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Chris Wondolowski on player strike: “This is way bigger than myself”

Earthquakes captain explains motivations, reasons for refusing to play Wednesday.

San Jose Earthquakes v Real Salt Lake: Knockout Round - MLS Is Back Tournament Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

When the Milwaukee Bucks went on strike Wednesday, refusing to play their NBA playoffs game against the Orlando Magic to protest sustained racial inequality and disproportionate violence against Black people in the United States, San Jose Earthquakes captain Chris Wondolowski was one of the millions who paid attention.

The Earthquakes were scheduled to resume their 2020 MLS regular season campaign Wednesday at Earthquakes Stadium against the Portland Timbers, but the players at the club joined nine others, including the Timbers, around MLS to follow suit and go on strike from their games to join the protest.

“We were talking with the other teams and other teams in the league, and we thought that it was not right, we felt that it just was not justified for us to go out there,” Wondolowski told reporters during a press conference Thursday. “We came to the locker room and we took a vote. We were talking with the Portland team prior to this and, you know, every team had their own decision and had to make it and make it quickly, but we wanted to know kind of where Portland was and we talked with Jeremy Ebobisse, and he said, you know, just flat out he was not going to play, and he didn’t know what his team’s take at that time was. So that was the information we had, we took it to a vote, unanimous vote that we would not play and when we talked to the coach, and we told the GM and by the time we were ready to announce that, I think that Portland [already] announced that as well.”

During a 30-minute call, Wondolowski spoke at great length about the motivations for the strike.

“When you share a locker room, when you share a space, day in, day out, and you have to battle with that individual and you have to shed blood, sweat and tears with them, you need to have their back, and you realize that everyone is equal and it’s an amazing thing,” he said. “You learn so much about someone’s culture, someone’s heritage, who they are, why they think a certain way, why they became who they are and to hear these stories are empowering and that’s why I think across all sports, we’re able to have that melting pot of cultures and nationalities.

“There’s no way I can say I’ve experienced the same injustices that some of these other people have experienced,” Wondolowski continued. “But I know that these are my brothers as well. I know that [former Earthquakes teammates] Justin Morrow, Ike Opara that I spoke with yesterday, spoke with this morning, I really do consider them family. These are my brothers and this cause is [something worth] fighting for and it’s something that we need. I think that we are in a special situation where we’re able to have some of these eye-opening experiences that that make it easy for us to make this decision but that being said, it should be an easy decision.”

While systemic violence against Black people has been the focus of protests this year, as the highest profile Native American playing in MLS, Wondolowski was asked about his thoughts on issues impacting indigenous communities, and he gave one example.

“I think that it is something that we need to continue to help and continue to shed light on. I’m all in with this Black Lives Matters, I’m all in with every social inequality that we need to continue to raise and we see it with the Native American culture and population. Right now it’s the census, and on a lot of tribal reservations they’re collecting the census early and where a lot of people won’t be able to vote and a lot of the Native Americans won’t be able to get their census in, and that impacts a lot of laws, a lot of just the local things that impact them in their daily lives. And, you know, it’ll hurt the population impacted.”

Wondolowski noted that he believed almost a quarter of Native Americans won’t be counted in the census this year, in part because the census is being wrapped up early than originally scheduled, and that will have a profound effect on resources in those communities.

“It’s just one of the many, many microcosms of how the social injustices plague our culture and it’s sad to see. And a lot of these minor things add up to huge, huge things,” he added.

Wondolowski said the Earthquakes plan to meet Thursday evening before scheduled team training, and while they are planning to train, they have not made any decisions regarding future games, including their scheduled California Clasico clash this weekend against the LA Galaxy.

The all-time MLS leading scorer credited the Earthquakes with supporting the players’ decision Wednesday.

“The Earthquakes are supporting us in every step of the way, any way, matter, shape and form. They understand this movement, they definitely have our backs in any way possible and that goes all the way up to the ownership and into our front office and so they’re with us.”

But Wondolowski joined a chorus of other MLS players in condemning the league’s statement about the games called off Wednesday, with players noting they chose not to play, instead of the league opting to make the call not to play five games on the night. He also credited the league overall in supporting efforts at social justice and racial equality this year.

“Major League Soccer, I do believe that they have been and especially in Orlando, they want to be behind us. They want to be an impact as well and make a major change and they know that change is needed. They also are balancing a business side and I understand there’s a whole other side of that and there’s a number of side as well but you know I thought that was a little tone-deaf yesterday. Their statement was, you know, I thought that just inaccurate on many, many counts, both emotionally and factually. So I was really disappointed in that but that being said, I think that they have had had our backs in many other, different stances and many different experiences. Can they and we and everyone in this do better? Yes, absolutely. I think we all, and again I’m grouping myself and everyone in this. You know that we do need to do better and be able to make that change.”

The 37-year-old has previously said he will retire after this season, and he said he understands the personal sacrifice at play, but also noted if he never plays another game in his career he’ll “have the biggest smile on my face” if it is in pursuit of equality.

“All players want to play. We would love nothing more to play. It kills me, I’m in my final games of my career and I am dying to go out there, but this is way bigger than myself. This is way bigger than any of us and so this is what is needed at this time. That’s why we feel we are very collective and unified in that decision and why we did come to that decision,” he said.

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