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Postgame Pontifications: Decision not to play was more than just a domino

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Sounders intended to make a statement, not simply ride the wave.

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Seattle Sounders FC Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Nothing is inevitable. It’s important to remember that, especially when talking about the actions of a group of players who needed to do something they likely had never seriously considered until the choice was foisted upon them.

Given how the events of Wednesday played out from a distance, it’s tempting to see it as an obvious choice, maybe even an easy choice for the Seattle Sounders not to play their game against the LA Galaxy. Theirs was the last game on the schedule that night and a couple others had already been called off.

But to do so also takes away the Sounders’ agency in the situation and serves to diminish what they collectively decided to do by voting not to play the night’s against the LA Galaxy. To treat their collective action as merely the latest in the series of literally unprecedented events that stretched across sports virtually ignores their decision to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protests and to express their outrage at the shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha, Wisc. police.

Even the league, purposefully or not, served to undermine the players’ agency by claiming it was Commissioner Don Garber’s choice to postpone the games, as opposed to a decision the players effectively forced him to make.

Reading the players’ public statements, you can see both their intent and their concern.

“I don’t think we just want to be a domino,” Stefan Frei wrote in his statement. “We have our thoughts and our own opinions on these things, and regardless of what everyone else is doing, we’re making a statement by wanting to raise awareness that we, as a country, haven’t come far since the murder of George Floyd and the initial groundswell of calls to action. We have so much farther to go.”

I think it’s relevant to note that as automatic as the decision may have seemed from the outside, there was a lively debate about whether or not to play amongst players. That conversation started well before they knew what the rest of the league was going to do, shortly after the players had settled into their hotel rooms in preparation for the game.

Around 3 PM local time, it became obvious that some sort of decision was going to have to be made. The players collectively decided that they needed to vote, but that they’d all be on board with what the majority deemed appropriate. What followed wasn’t so much a debate as a lively conversation about the appropriate way forward.

Especially given the stop and start nature of this season, the desire to play was strong. That players wanted to play should be obvious, but it is being treated as if it were a mere afterthought. Before they had even boarded their bus to take them to Dignity Health Care Park, though, the players had decided that they wouldn’t be going to the stadium.

“Sometimes as a professional athlete you live in some kind of a bubble,” Kelvin Leerdam wrote. “But we wanted to show everybody that, listen, we see what happens around us and those are things that can affect us too. As a group, we decided that we’re part of the world and we’ll let everybody see that the things that happen around us, we aren’t blind to it.”

For proof that these actions can have real impacts, look no further than what is playing out at Real Salt Lake right now. Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen’s fondness for using racist language and dehumanizing behavior was apparently an open secret for much of the past seven years, but it only became public after he felt compelled to complain about the players’ actions. Ironically, it was Hansen’s earlier decision to furlough RSL employees that appears to have given them the head space to share their experiences.

Thankfully, Hansen’s behavior seems to be an outlier within MLS. If other owners harbor similar feelings, they at least are keeping it to themselves.

Whether or not those feelings are shared privately, Hansen’s words — and the players’ collective action — are also forcing the league’s hand in putting some power behind their support of the protests.

Hansen’s removal is no more “inevitable” than the players’ decision not to play. Just the same, it’s the right thing to do.