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Black NWSL players are tired, anxious, and still training amidst national turmoil

Darian Jenkins and Taylor Smith are highly aware of anti-racism protests, but they’re also training for a tournament.

SOCCER: JUN 22 NWSL - North Carolina Courage Training Photo by Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Days into the first week of full team training, NWSL players Satara Murray, Ally Prisock and Jamia Fields participated in a protest in Houston. They held signs that said “Justice 4 George Floyd,” “I Can’t Breathe,” and “Black Lives Matter.”

Multiple Black NWSL players have spoken on their personal social media accounts about racism and police brutality in America since the killings of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor have caught the nation’s attention.

But it’s not just George Floyd. There’s also Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Amadou Diallo and countless others whose killers have not been held accountable. It’s walking past Confederate statues, attempting to survive racist work environments, mortgage discrimation, segregated and underfunded schools, lack of basic resources, bias from health care providers, and countless other injustices. On top of all this, the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately hit Black Americans harder, and so have the subsequent unemployment rates.

A couple of days before going out to protest, Fields shared a message on the Houston Dash social media channels, detailing how traumatic this latest wave of killings being brought to light has been, especially while playing in a majority white league.

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Words from our own @jamiafields.

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“I gather myself together each day, go to practice, I play the game I love, play with teammates I love regardless of their skin color, but in the back of my mind I’m struggling,” she wrote. “Struggling with the fact that when I leave practice, I’ll check my phone and continue to see devastating news about what’s happening to my black brothers and sisters. Struggling with the fact that I am away from my black family and friends and don’t know each day if another senseless act will take their life, or mine.”

Fields is just one of many Black NWSL players who are grappling with the ongoing upheaval in the United States over its long legacy of racism.

How players are feeling

Training for OL Reign started in Montana on Monday ahead of the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup. In a Zoom call with All for XI, Darian Jenkins said the team jumped into practice and “it’s been hard to feel present here. And emotionally when my heart is aching for everything else that’s going on, and I’m not actually a part of it or doing anything.”

Taylor Smith returned to full training after missing the 2019 NWSL season due to an ACL injury. Due to the nature of the upcoming tournament, she’s preparing to play anywhere she’s needed on the field. On top of managing the stress that comes with dealing with racism and trauma - stress that studies have shown can cause multiple health conditions, to the point of reducing lifespans - she also has to maintain the mental and physical capacity needed to compete at the highest level.

“Our coach was pretty clear,” Smith said. “He’s like, whatever was going on the outside, we’ll deal with it there, but 100% focus on the field, which is another thing that I don’t think white people understand. Black players just are kind of born with this trauma. It’s like a generational thing. And a lot of the time, we’re expected to perform and be great when we have all of these other things kind of crowded over our head, where our other teammates don’t have that and deal with that.”

June is also LGBTQ Pride month and the league and teams have changed their social media avis to commemorate the period, which has been a staple celebration in the league. But in terms of acknowledging that Black lives matter to them, reactions by teams have varied. Some released statements, some haven’t. Some have simply posted black boxes on their social media to acknowledge Blackout Tuesday, which started within the music industry with intention to “disrupt,” but was used by many brands in a meaningless public display of support to “amplify Black voices” with no meaningful action attached.

OL Reign posted a statement about the current state of America and encouraged supporters to donate to the Tacoma Urban League. While Jenkins said she appreciated the team’s effort, the issues haven’t been addressed on the team level, though she knows some coaches, GMs, and owners from other teams have reached out to their players. So when asked about what she’d like to see to feel supported in the league, she said less selective equality.

“Our league especially is very loud about LGBTQ community and the Equal Pay Act,” Jenkins said. “So having that same loudness and support constantly, starting from the top with our owners, our GM, our coaching staff, our players, our fans; that’s what we need recognized in order to keep this moving forward.... This must be as much of a priority as these other things that we also want equality for.”

Smith, who is gay and was even featured in an Adidas Pride campaign last year, said her focus is more on the Black Lives Matter movement right now than any Pride celebration. “I feel like right now it’s just kind of like more of a pressing issue,” she said, “Because when I’m walking down the street, people see that I’m Black first, nobody knows ‘Oh, like she’s gay.’ And so for me, I’m trying to take this time to truly educate myself, you know, just with Black history and current politics and what I need to do to be effective and (make) change.”

The intersection of queerness and race is an added load for Smith. While homophobia and transphobia aren’t exclusive to the Black community, a Black trans woman being attacked by Black men and women minutes away from protests in Minneapolis highlights the added bigotry Black gay and trans people are dealing with during this movement.

“For me personally, I feel like I’ve experienced more discrimination in the black community for being gay than I have with white people and stuff and so I feel like it’s just a whole completely other issue,” Smith said. “And right now, that all just seems overwhelming and I have to take all these little things step-by-step and take time trying to process things and how I’m feeling about it and where I want to go with it and stuff.”

