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‘Life is a bigger thing than sport’: RSL players explain why they didn’t play Wednesday

RSL was slated to host Los Angeles FC at Rio Tinto Stadium with 5,000 fans scheduled to attend, but the match was officially boycotted by the players about an hour before kickoff.

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Real Salt Lake and Los Angeles FC players huddle for a group photo at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020. The game was officially postponed to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin.

Yukai Peng, Deseret News

SANDY — Real Salt Lake and Major League Soccer followed the lead of the NBA on Wednesday in postponing its matches as part of a player-led movement in the wake of the officer-involved shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Real Salt Lake was slated to host Los Angeles FC at Rio Tinto Stadium with 5,000 fans scheduled to attend, but the match was officially boycotted by the players about an hour before kickoff with several hundred fans already in the stadium and many more starting to trickle in.

“I think today has been more of a reactive day and trying to show solidarity because the tone was set earlier in the day and we wanted to be a part of that situation. It’s a moving situation, anything could happen,” said RSL defender Nedum Onuoha in a Zoom conference call with the media after the decision was made. “The plan as of now is to play games on Saturday, but as far as solidarity goes, the hope is this is going to be a very significant day in terms of trying to find ways to discuss injustices or just try and find a way to find justice for those who deserve it. We are all on board in doing that today, who knows what tomorrow brings.”

The movement began Wednesday afternoon when the Milwaukee Bucks staged a boycott of Game 5 of their first-round series against the Orlando Magic. All three scheduled NBA playoff games were postponed.

RSL was slated to play its first home game in 172 days because of the coronavirus pandemic, but behind the scenes as early as 3 p.m. Real Salt Lake’s players started talking about not playing.

When LAFC arrived at Rio Tinto Stadium, both teams met on the field to discuss the situation and then posed for a photo at midfield as a show of unity.

Real Salt Lake is scheduled to play at Portland this Saturday.

Here are some of the comments from Onuoha and Zac MacMath after their Zoom press conference with the media on Wednesday:


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Real Salt Lake defender Nedum Onuoha joins teammates and the starters for the Colorado Rapids in kneeling before an MLS soccer match Saturday, Aug. 22, 2020, in Commerce City, Colo.

David Zalubowski, AP

Nedum Onuoha

What was the process that led to the decision to boycott tonight’s game?

“Ultimately it started after the first game in the NBA was being spoken about in terms of being boycotted, and then from there was a flow in terms of all the other games being boycotted as well, and then it started to spread around all the other sports. I think for me personally it was probably around 3-4 o’clock where there was significant dialogue around the league about what we were going to be doing as players in terms of trying to show solidarity to significant issues that are going on right now.

“Conversation started to happen, and more and more people were on board to the point where almost felt like it was everybody. Once the second game of the day was going to be postponed, I think all the other games fell as well.”

As an established leader in this locker room, what does this moment, this day tell you about this RSL team?

“To be honest, it doesn’t tell me anything new about them because I know this is a good bunch of people. I think whenever they’re faced with the choice of getting a feel for what’s right and what’s wrong and what we should do and what we shouldn’t do, conversations don’t tend to last too long because everyone has the feel for the right side of the thing.

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A statement is displayed announcing the postponement of the game between Real Salt Lake and Los Angeles FC at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020.

Yukai Peng, Deseret News

“This was a good chance to show solidarity not only as a team, but as a league, which is something that overall we haven’t had many opportunities to do throughout my time here and across the many years the league has been going, my team, they listen to what was going on, they saw the events happen in the NBA, they saw the WNBA postponing games as well, some MLB games going.

“If the game was not to go ahead it was an easy decision for them. They were more than happy to show unity as a league and a nation essentially.”

If you had to summarize to somebody who doesn’t understand why the game isn’t being played tonight, what would you tell them?

“Some of the things that have gone on in the country right now are definitely things that need to be spoken about and things that need to be addressed if we want to find ourselves in a position where the future isn’t necessarily going to be a utopian one, but one which is far better than exists right now, a society which is more equal for everybody and not just certain people.

“As far as that conversation goes, yes, we’re able to speak about it more, but it’s still has not a big enough platform yet to reach absolutely everybody. I think if people understand that there are certain things going on in the country which aren’t acceptable and how say people with the biggest platforms, like people in the NBA and the stuff their saying, it’s not to take anything away from anybody, it’s to try and help people like them. These are people who are Americans who deserve to be treated the same way as everybody else. When you get behind that, it’s moments like these which happen.”

Many are suggesting that by withholding entertainment from the fans it’s a way of making a point. Does that framing resonate with you, and was it was discussed among the players?

“There are many different ways to frame it. You could argue that is a significant part of it, but then also whenever you’re provided with a platform and you can make a significant change or just try and create a new narrative or new conversation I think you have to capitalize on that moment. As players baring things like on our social media … sometimes if you go out and protest or make a stand you have to do it in a way which is unfortunately uncomfortable for a lot of people, but that uncomfortable nature is what a lot of people have to live through anyway on a day-to-day basis.

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Two Real Salt Lake fans yell toward the field at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020. The game was officially postponed to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin.

