The ongoing racial uprisings and COVID-19 pandemic continue to push Cristian Roldan to the forefront. The Sounders midfielder has always been an advocate for equality and civil rights — now he’s leading discussions within the team.
“I’ve encountered quite a bit of racism,” said Roldan, a first-generation American whose mother is from El Salvador and father is from Guatemala. “But nothing like the Black community. It’s really in my heart to find that change because I’ve experienced it firsthand, and I want to better the world and better the people around me.”
A calling came from Twitter. MLS shut down in March 2020 in an effort to help slow the spread of the virus, increasing time spent on social media. Like many, news of the May killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minnesota police officer, flooded Roldan’s timeline.
As civil unrest erupted globally, Roldan was lured to a similar story locally — Manuel Ellis.
Ellis, a 33-year-old Black man, was killed by Tacoma police in March 2020. The father of two can be heard on video recordings stating “I can’t breathe, sir” while handcuffed and gasping for air.
“That struck me,” Roldan said of reading about the case months later. “It happened in our own backyard and yet I still didn’t know what had happened until after the George Floyd incident. That really gravitated toward me because it was frustrating not knowing what’s going on in your backyard. … It’s a really sad story and his kids are missing him greatly.”
Roldan, 25, took action alongside the new Black Players for Change — an organization of more than 170 Black players, staff, and front-office personnel associated with MLS. The BPC led an on-field demonstration in support for the Black Lives Matter movement when the league resumed play amid the pandemic with a summer tournament in Florida.
Most of the Black MLS players surrounded the edge of the field in silence and held a fist in the air while starters for the match kneeled — all for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, symbolizing the time the officer’s knee was on Floyd’s neck.
“I get worked up even talking about it now,” said Portland forward Jeremy Ebobisse, a BPC co-founder, about video of Floyd’s death. Floyd also gasped “I can’t breathe” multiple times.
“All I can do is try to drive change from my angle,” Ebobisse continued. “What I’m doing isn’t going to prevent the next one from being killed with such impunity. I’m just being blunt and honest. But, I will do everything I can to provide opportunities for youth of color, Black kids to have access to spaces, institutions that are either intentionally or unintentionally but negligently leaving them out. Fighting for that keeps me going and keeps me energized.”
In addition to wearing “Black Lives Matter” shirts, the starting lineup for both teams, and often the referees, for every MLS match after the tournament started with kneeling in silence for a moment before the whistle for kickoff.
On Aug. 26, the demonstration changed to a strike as the MLS teams joined several from the NBA and WNBA in a refusal to compete. The unity followed many witnessing Jacob Blake, a Black man, get shot in the back by a white Wisconsin police officer but a white gunman at a protest days later be apprehended unharmed and offered water by officers.
“Those are great discussions for us because we’re able to talk about what happened and educate those who don’t understand what’s going on,” Roldan said. “I’m publicly speaking out a little bit more. But it’s not like I’m the only one. There are many, many guys in our locker room that are doing their part.”
Joining Roldan in the Sounders locker room talks were Sean Muldoon, the head strength and conditioning coach, goalkeeper Stefan Frei and midfielder Jordy Delem, who’s also a BPC member. By September, as intentional as public statements to mask up to protect against COVID or register to vote were pleas from Roldan and teammates for justice for Ellis.
The Sounders wore white shirts with the messaging in black and held a banner that read “Justice for Manny Ellis” before a match against Los Angeles FC at Lumen Field on Sept. 18. The Sounders won 3-0.
“Something so small can really make a big difference,” said Roldan of the statement that grabbed headlines worldwide.
In the end, the Sounders didn’t kneel, however. The pageantry of the MLS Cup match between the Columbus Crew SC and Seattle at Mapfre Stadium in Ohio didn’t feature any direct mention of the Black Lives Matter movement. Instead, Sounders players were shown during the television broadcast standing while linked arm-in-arm as the national anthem played.
“We wanted to do something that united us,” Roldan said. “We all came to an agreement that locking arms was the best thing because we wanted to show unity.”
Roldan said demonstrations are still needed this season.
Black people continue to suffer from police brutality. Daunte Wright, 20, is the latest victim. The father of a 1-year-old son was shot Sunday afternoon by a white Minnesota officer.
“Any little thing we can do with our platform to bring light to these social inequalities that have been going on, we need to do,” Sounders forward Will Bruin said of following Roldan’s lead. “Even if it’s a little thing like wearing a shirt during warm-ups. It gets people talking and it makes people aware of the bigger issues. Last year, maybe it was easy for everybody to do it because everybody was wearing it. It’s easy to jump onboard when every team is doing it. To keep it going into this year, it might be tougher but hopefully we can.”