A weekend of protests and tributes in the Bundesliga following the death of George Floyd began over 4,000 miles from Minneapolis last Saturday, at the Veltins-Arena. Weston McKennie took the field wearing an armband dedicated to memory of Floyd during Schalke’s 1-0 loss to Werder Bremen. McKennie, a 21-year-old U.S. international from Texas, discussed afterwards how players shouldered responsibility in driving larger societal change. McKennie recognized the moment amid an otherwise empty sports calendar, saying that “we’re the only league that’s playing right now, all eyes are on the Bundesliga.”
Players across various nationalities throughout Germany continued their protests as matches unfolded. Borussia Monchengladbach striker Marcus Thuram celebrated his side’s second goal by referencing Colin Kaepernick and taking a knee. Thuram’s actions were ever more resonant considering his father, World Cup-winning Lillian Thuram, has been actively fighting racism within the sport and gave an interview about his experiences growing up in France as recently as last week. The younger Thuram was backed by his manager Marco Rose, who said his 22-year-old striker “set an example against racism that we all support.”
The tributes were not yet complete. Jadon Sancho removed his jersey after scoring his first goal during Borussia Dortmund’s 6-1 win over Paderborn, revealing the message “Justice For George Floyd” written on his undershirt. Teammate Achraf Hakimi, who also honored Floyd with a message written on his shirt following his goal, was one of several African players across continents and leagues who were vocal in their support. Afterwards, Sancho took to Twitter to dedicate his first career hat-trick to Floyd’s memory.
Sancho promptly received a yellow card for taking off his jersey, a reminder of the clash between the energy of the outside world against the artifice of the field. The yellow card opened up a debate as to whether the Bundesliga would take action against him, Akimi, McKennie, and Thuram for their displays (Tyler Adams, McKennie’s teammate on the USMNT, wrote his support for Floyd and Black Lives Matter on his cleats). Several organizations asked the German soccer federation to consider the nuances of the circumstance in letting the players go unpunished, thereby indirectly setting the tone for how other leagues would respond to similar situations. Even FIFA requested that the federation understand the current moment. The protesting players “deserve an applause and not a punishment,” said FIFA president Gianni Infantino.
The German federation acquiesced days later, with president Fritz Keller saying “the players’ actions have our respect and understanding.” They also added that the federation would take no action for further on-field protests supporting anti-racism statements “for the next few weeks.”
Perhaps buoyed by the space and silence of the lockdown and ghost matches - and carefully straddling the line between authenticity and digital performance - players and clubs across Europe honored Floyd with their own tributes. Kylian Mbappe, Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba each displayed their individual protests against police brutality. Chelsea players formed an “H” to stand for humanity, while Newcastle players also took a knee. Liverpool’s tribute, organized by Gini Wijnaldum and Virgil van Dijk, showed the pitfalls of social media as many were quick to point out how the club backed Luis Suarez when Patrice Evra accused the striker of racism (Suarez himself posted an all-black frame on Instagram as part of #blackouttuesday).
The protests spread to the Hungarian league, where Kenyan-born winger Tokmac Nguen was given a written reprimand upon unveiling his own “Justice For George Floyd” t-shirt after scoring a goal. In attempting to separate soccer and politics, we find how interwoven politics are starting from the very act of team-building. Of course, there is a difference between a political and a social act. Piara Power, the executive director of the anti-discrimination Fare Network, distinguished between a player supporting a political cause and “an expression of concern and solidarity from minority players.”
“If you really, really look at this as a political act, then I don’t know what to tell you,” added McKennie.
And that the Bundesliga is the only major European league currently playing is also rooted in politics, with Karl-Heinze Ruminigge saying the swift return showcased Germany’s efficient response to the pandemic. The league has seemingly exceeded expectations since its restart - players and staff remain safe, matches are drawing record viewership numbers, the playing style is at the very forefront of modernity. Yet maybe the emptiness within the stadiums has given the space for player tributes and protests to gain extra resonance. Will this moment continue to build momentum as other European leagues return in the upcoming weeks?
Owen Hargreaves spoke of his admiration for the younger generation’s willingness to address societal issues in contrast with his generation. And while the message has inherent significance regardless of its messenger, Thuram, McKennie, Adams, Hakimi, and Sancho command extra attention with their standing as some of the game’s future superstars. Most likely by design, we know very little in the way of how this current era of soccer superstars align themselves on social issues. The paradigm centered around building global brands nudges towards moderation, with our mythmaking built around a clear, singular main character.
Though maybe this outward expressiveness is also the nature of this upcoming generation, one native to social media and images, an impulse to share, and a savvy understanding of how to tell stories to a large-scale of strangers. One conclusion we’ve drawn within the past months under lockdown is how the pandemic wasn’t necessarily responsible for changing our daily habits emphasizing digital spaces, but instead just sped up that process. Likewise, perhaps this moment sped up the process in giving the space for the McKennie’s and Sancho’s to become leaders on their own.
The on-going conversation between current events in America and European soccer has evolved in 2020 especially. The adulation from the soccer world following Kobe Bryant’s death showed how athletes transcend their individual sports. The two worlds became even smaller and further connected in a time shutdown by a pandemic, and even more so with reactions surrounding Floyd.
Could McKennie have foreseen his impact last Saturday? Regardless, he has already inspired at least one teammate in Rabbi Matondo. The 19-year-old Welsh winger said he would have followed McKennie’s lead in showing his support had McKennie been vocal about his tribute before the match against Bremen. McKennie continued to speak out in a video, this time featuring USMNT and Bundesliga peers like Christian Pulisic, Alphonso Davies, and Michael Bradley. When we analyzed the Bundesliga’s restart with cautious optimism last month, who had McKennie rising as an integral link between two worlds? There is something here about the individual meeting the moment, and the moment meeting the right individual.
The dialogue and tributes to Floyd within Bundesliga sides continued into the weekend. Dortmund posted another photo supporting #BlackLivesMatter on Thursday. Maybe it is appropriate and natural that the footballing world use this time of playing in silence for reflection. The statistics and personal anecdotes both underlie the decline of fouls and time-wasting during ghost matches, with an increase in actual playing time. With the noise and showmanship stripped away, it was the protests and tributes that filled in the empty spaces.