Yukai Peng, Deseret News

“I think today in showing solidarity with what’s going on in Wisconsin, what’s going on around the rest of the country and showing solidarity towards what’s going on in the NBA and so on and so forth, I think it makes for me personally a very, very big statement. And yes people will miss out on the entrainment, but at the end of the day it is entertainment and there are other things going on that are essentially life or death, which should be a bigger part of any conversation that exists today as opposed to maybe just missing out on an MLS game or an NBA game today.”

What is it like as a non-American playing in MLS to watch all this happen?

“For me, the last few months has really been a big wake-up call for me in terms of just seeing what has gone on and what does go on. I’ve learned more about the history of the country and the history of certain things and injustices and so on and so forth, it’s troubling. When I saw the murder of George Floyd, I cried. I cried for many reasons, but you look at it, and that could be regardless of wherever I’m from. That’s really troubling because I live my life here the same way I did when I was in the UK because I’ve got to be completely honest about that, in a way which is different to the lives of the most of the people I sit around.

“I view police in a different way, I view things going on in society a certain way, and it’s sad when you see more and more cases — which are being recorded now or just being spoken about now because we do have a bigger platform to share those experiences. This is one of the best countries in the world, but there are certain things that are fundamentally incredibly wrong, but that they’re not changing. And that is the real troubling thing as a foreigner on these shores.

“You just think, ‘Why aren’t things changing?’ The more you dig and the deeper you go, the more it seems some people just don’t want it to change. You can say to someone, ‘This is my experience,’ and they’ll say, ‘No your experience is wrong.’ As a foreigner and hearing some of the stories from people who are like me in this country who are from this country, it’s exceptionally sad. In many ways it’s unacceptable, but again it just seems like at times that it’s the fabric of the nature of some people that this is just the norm and this is the way I’ve always been because that’s exactly how they want it to be.”

“Life is a bigger thing than sport, and I think at times we can confuse the two and think sports the be all end all of everything. But the reality of the situation is that it’s not at all, and when we can really start to grasp that and understand why people do what they do and why we’ve done what we’ve done today.” — Nedum Onuoha

On inconveniencing the fans who were already at the stadium or en route to the stadium.

As players, we love playing the game, and we wanted to be here to play this game, but there are bigger things going on right now than just sport. I’m sure it’s very disappointing for them and you can’t really escape that particular moment especially if you’re driving up from wherever. But this is a bigger picture thing, this is a bigger issue thing. Yes, we’re sorry for them that we can’t play in the stadium because we wanted to do that. But how do we feel about what’s just happened to Jacob Blake or other people in the country that are suffering at the hands of things that we could also put in question marks that are ‘inconvenient.’

“So I would never be critical of some of feeling that initial feeling of disappointment because this is something they planned to do and planned to see, but it’s also the same for us as players. We wanted to be here playing, we wanted to be on the field playing in front of fans, which we are very lucky to do. But life is a bigger thing than sport, and I think at times we can confuse the two and think sports the be all end all of everything. But the reality of the situation is that it’s not at all, and when we can really start to grasp that and understand why people do what they do and why we’ve done what we’ve done today.”

Have there been conversations yet among MLS players about the boycott extending beyond just today’s games?

“Conversations haven’t gone that far ahead. I think today has been more of a reactive day and trying to show solidarity because the tone was set earlier in the day and we wanted to be a part of that situation. It’s a moving situation, anything could happen. The plan as of now is to play games on Saturday, but as far as solidarity goes, the hope is this is going to be a very significant day in terms of trying to find ways to discuss injustices or just try and find a way to find justice for those who deserve it.

“We are all on board in doing that today, who knows what tomorrow brings. The conversation today in my opinion and the opinion of hundreds of others around the league in terms of players, the conversation should be about sport today because there are far bigger things that are going on. Tomorrow the talk will maybe be about sport again. But as players in this league and sportsman all around the country and people out in the streets protesting — as a say sport is a great thing, but it’s more of a privilege and a luxury than an expectation and I think the fact that people should be afforded to live their life without fear, for me that’s a far bigger conversation.”


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Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Zac MacMath (18) sets up for a play during the second half of an MLS soccer match against the San Jose Earthquakes, Monday, July 27, 2020, in Kissimmee, Fla.

Phelan M. Ebenhack, AP

Zac MacMath

When did you personally decide that you did not want to play this game tonight?

“I decided somewhere between 3 and 4 o’clock after speaking to Nedum on the phone, we had a brief conversation about 2 o’clock, saying, ‘Hey, what are we going to do here?’ And that’s when the conversation started flowing throughout the players and the league and started to talk with players from LAFC. Nedum and I both felt very strongly that we did not want to play, and we were going to bring that to our team and make a decision with them as things kind of unfolded.”

“I hope that brings upon more change but this, as we know over the last couple months, is a movement that lasts for quite a while until there’s real change throughout our community.” — Zac MacMath

Do you think not playing one game is going to be enough to hit the message you want to send? Or do you anticipate having to boycott more?

“I don’t know what the expectation will be going forward. I know we made a very strong statement tonight. I hope that brings upon more change but this, as we know over the last couple months, is a movement that lasts for quite a while until there’s real change throughout our community.”

You’ve grabbed the attention of your fans — fans of soccer, fans of RSL. Boycotting the game gets their attention, so what is the message you want them to receive from this and the action that you hope they take?

“Go and vote and make a difference in their community. To help change the systematic problems that we’re having in this country with gun violence in relation to multiple parties. Really, hoping the fans want to change with us and hope they will go out into the community and do the same.”