way I saw this first pass, if you want to call it that, it’s like, we’re at zero.” Last year, Garber asked him if they should close the office out of respect – a route many operations took – but Oguntimein figured they could do more. They set up a webinar with Charles Ross, chair of the African American studies program at the University of Mississippi. That day was the first time many people in the league office learned about Juneteenth. And those people wanted more.

“I think last year we did it with internal club staff. The league office staff. But with this it’s more outward. We have players from over 75 countries. I’m pretty sure there’s a decent amount of players who maybe they’ve now heard about Juneteenth, but don’t know any more about the history. This is like an educational piece, even in a locker room. To start discussion, to start conversation. And if we’re educating, you know, one person at a time, with our platform, it’s obviously been worth it.”

It’s pretty wild to think that in 2021 we still find the need to teach people about the life and works of abolitionists Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, who both have images inside the commemorative box, along with a message that explains who they are and what MLS wants to tell the world. Yet, all you have to do is look around the American educational landscape to remind yourself that they ain’t always teaching us the truth.

“We helped build this initiative to bridge the gap between generations celebrating Juneteenth and everyone who is still being introduced this day,” said Toronto FC defender and BPC executive director Justin Morrow. “We hope that these jerseys will help shed light on the historical significance of Juneteenth, which is necessary context for where we are in society today. Understanding Black history is imperative to building a better society.”

MLS isn’t the league stepping aside while letting their players speak for them for fear of messing it up or looking bad. It’s inviting, listening and doing its best to act, which is all anyone can ask. While there will be various renditions of the Black national anthem sung live across the league before kickoff, this effort is far from performative. It’s not lost on anyone that one of those venues is the newly minted Q2 Stadium in Austin, a mere 200 miles from Galveston, Texas, the city where this all began when Union troops arrived on the island 156 years ago.

“This question of us allowing them [the players] to do something, I’d like to reframe that a little bit,” Winley said. “They have the wherewithal and the platform to do what it is that they want to do. The question is can we work together to find those moments and those opportunities to drive even deeper impact and awareness. They have a very important voice within our ecosystem and also outside of our ecosystem. We’re here to be a resource and a support for them to do the very important work that they’re doing when it comes to mentorship.

“They’re the superheroes of today, they’re who our kids look up to. They are our role models. So, why wouldn’t we find opportunities to work with them, to give them a platform so that they can be front and center?”

Or, as the ancestors would say: Lift every voice.

Clinton Yates is a tastemaker at Andscape. He likes rap, rock, reggae, R&B and remixes — in that order.