New York City FC goalkeeper Sean Johnson’s 11 seasons in Major League Soccer have not shielded him from the racism black Americans regularly face.
“Being a black man in this country and experiencing so many things and situations that have been less than ideal, I’ve experienced racism. I’ve experienced being viewed as different from the first time meeting people,” Johnson said. “I think it’s endless when you talk about what it’s like to grow up in a situation like that.”
Amid ongoing protests against racial injustice following the death of George Floyd last month in Minneapolis, Johnson is ready to see actual change.
Johnson said he’s been in communication with other players and friends outside the league in recent weeks to discuss how to fight racism, both in their communities and within MLS.
That came to fruition Friday when Johnson was named a board member of the new Black Players Coalition of MLS, an announcement that coincided with the Juneteenth holiday. The organization “will address the racial inequalities in our league, stand with all those fighting racism in the world of soccer, and positively impact black communities across the United States and Canada,” according to a statement.
The organization already has brought together more than 70 black MLS players, the statement said, and has secured $75,000 in chartible contributions by the MLS Players Association on its behalf.
“The awareness that specifically post-George Floyd has brought to the eyes of many, people started to open up their eyes and ears and really started to see what’s been going on in this country for a long time,” Johnson said. “It’s unfortunate that we have to have such a sacrifice in George Floyd for people to really start to become aware. It’s been a time where myself, teammates who are black, friends around the league, black friends outside the league have come together to push for actual change. That’s really the only thing, the only end goal that we should be focused on is actual change. There’s been enough talk about action, but things really need to come about from this situation.”
Johnson, who played college soccer at Central Florida, has been on MLS rosters since he was drafted by the Chicago Fire in the fourth round of the 2010 SuperDraft. He made 176 league appearances there before arriving at NYCFC in 2017, where he’s been a stalwart between the posts since.
The veteran keeper said he’s seen systemic racial issues within the league during his time, specifically with black players transitioning to post-playing careers.
“You can start with the top on down when you talk about diversity within Major League Soccer. Opportunity being a black player and seeing just the amount of jobs for equally qualified players at the end of their career, transitioning into whether it be coaching jobs or jobs at Major League Soccer,” Johnson said. “I think there’s been discussions with the commissioner just opening the eyes to shed a little bit more light on that.”
Those discussions, Johnson hopes, will be ongoing in coming weeks and months.
“I think a lot of things when you talk about systemic issues within the league, I’ve been in the league now 11 years and I think it’s a lot of those things rear their heads time and time again. It’s my hope moving forward that there are certain initiatives that can be put in place, certain programs that can provide more opportunity for black people within the league, black players in the league and also continue to find ways to address at the community level.
“It’s a lot deeper than just this league. It’s the communities that are important as well in making sure we address those systemic issues so that young black people have the opportunity and don’t have the disadvantage from the time they step foot into this world.”
Johnson declined to get into specifics of outward racism experienced during his career. But, he pointed to recent comments by Chicago Fire forward CJ Sapong about former teammate Aleksander Katai, who parted ways with the LA Galaxy after what the club called “a series of racist and violent social media posts” by Katai’s wife, Tea. Sapong, who is black, told The Cooligans podcast that Katai would not look him the eye for the first two months after Sapong arrived in a trade from Philadelphia. As the season progressed, Sapong belived Katai deliberately avoided passing to him even when in prime scoring positions, instead taking impossible shots.
“In terms of personal experience being a player in this league for 11 years, you see recently the issue with Katai and CJ Sapong for instance in Chicago. Conversations, discussions surrounding that being brought to light essentially being downplayed or ignored would be an issue. As a player you talk about having to coexist in the locker room. And the difficulties of voicing your opinion at times, as a black man in America and a black man in the working world and professional world getting your foot in the door. A lot of times you’re taught to keep your foot in the door. You’re taught that once a door is open to you to do all you can to make others comfortable around you so you’re not viewed as an issue or not doing anything to have yourself taken back, so to speak, in your career.
“Some of the experiences are outright, some of the experiences are things that have been withheld within as feelings as a black man and a minority in this league for a long time.”