'Life is bigger than sport': Real Salt Lake, LAFC join with MLS, NBA, others in pressing pause

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SANDY — With just over an hour to go until kickoff of Wednesday night’s Major League Soccer match at Rio Tinto Stadium, RSL defender Justen Glad stood at midfield talking to a handful of teammates and players from Los Angeles FC.

None of them wore a jersey. All of them wore T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Black lives matter.”

On a night when MLS was scheduled to return to Rio Tinto Stadium in front of a sold-out crowd limited to 5,000 people, other matters intervened.

RSL’s match with LAFC was delayed shortly after 6:30 p.m. MDT, when players from both sides declined to take the field for pregame warmups. The move followed similar delays and postponements in the NBA, beginning with the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic, and WNBA in the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

The movement was driven by the players, supported by both clubs, and by the time word had trickled into the few hundred fans who were arriving for their first home RSL match in Sandy since March, the decision was met largely with approval.

“We wanted to be here playing in front of fans,” said RSL defender Nedum Onuoha, a native of Nigeria who has spent most of his life and career in England. “But life is bigger than sport, and I think at times, we can confuse the two.”

Onuoha, whose first experience with “the States” came after signing with RSL, said he’s had to learn a lot about the United States and its complicated history with race relations since moving here. Each time, he’s wanted to make a change.

Some of it has been painful. A lot of it has brought him to tears.

"When I saw the murder of George Floyd, I cried. I cried for many reasons, but you look at it, and that could be me regardless of wherever I’m from," Onuoha said. "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.

“It’s sad when you see more and more cases. 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."

Wednesday’s decision not to play began spilling across the country after the Milwaukee Bucks opted out of playing their first-round NBA playoff game against the Orlando Magic. By mid-afternoon, RSL goalkeeper Zac MacMath — who is one of two team representatives with the MLS Players’ Union — had contacted most of his side, and even some players from LAFC. Onuoha was one of the first.

The feeling was universal; nobody wanted to play.

“Nedum and I felt very strongly that we did not want to play,” MacMath said, later adding, “This has been a year of a lot of difficulty, not just about sport, but about helping the community.”

Rio Tinto Stadium about two hours prior to kickoff, Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020 in Sandy, Utah. Wednesday's match between Real Salt Lake and Los Angeles FC was postponed following a string of similar player-led decisions across MLS and other leagues.
Rio Tinto Stadium about two hours prior to kickoff, Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020 in Sandy, Utah. Wednesday's match between Real Salt Lake and Los Angeles FC was postponed following a string of similar player-led decisions across MLS and other leagues. (Photo: Sean Walker, KSL.com)

After a delay involving a protest from players in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the match between Inter Miami and Atlanta United followed suit within moments of the decision in Sandy. In total, five matches were postponed Wednesday — RSL-LAFC, Miami-Atlanta, Dallas-Colorado, San Jose-Portland, and LA Galaxy-Seattle.

Prior to kickoff — or shortly after Orlando City SC and Nashville SC had taken the field — the league released a statement from commissioner Don Garber and other officials.

“The entire Major League Soccer family is deeply saddened and horrified by the senseless shooting of Jacob Blake and events in Kenosha,” the league statement reads. “We continue to stand with the Black community throughout our country — including our players and employees — and share in their pain, anger and frustration.

“MLS unequivocally condemns racism and has always stood for equality, but we need to do more to take tangible steps to impact change. We will continue to work with our players, our clubs and the broader soccer community to harness our collective power to fight for equality and social justice.”

That game was finished, with Orlando earning a 3-1 win. But with the player-driven nature and fluid movement of the protest, nobody blamed those players for moving forward with what should’ve been a celebratory return of the league’s return to home markets for the first time since the novel coronavirus pandemic shuttered most North American sports.

MacMath said he and Onuoha were among the first two RSL players to connect about the possibility of sitting out Wednesday, and they didn’t come to that consensus until shortly after 3 p.m. MT. That would’ve been shortly before Orlando and Nashville were scheduled to kick off.

“I think whether it came down to it, the conversations we were having from the midafternoon were different. We had more time to think about it,” Onuoha added. “They didn’t necessarily have that luxury of more time.”

“It’s not ideal, because we could’ve shown a completely united front. But in the same breath, I think everyone standing there before the game showed the same message.”

RSL said personal ticket reps will contact those who purchased tickets to Wednesday's match for reimbursement or future credit. The league said it plans to make up all the postponed fixtures, though when those make-up games will be scheduled is yet to be determined.

As of now, Salt Lake will travel to play at Portland at 8:30 p.m. MT Saturday.

“I think today was more of a reactive day to try to show solidarity, to show that we want to be a part of that decision,” Onuoha said. “I think the decision came pretty late in the day. It’s a fluid situation. The plan right now is to play games on Saturday, but as far as solidarity goes, the hope is that today will be a significant day to try to define injustices.

“The conversations shouldn’t be around sport today, because there are far bigger things going on.”

MacMath hopes Wednesday’s social justice-inspired stall across North American sports will spark a dialogue, and also change in the country. Get out and vote, and make a difference in your community, he told a dozen reporters via Zoom video conference after posing for a photo alongside his teammates and LAFC’s squad.

“We hope that the fans want to change with us,” MacMath said, “and we hope they will go out into the community and do the same.”

Onuoha echoed his teammate.

“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 happening in the NBA, and so on and so forth — for me, personally, I think makes a very, very big statement,” he said. “And yes, people will miss out on the entertainment. But at the end of the day, it’s entertainment. There are other things going on which are essentially life and 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.”

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