MLS players raise fists in support of Black Lives Matter ahead of return match

More than 100 Black MLS players raised their right fists and took a knee before the MLS is Back Tournament opener on Wednesday in Orlando, Florida, in a show of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter social justice movement.

Some players wore T-shirts over their jerseys with the words "Black and Proud" and "Silence is Violence" before the match between Orlando City SC and Inter Miami CF, and both teams' starting players as well as the referees took a knee before kickoff.

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The demonstration lasted eight minutes, 46 seconds, the amount of time white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on the neck of George Floyd, the 46-year-old Black man whose death in late May sparked nationwide protests.

"It was very emotional at the beginning. It was beautiful to see all the players come together on the field like that as one," Inter Miami striker and United States international Juan Agudelo said after the match.

"Being on the field, it was very powerful. I put my fist up, and to be there with so many people that are trying to make a change in this country, and that's what we need to do -- not even for us but for our kids -- kind of evolve as humans."

Toronto FC's Justin Morrow, executive director of the Black Players for Change organization, said MLS players wanted to add their voices to the movement.

"This is a chance for us to take our place with them, stand up against racial inequality, fight that battle and make sure our voices in Major League Soccer are heard," he told ESPN at halftime. "What you saw tonight was a special moment that was driven by the players, and Major League Soccer collaborated with us to make that happen."

Last month, more than 170 Black MLS players formed the Black Players for Change organization, whose goals are threefold: have a voice in all racial matters as it relates to MLS, increase Black representation in the MLS Players Association and the highest levels of MLS, and have an impact in Black communities.

"It was a beautiful ceremony with a very powerful message. For the Black players' association to organize and coordinate the way that they did, they should be very proud of what they did," Inter Miami captain Luis Robles said afterward.

"To be able to gather all the players that were on the field today is an incredible feat. More than anything, to use their platform to be an agent of change is very important, and it's something that as an athlete you really have to consider.

"When you look at the position we have to influence our community, our nation and the fans of the city, to be able to [do] something like that is a very, very positive and powerful thing, and I'm glad and very honored to even be on the field sharing that moment with those guys."

Orlando's star winger, Nani, echoed his Miami counterparts, calling the pregame ceremony "beautiful" and a moment that all people can use to "start thinking about their attitudes."

"It's a beautiful gesture from everyone," the Portugal international said. "We all know we want to change the world. We want a better world, in which people look to each other without any difference, with no discrimination for color or nationality, and I think the decision at the beginning of the game and the performance from everyone was beautiful.

"It's emotional for those there, and I felt it for a couple of moments, and I started thinking that everyone in the world should stop for a minute and start thinking about their attitudes and to see what we all can do to make a difference in the world.

"We must think about our children and the future for them, to teach them to behave, to be a better person and to create a better world."

The kneeling protest was popularized by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016, and the raised fists mirrors the protest against racial inequality by Americans John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Mexico Olympics.

Kaepernick's protest came during the playing of the national anthem, which will not be played during the tournament, given that the games are being staged in empty stadiums because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Wednesday's MLS match, held inside a bio-secure "bubble" at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, marked the first North American professional men's league to return to action since the pandemic upended the sports calendar in mid-March.

Information from Reuters was used in this report.