In June, the United States men’s national team defeated Mexico 3-2 in the CONCACAF Nations League final. It was a moment to savor for U.S. Soccer, lifting a trophy at the expense of its biggest rival.
But there were countless more headlines written about what followed: Defender Mark McKenzie was subjected to racial abuse on social media in the wake of that win. There have been several more stories of a similar nature in the past month, notably the racial abuse Black England players received after their Euro 2020 final defeat to Italy.
Last month, ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle spoke at length with McKenzie to discuss that Mexico game, the prevalence of racial abuse, the ways he’s working to increase awareness and combat racism, and much more.
(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)
ESPN: How are you holding up?
McKenzie: It’s what comes with the territory, right? As a professional athlete, there’s always going to be eyes and ears on you when you play in high-stakes moments. Things happen. And as a young player, I try not to [dwell] too much … Everyone’s going to make mistakes, and as a defender, those things are more costly than others. So playing against Mexico, I give a bad pass and it turns right into a goal.
We got punished for it, and ultimately, all eyes turned on me and how I would react. So yeah, it was a moment that in retrospect you can always look back on and wish things had happened differently, but I think I try to take the best out of it, because it’s a learning experience for me on understanding the occasion, how to deal with certain things and then ultimately figuring out if I had the fortitude, the resilience, the character to really fight, to really put myself back into the game.
I held my own, but again that mistake. These are mistakes that people are going to put a spotlight on, and emphasize. Now it becomes, “Mark McKenzie can’t play at this level. He’s not meant to be on the national team, and he’s not ready to compete in these big important matches.” And I spoke to my dad, and he was like, “Look, the speed, the rate at which people will love you is the same rate at which people will hate you, and criticize you.” So you got to take that with a grain of salt because some could never play in the same shoes that you’re in. They could never deal with the same situations that you’re in.
At the end of the day, I know myself. I know what kind of player I am. I know that one mistake doesn’t define me, that 63 seconds doesn’t define me. I know I have an extremely high ceiling that I’m still just tapping into. There’s areas of my game I still need to improve on. So by no means am I saying I’m this well-rounded, perfectly slated player, as I showed in the match. And that’s something I look forward to, to challenging myself to step into that room of, “Where do I need to improve?” and bringing up my game even more. So again, it’s a learning experience for me, and one I’m extremely thankful and blessed that I played in that situation, played in a CONCACAF final for my national team.
ESPN: You experience the euphoria of the Nations League win, then you go on Instagram and you see some of the racist comments directed at you. How often does that happen?
McKenzie: It happens a lot more than people think. And people will say — and I keep using the general term “people” because I don’t want to say it’s one person or another person — but people in general have the perception that I was posting about these racial comments and racial slurs like, “Ah, it’s not a big deal. It’s just a comment.” But that’s the reason why I feel like we’ve gotten to this point is because we automatically, as soon as something happens, we want to get it over with as soon as possible [and] not be faced with the fact that this is a long-term issue. This is a problem that will not get dealt with unless it’s on the front of our minds. When we put it to the back of our heads, we now become complacent, lackadaisical, it’s not a priority anymore.
But why is it now that when these comments and slurs come up, that when we post them, it seems to be a problem? Why is it that when we have these issues that pop up in our society around these race, racial sensitivity or homophobic insensitivity or whatever issues we were facing in society, why is it that now when you post about it, it becomes, “Ah, you know, you guys keep doing the same thing. It’s just a comment.” Yeah, if it’s just a comment, then why do we keep coming back to it? Why is it that this is still plaguing [society]? Why is it still this common theme that we find out that we see on a regular basis? If it doesn’t become a priority then it’s just going to become a normality in our lives, right? So, me posting about it — in my eyes, at least — is not giving these people attention, but to remind us that this is still going on.
I have comments going on, “Hang yourself. You suck and you don’t belong on the national team,” this, that and the other. All over 60 seconds, and in a sport that I’ve loved and I’ve sacrificed my entire life for.
In a way I’m entertaining thousands of other people with my teammates, and then the other team. We’re doing this because we love the game. And as a byproduct we are entertaining many others. But the moment something happens out of your control, something happens that you’re not pleased with, now it becomes a “Pick this guy out and really get at him. Eat him [alive].”
We’re humans too, man. That was my biggest thing, not to highlight the mistake, but to highlight the fact this is a commonality. It’s one thing to critique my game — I understand I made a mistake, I’ll learn from it, that’s no problem — but to dig at somebody for something so degrading, to use comments and slurs that are demoralizing, that are making people feel belittled is too far. It’s way too far. Critique my game all you want, but don’t attack my family, and don’t attack me for my race. It’s unnecessary. It’s completely unnecessary. Let’s keep this where it belongs and keep us in the game, and not take it over the line.
