In the aftermath of the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Wisconsin last month, athletes across North America went on strike in a showing of solidarity against systemic racism and support of people of colour.
Canadian Premier League players quickly began to organize. Brandon John of Atlético Ottawa was part of the discussions that CPL Commissioner David Clanachan had with players late into the night which led to a league-wide demonstration when Ottawa faced Cavalry FC on Aug. 27.
Hundreds of CPL players, staff, and coaches stood arm-in-arm around the touchline, kneeling in a moment of silence before kickoff and at the eight-minute mark – 8:46 to be exact – when play officially stopped to honour George Floyd, the Minnesota man who was killed in June when a police officer held his neck to the ground for eight minutes and 46 seconds.
In this interview, John and Ottawa teammate Malcom Shaw talked with CanPL.ca about that demonstration, what’s next for the CPL’s black players, and much more.
CanPL.ca: Looking back to that game you played vs. Cavalry, what are your thoughts on how things came together and that day as a whole?
Brandon John: It was definitely a very powerful moment being on the pitch at that time. It was a special feeling; the unity felt between not only my teammates and Cavalry but the entire league. I like that it was player-driven. I was in the meeting the night before with a group of players and the commissioner trying to figure out how we wanted to proceed – did we want to play, trying to honour the cause – but being player-driven was the most important thing.
Malcolm Shaw: It was important to be mainly facilitated and kickstarted by players. It’s our platform. We’re the ones that have the most powerful say as the athletes. It was important and for us, as black players, to take most of the initiative on coming together – each and every team, from each and every part of the country – and to make that statement.
We take the knee before (games) for a minute, and wear the shirts… That game, everyone coming together, bound everything and made that bold statement we wanted to do as a new league.
We’re aware of what’s happening around the world and doing our part to facilitate the change. It was definitely necessary and important and we did the best to follow the other leagues and their black players, but make it unique to myself.
CanPL.ca: How would you compare this action to other players and leagues? Obviously, none of you are LeBron James
John: That was part of the discussion when we were deciding how to go forward that night. Actually, that was the exact quote in the room: None of us are LeBron James here. Not playing a game wouldn’t have the same effect it would for, say, the Los Angeles Lakers not playing a game.
But our message was clear and powerful. That was the most important thing – using our platform, whatever it was, to make that statement.
Shaw: What I liked about that whole process was despite the CPL not being on the same magnitude of the NBA or NHL, we took it upon ourselves to be assertive and make a statement and understand we have a role to play.
We could have, honestly, stepped aside as a new league so we can do something that wouldn’t do anything, you know. We could have looked at it differently. We could have seen it as a means rather than what’s the right thing to do.
Being a new league, we could have easily said we wouldn’t hit those potential masses but that’s okay. We didn’t use that as an excuse.
We still have a group of people we can impact so that’s enough as is.
CanPL.ca: What are the next steps you want to see from the CPL?
John: If any instances of racism arise, I hope they clamp down on it and throw the book at who’s committing these offences.
Look at FIFA. There are instances of racism that have arisen. England versus Bulgaria… they were fined 50,000 dollars when they’ll throw millions at financial fair play.
Shaw: Whether from players or the league… we’d love to give money to work with organizations that work with players in communities and other poorer neighbourhoods. Obviously that takes away from generally what we can do as we’ve done at this tournament. Individual players can take those measures depending on where they’re from.
John: I would like to see players go into not only black communities but underprivileged communities which a lot of players in the CPL do come from – hold events, maybe show what kids can inspire to be. Growing up in Scarborough, Dwayne De Rosario was my biggest inspiration, so that makes sense to me.
Shaw: Yeah, that’s vital. It shows giving youth some sort of foundation and something to aspire to through an intentional action that we and the CPL can participate in. Teams from Vancouver Island all the way to Halifax can delegate players to run events in neighbourhood clinics, day camps, fundraisers… just make sure we can have that platform.
CanPL.ca: Pacific FC coach Pa-Modou Kah has been a strong voice as the league’s lone black coach. How impactful is it to see a black man in a coaching role in the CPL?
John: Personally Pa-Modou Kah is definitely a huge role model for me, especially as I want to get into coaching when I’m done.
He’s an inspiration, what he posts on social media it’s very inspiring…he’s very well-spoken and he’s a great coach. He’s great to be speaking out on these issues. Not just with me – guys around the league have a lot of respect for.
Shaw: It’s nice to see a guy that looks like me reflected in a position of, for lack of a better term, power or authority. A new league, it’s good to see a guy like me represented. Well-spoken, well-respected, and standing for what’s right. He carries himself well as well.
It’s important to see black men in positions in which they are respectful and admirable. It’s great to have examples. Obviously driving from sport, black men aren’t always portrayed in the most positive light in any industry. There are numerous stereotypes meant to castrate us or make us seem lesser-than. It’s important to see us as more-than-capable of being in positions of influence and respectful players.
John: Once we leave the bubble, our conversations with the league will have to be over Zoom.
The NBA is a great league to look at. A lot of their initiatives are player-driven and that’s part of the reason why they’re one of the fastest-growing leagues in the world.
The (CPL) has to stay in touch with the players, ask how they feel about certain situations, what the players feel like can be done better.
Last time we spoke, I said fans could reach out to me if they wanted to talk, and a few fans did. Not just talking about racism but acts of misogyny they’ve experienced in football in Canada. We had good conversations – I said that would not happen at Atlético Ottawa and I’m sure the CPL clubs.