Educating to save your life

For anyone Black going into mostly white spaces over the last week, it has been exhausting, whether having to relive trauma, or to interact with or educate people who don’t understand what’s happening - what has been happening in the United States for decades.

But unlike in the past, it is no longer overtly controversial to say “Black Lives Matter.” In the last week, people have been called out at all levels, from individuals to government officials, for not saying anything or remaining neutral on racism in America and police brutality. More non-Black people have been receptive to learning and/or acknowledging what Black people have been saying for such a long time, through endless, exhausting advocacy for their own lives.

But using her voice on and offline has been empowering for Smith, and likely other Black players who have wanted to speak about certain issues but felt they couldn’t or have previously dealt with backlash for sharing their experiences.

“I do feel kind of empowered in some ways,” Smith said. “Especially because before like I was saying, just being in white spaces you kind of learn not to make other people uncomfortable, whereas you’re uncomfortable all the time. I feel like I’ve had situations where I do believe I’ve been treated poorly because I’ve been Black or not been chosen or not been looked at a certain way because of the color of my skin. And I feel like it just feels kind of a release to just be able to say it, instead of internalizing that, and that kind of turns into self doubt, like isolation, like self hate, and it just seems like that’s what the world does to you now, Black men and Black women. It just teaches you kind of to hate yourself.”

Smith has been off of social media for the last year or so but used her platform to share her thoughts on being Black in America and what it has been like to grow up in predominantly white spaces. Before that, she sent a message to her team about how she was feeling and shared ways to be a supportive teammate, as well as information on how to support protests, vote, and help the cause. Both Smith and Jenkins specifically checked in on their Black teammates as well. Jenkins has also been talking with friends outside of soccer, but has been using social media to educate and remind people to take action.

“Encourage people to vote and like read these books, like read Toni Morrison and read James Baldwin and etc. and just try to give information even though it’s not my job to,” said Jenkins. “That’s helping me kind of ease the fact that I’m not able to actively participate.”

Educating those around her isn’t new to Jenkins, who is mixed and grew up in predominantly white Utah, where she said she “had a lot of experiences where people say very backhandedly racist things towards me. Even when I was younger, I never used to wear my natural hair because people would come up and touch my hair, or say things, or tell me I look like a boy.”

“I’ve always felt kind of lost,” she said, “And until college and even recently, I’ve had a lot of self discovery, and even having conversations with people in my family and having to say ‘You can’t say things like that. That’s racist.’ And I know they’re not racist, but ‘what you’re saying is racist’. Helping educate people around you. Even people you don’t know, your friends, your family. I think that’s just the way to actually start change.”

Change they want to see

Smith said while it’s daunting to not know if real change will come, she reminds herself to do her part using what she can, where she is. “I think this is the first time people have kind of taken a little responsibility, which also I feel like that’s given me a lot of relief and hope,” she said. “It’s something that they’re willing to take accountability, recognize their privilege, and understand that they have to do work as well.”

“I’m really curious to see. I hope and pray that things keep changing well after this isn’t trendy to post about anymore,” Jenkins said. “I really, really hope so. This whole thing has made it very clear to me who is an ally and who isn’t. Who I want to put energy into having conversations with and who I won’t. So that’s been a really big wake up call to me personally.”

In conversations Jenkins has had with her white friends, she said she has asked them to do self-reflecting. “When you’re scared watching a scary movie and you hide under the covers at night, scared of whatever like Freddy Krueger might come and get you,” she said, “Imagine how a Black person feels daily turning on the news, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and seeing people that look like you being murdered in broad daylight by those that are meant to protect you. Imagine walking around with that in your mind, that weight on your shoulders and that fear in your heart.”

Whenever the news cycle changes, the grief and pain won’t go away. The issues Black Americans have been dealing with are part of ongoing, centuries-long racism that manifests itself in every aspect of daily life and can’t be solved with a few weeks of tweeting.

Soccer in America, though it is gradually diversifying, is a very white sport, from ownership to players to media. It’s on everyone in all of these areas of the game to educate themselves, then take action within their sphere of influence. Crystal Dunn talked about how coaches, players and commentators can help change the racist ways Black players are discussed and viewed by others.

Regular general check ins, allowing additional time off for protesting and mental health, actively investing in the health of Black employees, and diversifying staff on every level are all action items employers can take on immediately, in addition to making unequivocal public statements supporting Black equality.

Fan groups can make sure they have prominent statements of support that specifically name injustices against Black people, and what they’re doing to create safe spaces for Black fans. They can also diversify their leadership groups and make sure that Black voices are included in their event planning and outreach.

“My biggest thing moving forward is seeing that support from every angle in this league because this is something that has gone on for so long,” Jenkins said. “This year, this is the most Black women I’ve ever had on a team. So the fact that it’s become more and more diverse and colorful, this definitely must be a priority.”