As the country, and indeed the world, has been dealing with the dual problems of the coronavirus pandemic and widespread protests against systematic racism and police brutality spurred on by the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the sports world has been forced to come to terms with its role in perpetuating a racist system and deciding how to be part of the solution to the problem. A number of professional sports teams, including all MLS clubs, put out statements in solidarity with racial justice protesters with varying degrees of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Some were more forceful than others.
Columbus itself was the site of some of the more turbulent protests, with police firing tear gas at and otherwise using excessive force on demonstrators. Columbus Crew SC midfielder Derrick Etienne was himself harassed by police. Etienne put out a statement on Twitter detailing how Columbus police stopped him twice while driving home and told him, a black man, “you look like you have warrants,” which was confirmed by teammate Jordan Hamilton.
Other players, such as Darlington Nagbe, have shared their experiences as black men living with systemic racism and expressed that they are “heartbroken for all the black people that have lost their lives and continue to lose their lives to racial injustice.”
The Crew issued its own statement, in concert with the Cleveland Browns — the two franchises share owners — on June 1 that read, in part “we take great pride in our city and in our region and recognize the suffering in the African American community throughout the country… we must do even more to work collectively to end racism and bond together for justice and equality.”
Some Crew fans, however, expressed frustrations that the Black & Gold’s statement didn’t go far enough, citing its lack of specific actions the club would take and criticizing that the statement didn’t directly mention police brutality or support for Black Lives Matter.
On Friday, Crew President and General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko met virtually with reporters and addressed some of the ways that the club could better respond to racial injustice, both within the community and within the club.
“We’ve dealt with so much in recent months, not only through COVID but obviously in the last few days and weeks with all the social injustices that we are dealing with citywide and countrywide,” Bezbatchenko acknowledged, also saying that returning to the field for meaningful games can “give people an opportunity to experience some joy.”
When asked about how the recent racial justice protests were affecting how the club operated to ensure that it represented the diverse Columbus community and player pool, Bezbatchenko told reporters, “It has absolutely forced us to question ourselves and our beliefs and some unspoken biases that exist that we’re not even aware of... You can’t ignore what’s happening.
“We are about diversity and inclusion. That’s what the Columbus Crew needs to be synonymous for.”
Bezbatchenko also suggested that the Crew may develop a diversity task force within the club as well as examining its hiring practices. “Clearly there’s still racism within our society and we can’t ignore the conversations, though they are uncomfortable,” he admitted.
While not mentioning specifics or committing to anything, Bezbatchenko did say that “we are discussing internally the actions that we can take” to ensure that the club continues to reflect the values of ownership, fans, players and the club as a whole, even after the protests die down and promised that “this is just the beginning of a lot of reflection that we will be doing.”
The club has already engaged in some gestures of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, including collaborating with local artist, Hakim Callwood, on a mural at the Crew’s new Experience Center, featuring a solitary black fan on the MAPFRE Stadium pitch with a raised fist. At the same time, Crew supporters painted the familiar Black Lives Matter slogan in black and gold on another wall at the Experience Center.
While such things might be seen as token gestures, the Crew has made some strides in dealing with racial disparities within the soccer world and society at large. In July of last year, the Black & Gold hired Ezra Hendrickson as an assistant coach, making him one of the very small number of black coaches in MLS. There are several other non-white club staff members, including Director of Player Personnel and Strategy, Issa Tall (a Frenchman of Senegalese parentage), and assistant athletic trainer Lageishon Mohanadas. Former Crew forward Dante Washington also works in the front office as Director of Team Strategic Partnerships and Business Development and Communications Manager Carlos Mojica is of Salvadoran descent.
While representation in leadership positions is important, the Crewe has also sought to encourage participation in soccer by marginalized communities, the lack of which is something that American soccer has often been rightly criticized for. The Black & Gold built a number of futsal courts around the city, including the latest at Eakin Elementary School. The club has further committed to using 30 percent minority-owned businesses in the construction of its new stadium and training facility.
As Bezbatchenko intimated, it’s important that these initiatives continue and become a part of the club culture if anything is to truly change, especially when the cameras are off and momentum stalls in the larger white society. If the Crew is truly committed to helping ameliorate centuries of racial injustice in this country, it will require time, money, energy and a willingness to listen to those who have been most affected by that injustice.