ESPN: Do you think people think you’re only dealing with it for the first, the fifth or the 10th time, as opposed to the 500th or the 1,000th or the 10,000th time? Do you think there’s a lack of recognition of that?
McKenzie: Yeah, I think because for me, I try not to overly saturate my media outlets with these issues sometimes, because I feel like at some point, it can become overwhelming for people. People can only handle so much, right? They can digest only so much at one time. So when the moment is right, I choose that moment, I go hard at it, allow it to sit, saturate, so that people can really, really feel where I’m coming from. I really feel this on a level that’s going to be beneficial. And if I keep going over and over again, sometimes people will now turn a blind eye like, “You’re going overboard with this.” But that’s sad, because this has happened to me over 50 times.
ESPN: After a game?
McKenzie: After games, I’ll get messages. This is not uncommon. It’s sad to say, but it’s the sad reality. This is a common theme that we’ve seen, and I’m not the only player at the camp who received racial slurs and racially insensitive comments following the match. So again, I don’t want to overwhelm people, but I also want people to understand this is like, this is the daily thing, this is a more common theme than you would ever know. Also me posting this is just one instance. For the same tournament, I could have gotten 100 other comments as well that I didn’t post about. So it’s about understanding that this is a reminder: Let’s not get comfortable, because the more you get comfortable is the moment you leave the door open for more. And that’s why you know it’s so important for us to continue to fight.
ESPN: To what degree are efforts with the national team or Black Players for Change continuing, and how hard is it when you’re overseas to stay connected to those efforts?
McKenzie: Yeah, it’s difficult because the time difference, man, is plus-six hours. It gets difficult because the meetings will be at 7 o’clock in the evening [ET], but it’s almost 2 a.m. where I’m at. I still speak with guys in MLS about the issues, about ideas and ways we can continue to push things in the right direction and to keep applying pressure to these issues.
It’s still going on, not only in our game but in society. Also getting active in Europe, finding ways where I can now play a role in advancing these dilemmas, that [we] still have faced in Europe. Let’s not take away from the fact that the same way that racism goes on in America, there’s still racism in Europe as well. There’s still the comments, after games and whatnot. Reggie Cannon was going through it in Portugal a few months ago so let’s not get away from that.
Connecting with my teammates, connecting with different organizations here in Europe, I think has been also very important. So that way, now we can kind of create a bridge between the two worlds. Now you can merge ideas or create different ways of attacking the issues, because sometimes going through one way may not do it. But I see it from another perspective, you may actually hit it on the head, or you may get an idea from this perspective that now triggers the addressing of an issue in this area here. So there’s so many ways that we can really connect. So I think me establishing my life in Europe as well, but also having had a life in America, in working with different nations has given me the ability to work from both sides. It’s extremely important that we continue to have these conversations from across the pond.
ESPN: To what extent have your white teammates in Belgium, and even your former teammates who are white back in MLS, reached out to try to shoulder some of this responsibility?
McKenzie: Yeah, they’ve been extremely, one, supportive, but two, active, and trying to find ways to be active when these issues arise. I think, one, my team back in MLS, having real conversations with them, the uncomfortable conversations as this has really been the place that it started, in the locker room, talking and hearing the stories from people you care about, people you work with on a daily basis. And these raw stories, not stories that are filtered and sometimes can get portrayed in a different way, but were all instances that are unfiltered, and will make you feel emotionally. I think that’s where it all started.
And they’ve been active, donating towards resources that will provide opportunities for those to hear and learn. [My teammates], they came to me and really wanted to hear about individuals to speak to, whether it be those at the Boys and Girls Club, or local resources to provide opportunities for those in more difficult situations, those in inner-city communities. How can I help create this bridge? How can I make these individuals feel like I care about them? How do I make these kids feel like it’s real, you can have a real talk, not feel like I’m talking at a wall? How can I really get involved? I don’t want it to just be me going out and speaking with parents and then never come back. I want to be that guy that kids can lean on and shoot them a message, “Hey, I’m going through some stuff. Can you talk?” That was real for me. I think that’s a real way of getting involved in the community.
So I was talking to my dad, a karate teacher, and who is a former police officer, and he explained both situations. One, how these inner-city community kids have a difficult time seeing the police, and two how the police just want to go home [every day]. To deal with those situations, and then how I’m working with some local individuals here on creating that here in Delaware, and wanting to have the opportunity to bridge that connection between the community and law enforcement, because I have family in law enforcement, but I also have individuals who I know have gone through some instances with law enforcement that have scarred them. So that’s something that I’m trying to work on.
Here in the States, it’s in your face, and it’s very prevalent. So I think a lot of my white counterparts, teammates, acquaintances, friends, they’ve been very open to dealing with the uncomfortable situations, and the uncomfortable conversations. And then my teammates in Belgium, it’s a very diverse locker room we have. So me bringing my American experience, but also providing some of the perspective that I’ve heard from my European teammates, of how they’ve been affected, and how the kneeling in England has caused boos from fans and supporters and that’s the exact reason why they’re kneeling.
