When the various sports leagues started making statements on the police killing of George Floyd, Ray Gaddis was unimpressed by Major League Soccer’s short offering at the time. And he wasn’t alone.
In Toronto, Justin Morrow felt the same way, and he wanted to do something about it. So the veteran Toronto FC defender started calling Gaddis and other Black players around MLS to organize a campaign.
That work turned into something formal on Juneteenth last Friday, when Morrow and Gaddis helped launch the MLS Black Players Coalition. Morrow is the group’s executive director, and Gaddis is among its board members. There are more than 70 players involved.
“We can no longer turn the cheek or a blind eye to the subject matter of oppression of people of color,” said Gaddis, a defender who is the Union’s all-time leader in minutes played. He emphasized the desire to make “sure the voice doesn’t become muted or muffled just because sports are playing again.”
The Black Lives Matter movement has resonated across the soccer world. Teams in Europe’s biggest leagues have taken a collective knee at the start of games, and English and German teams have worn shirts with anti-racism messages. English Premier League players even wore the Black Lives Matter slogan where their names would be on their jerseys for the first games of the resumed season.
“To use the platform to a magnitude and see so many other people who aren’t Black and who are standing up,” Gaddis said, “I’ve never seen a time when, reading history, so many people who are not colored [have] really banded together and allowed the voice to be amplified in different spaces.”
The upcoming kickoff of MLS’s summer tournament in Orlando, Fla., gives the Black Players Coalition a major stage on which to make a statement. All 54 games of the event will be televised nationally, and the league will share hotels and fields at Disney World. Gaddis said plans are in the works for announcements, and while he couldn’t give specifics yet, he hinted that an initiative campaign has fund-raising donors on board.
"We're advocating to break down barriers, not only within the soccer world but also educationally, in the medical field, also day-to-day things that people have to go through that look like me," he said.
Gaddis has staunch support from the Union organization, led by owner Jay Sugarman, manager Jim Curtin, and captain Alejandro Bedoya. They have all been outspoken on social justice issues in recent times, and in Curtin and Bedoya’s cases for years. There also have been many conversations within the team.
“Our coaching staff, they’re not going to have all the answers because they don’t have to go through some of the realities that colored people do, but it’s great to have a coach that stands up and makes a statement. Not every coach is willing to do that,” Gaddis said. “It says a lot about our captain as well. This team is very informed, this team is very educated, this team is fighting for social reform, this team is fighting for what’s right on and off the field.”
Now all the words must translate to real action. Gaddis, 30, saluted his hometown of Indianapolis, where he spent time protesting during MLS’s coronavirus pandemic stoppage, for a recent police reform measure announced by the city’s mayor. In Philadelphia, Mayor Jim Kenney canceled a $19 million increase in the police department budget and moved $14 million to other areas.
Gaddis was joined in those protests by many pro athletes with Indianapolis ties, including the Milwaukee Bucks’ George Hill — with whom Gaddis played youth basketball at a local church rec center — and former Indiana Fever star Tamika Catchings of the WNBA.
“So many athletes came home and really got behind a band of people — it was a rainbow coalition, it wasn’t just African Americans or people of color,” Gaddis said. “That was a blessing to see: people really advocating, and really seeing the cry of people of color [about] the continued oppression and social injustice going on with excessive force, police brutality, for people who look like me.”
There’s still an immense amount of work to be done. A few hours after Gaddis spoke of the noose placed Sunday in NASCAR star Bubba Wallace’s garage stall at the speedway in Talladega, Ala., someone flew a plane over the Manchester City-Burnley game in England’s Premier League carrying the message “White Lives Matter Burnley!” (Burnley forcefully condemned it.)
Gaddis believes that the work can be done, and people can get better.
“Racism isn’t about white or Black — for me, personally, it’s a heart-posture situation, it’s a mentality,” he said. “It’s something that’s learned, and it’s also something that can be unlearned. You weren’t born to be racist. You weren’t born having hate or bigotry in your heart. These are things that have been set and taught.”