Yesterday was about as surreal an experience I’ve ever had covering a soccer game, or any other sporting event. Everything about it was weird, from the new COVID-19 media protocols, the socially distanced crowd, and having a postgame press conference via Zoom from just a few hundred feet from where Oscar Pareja and the players actually were.
But the weirdest part of yesterday was the mood. The sports protests yesterday played out from shortly before I left for the stadium and lasted all evening. It put a damper on covering the game, and sports, which generally serve as a nice distraction, weren’t quite able to do that last night.
When I left for the stadium directly from work yesterday, the Milwaukee Bucks had just determined they would not play the Orlando Magic in protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Kenosha, WI. That ended up being the first domino in a chain of events but I had no idea at the time. I’d seen some rumblings on social media that other NBA games might be affected and wondered if I might have to write up a story last night about Orlando City’s match against Nashville SC being postponed or canceled, but I headed to the stadium anyway to see how it played out.
I was just up the road from downtown Orlando in Maitland — not terribly far away. At that time, Orlando players were already en route to Exploria Stadium. I arrived and watched the players walking in just minutes after I got there. Nobody appeared to be on their phones. At just past 6 p.m. Orlando City released a statement that a first-team player had tested inconclusive for COVID-19 and was in quarantine awaiting the results of a second test. In the press box, I chatted with other media members and tried to recall who was missing from the players we saw walk through the stadium to the locker room.
While the players changed into their training kits and focused on their assignments, we followed social media as the rest of the NBA games were called. At this point there were online reports that the WNBA games would go on but the players would stop every seven minutes in protest. Those rumors didn’t come to pass and eventually changed to the WNBA calling it a night in solidarity with the NBA. Baseball later followed suit.
Orlando City came out onto the field for warmups a few minutes after the clock started and we speculated whether they might have been discussing whether or not to play the match, but they were just a little late coming on. We also chatted about whether a decision not to play might happen after warmups.
But the teams walked out onto the field as usual, the anthem was played, and the match got underway.
Shortly after the match started, Major League Soccer released a statement in support of the Black community, condemning racism, and specifically citing the shooting of Blake and unrest in Kenosha. There wasn’t anything in it about not playing.
Sydney Leroux, watching events unfold from home, wasn’t happy with OCSC playing the match. She sent out the tweet below moments after the MLS statement. There were other angry tweets through our timeline as well. And those were later joined by a scathing tweet by Mark-Anthony Kaye after midnight, stating he was disappointed in Orlando City players (not Nashville SC’s, apparently), for playing the match.
Today was a historic day combatting racism in the sports world. I’m sad that our sport in our city missed the mark.— Sydney Leroux Dwyer (@sydneyleroux) August 26, 2020
Disappointed with the Orlando City players tonight. Who thinks they can post black lives matter when it’s easy, but when it’s tough care more about 3 points. There’s no excuse it doesn’t matter what country you are from, we are fighting for everyone to be seen as equal.— Mark-Anthony Kaye (@MarkThEwizz) August 27, 2020
Leroux and Kaye are professional athletes and they know how focused players are just prior to games. Orlando City players were in their work environment. They weren’t scanning social the way we were in the press box. Both team captain Nani and Head Coach Oscar Pareja were asked about playing the game following Orlando City’s 3-1 win and both said they had heard some rumors of protests but didn’t know the extent of it. The Atlanta United-Inter Miami match was the second one scheduled last night. It was slated for 30 minutes after Orlando City kicked off. It wasn’t even clear to us in the press box at 9 p.m. that the game in South Florida wouldn’t be played. Eventually we did get that word. By that time it was after halftime at Exploria Stadium.
By the time it became clear that no other MLS matches would happen Wednesday night — with a second statement from the league — the Lions and Nashville were in their final 20 minutes, with Orlando City protecting a lead.
Pareja met with media (via Zoom) shortly after the match and was asked about the team proceeding with playing the game. He professed the club’s support of social justice and said the team had only heard rumors. Nani then echoed those sentiments during his interview period, saying the team had heard rumors but “nothing concrete” about any organized protests. Some Nashville players discussed how the dropped three points didn’t matter in wake of what was happening in the world, but it’s important to note that Nashville SC also did not seem to know the full extent of what was happening elsewhere and they also didn’t protest the match. They were the first to take the field for warmups and were lined up and ready to go at kickoff.
Today, Pareja had media availability ahead of Saturday’s match against Atlanta and again faced questions about playing the game last night.
“I understand maybe some people think that we should have not played and we understand,” Pareja said during today’s press conference. “I think we would have just not not played the game if we had all the information and good timing. We didn’t know the whole thing.
“You know that our locker room with all these protocols are very closed or sealed and there were no cell phones around because we were in the middle of starting our game. But I understand if someone thinks that this should have been handled differently.”
So, the game was played, Orlando City won, and then players and coaches returned to their phones, their social media streams, their television sets, and they found out that this was the only match played. Had the game been scheduled for even 30 minutes later, it likely would not have happened.
But where do things go from here? When we left the stadium last night, we had no idea how long sports might be halted. There were online reports about LeBron James having talked about ending the NBA playoffs. But it appears the games are returning, barring some other unforeseen circumstances.
Pareja said today that his team focused on recovery this morning with a quick turnaround for Saturday, when his Lions will now be playing on the road against a rested Atlanta United club that did not put in a 90-minute shift in the heat and humidity of South Florida as was expected. Atlanta is preparing for Orlando City’s arrival.
Jeff Larentowicz on whether #ATLUTD will play Orlando City this weekend.— Felipe Cardenas (@FelipeCar) August 27, 2020
"We're preparing for Saturday. We'll train tomorrow."
So, in the end, Orlando City playing Nashville instead of taking the night off in protest, like the rest of the league did, appears to be just a function of timing. MLS Commissioner Don Garber could have called Alex Leitao before kickoff to explain what was going on around the league and kept it from being the only match played, but that apparently never happened.
Where things stand now is that we live in a society that’s been broken for quite a while but in some respects it is only starting to come to grips with being broken. That might sound depressing, and it is, but it’s also hopeful because we also live in a time when our athletes are recognizing how much power their voices have — and, after last night, the impact it can make when they miss the opportunity to use them.