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How Utah Royals FC, OL Reign players came together to show unity for racial justice

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Players from Utah Royals FC and OL Reign FC line up before the start of a NWSL soccer game at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020.

Yukai Peng, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The latest in an ever-growing series of major events that has affected the psyche of Utah Royals FC players occurred this week when a grand jury determined that the police officers who shot Breonna Taylor in Kentucky would not be criminally charged with her death.

As they’ve done routinely over the past few months, players are trying to show a united front in helping each other through the challenges. On Saturday, they weren’t alone in that.

Before URFC faced Washington-based OL Reign at Rio Tinto Stadium, players from both sides wore shirts during pregame warmups recognizing Taylor. Black players wore shirts that said “I am Breonna Taylor,” while others wore shirts that said “Justice for Breonna Taylor.”

Then as players went on to the field for the opening whistle, they knelt for a moment of silence. Right as the game began, the teams released a joint statement that read in part, “We are disheartened that (Taylor) will not receive the justice she deserves...However, in the true spirit of the Black Lives Matter Movement, we will not stop telling her story until her life is justly honored.

“We will continue highlighting injustices and fighting for actionable change in our community. We understand that systemic racism has been foundational in our country’s history, but it is not enough to simply know that there is a problem. We must all choose how our actions will create real change, and we choose to unequivocally fight for true racial justice.”

URFC rookie Tziarra King, who is Black and who has been a leading voice within the team over the past few months on matters related to racial justice, wore Taylor’s name on the back of her jersey Saturday and said Reign players Madison Hammond, Jasmyne Spencer and Taylor Smith approached her with the idea of a unified statement.

“In light of everything that’s going on right now, it’s important to remember that life is so much bigger than soccer, and the things that are going on in this country are so much bigger than us,” she said.

Interim URFC head coach Amy LePeilbet told team media postgame, “I’m incredibly proud of the players. They’re using their platforms. They’re speaking out. I’m behind them 100%. Honestly, when I saw them in their shirts, I found it incredibly powerful and emotional. I’m proud of them.”

Earlier this week, King’s URFC teammates Elizabeth Ball and Lo’eau LaBonta told reporters that the grand jury ruling brought heavy emotions for some players, but it provided an opportunity for the group to come together in a unique way, something they’ve had to do often over the past few months.

“I know a couple people were pretty beat up, but it’s amazing that our team has just had so many conversations in the past few weeks and months,” Ball said. “There’s just such a good connection, and everybody wants to be there for each other and just support each other in any way we can.”

Ball, who is Black, said a number of teammates reached out to her after the ruling to make sure she was doing alright.

“It’s just great having a team that you know can have your back no matter what the scenario is,” she said.

LaBonta has been outspoken on social media in trying to amplify her Black teammates’ voices, and she said this week that she’s been motivated by their willingness to use their platforms as professional soccer players to try to bring about change.

“It’s very inspirational, the stuff that they’re doing in the community, when they’re fighting for racial justice,” she said. “Everything my teammates are doing is inspiring. They’re fighters.”

LaBonta added that many players are taking the conversations the team has been having to heart.

“A lot of the girls are taking this and trying to show empathy and do different things,” she said. “One thing my teammates are trying to do is give each other support and finish out this season, but don’t just make it about soccer. Use this platform right now to show that we want to improve and make this country better.”