ESPN: With kneeling in mind, what did you make of England and Ireland players getting booed for doing so earlier this summer?
McKenzie: So I think that’s one instance why we’re kneeling. For me, I didn’t want it to become just a part of the pregame ritual, but I wanted it to have purpose, and the boos have kind of reinvigorated that purpose of the kneeling, why it’s so important, and why the activism can’t stop. Why we have to constantly keep the foot on the gas with these issues because when it becomes a commonality, and when you feel like it becomes a formality, and you see it all the time … that’s what I meant when I said overwhelming. You know when people get tired of seeing it, they’ll let you know. But that’s the exact moment where you then have to retreat and say, “Hey, don’t forget.”
So, yeah, I think the whole England situation, I think they’ve been handling it top-class. Again, it’s a wake-up call for a lot of people to reassess their values. You love the national team, but do you love the Blackness of the national team? Is that uncomfortable? Is it uncomfortable having a national team speak up on instances, on issues that you’re not comfortable with? If that’s the case, then that’s the exact reason why you should really start to wake up.
ESPN: Is social media worth it?
McKenzie: To be honest, I go through periods during the year where I’ll just disconnect from it altogether because it’s a lot. It’s a great way to connect with people you haven’t connected with [before], or individuals or network or established business relationships. On the other hand, we see the difficult side, the negative side of social media, and how it can be this depressing, overwhelming reminder that there are still many who haven’t come to grips with the fact that social media is supposed to be a uniting force. I had teammates who altogether deleted profiles and delete their accounts just because it’s too much.
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You could have those in your agency, or whoever, take over your social media, but it’s supposed to be coming from you. It’s supposed to be a representation of you as a player, as a person, and you want to have some role in that. But on the other end, it can be too much, because if you spend too much time on it, you’ll find what you don’t want to find sometimes. It’s difficult. It’s a difficult one.
So for me, I try to disconnect from it. And I think everybody should do that. I think we spend so much time on our phones now. We need to look around. Work has bogged us down so much that it feels like we have to stay connected at all times. But at the same time it’s extremely important for us to remind ourselves of all the things going on around us, remind ourselves that there’s a lot more to life than this little 7-by-3-inch device, or laptops or iPads or whatever it is. I have so many devices. I’ve got my iPad next to me, man. Like, for what?
I can’t express it enough, that’s extremely important for us, to remind ourselves of the things that are really important in our lives. And that at the end of the day, we’re not going to be able to make everyone like us. It’s difficult. It’s difficult for me to say; it’s difficult for just about anyone. Everyone is not going to like you, and that’s just the reality of it. So why spend so much time trying to impress people who may not ever like me when I got what I need right here in front of me? I’m trying to make somebody living in the other part of the world like the fact that I play for this club, or that I have a Nike contract or that I travel to Hawaii. Enjoy Hawaii, man. Enjoy the trip. Enjoy the fact that you are able to do what you love to do on a daily basis. Don’t forget that each day is a blessing, and I think this period here has really taught me that, how to just enjoy this. It’s going to come with ups and downs. It’s going to come with difficult situations, adversity. But I got what I need. I’m blessed to say that, and there’s a lot more going on as well than just on social media, so kind of wake up a little bit.
ESPN: Was it jarring for you to go from the U.S. — with the George Floyd trial and the protests of the past year — to Belgium?
McKenzie: Yeah, I think it was a lot to take in. Just because, for me personally, I see it, you know, “What if that was me?” That’s the biggest theme I get across to people who ask about the situation. And then to have everything happen and to then leave, having a lot of time and thinking to myself ways that I could be even more active, ways that I can help even more. But it was a lot. It was a lot in that period of time, and with COVID, it was a lot to take in. So that gave me perspective, because I needed to get even more active, I need to take a more active role. It was a wake-up call for myself that I wasn’t doing enough, that I could do more. So I tried to take that, and run with it.
I’m very, very sad, and that it had to be with the death of George Floyd and people saying, “He died for this.” No, he didn’t die for this. He wasn’t sacrificed for this. This is something that we as a society, as a human race, could have done so much more. We’ve had instances where people have lost their lives, but what were we doing before then to really get this issue fixed, to find some kind of resolve? No, he wasn’t sacrificed for this. He didn’t have to lose his life, and we could have taken steps prior to that incident to keep that incident from happening. And there’s a number of situations where that individual didn’t have to lose their lives for us to take action.
And unfortunately after those instances, we took action for a period and then we stopped taking action. And that’s why we continue to have these issues, to have these situations that pop up. So yeah, I think that that was for me the biggest thing, not wanting this to be the trend again, to go through the hashtag. Nobody should be a hashtag. It’s sad that social media has turned this hashtag into … that’s not the way it should be and it’s never the way it was meant to be.