When George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police on May 25, 2020, news of his murder was spread all around the world. The video of Derek Chauvin with his knee on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds was one that no one who has seen even a piece of it will ever forget. Across the pond in Germany, players in the Bundesliga were starting to learn about the footage and the story.
The Bundesliga, at the time, was the only major soccer league that was back to playing after pausing for the coronavirus pandemic. And at Schalke 04, teammates alerted United States Men’s National Team midfielder Weston McKennie about the news, and he saw the video. Weston later described his reaction to the video:
“I wouldn’t even say that it was surprising, but it definitely was sickening. When a man of that age cries out for his mother, his dead mother, he’s essentially crying out ‘please help me’. He knows that he’s not going to make it out. It’s hard to watch...Many of my teammates here saw it and are also disgusted. It’s something that touches you in a different way. It’s too much and it needs to be brought to attention. It needs to stop.”
At that point, Weston McKennie knew that he had to do something. This wasn’t an accident. “An accident happens once or twice, but when it’s happened so many times like it has now, it can’t be overlooked anymore,” McKennie later said. He knew he wanted to make a statement, one that showed support for George Floyd’s family but also called for justice for his death. On top of that, with the Bundesliga being the only major soccer league on, he knew that he would receive a lot of attention...and scrutiny.
“I felt like it was my responsibility and my duty, especially being American, and with the situation going on in America,” McKennie said in an interview with Forbes. “And I felt like it was the best and biggest platform that I could use to spread awareness. Of course, maybe some people don’t agree with it, but that’s their opinion and for me, I felt like it was my duty and my responsibility to go out to show justice for George Floyd. This is a problem that’s been going on way too long.”
So, when Schalke took the field against Werder Bremen on May 30th, McKennie did so ready to make a statement:
“Justice for George.”
McKennie sported a black armband that had that phrase written on it when he stepped onto the field. He hadn’t told his club what he was going to do, but he knew it needed to be done. And his club supported him.
It took the world by storm, with American fans reacting with pride at McKennie’s statement. He was being a leader, a quality that many have seen him exhibit in his short time on the international scene.
To be able to use my platform to bring attention to a problem that has been going on to long feels good!!! We have to stand up for what we believe in and I believe that it is time that we are heard! #justiceforgeorgefloyd #saynotoracism pic.twitter.com/TRB1AGm0Qx— Weston McKennie (@WMckennie) May 30, 2020
“We have to stand up for what we believe in and I believe that it is time that we are heard!” McKennie tweeted after the match. His actions were the first of 4 from players in the Bundesliga to show support for George Floyd’s family and to call for justice. Later that weekend, Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Marcus Thuram took a knee after he scored a goal in their win over Union Berlin. Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho and Achraf Hakimi wore undershirts with the same “Justice for George” message that McKennie displayed, and they lifted their jerseys to show that after goals for Dortmund.
During the match, the referee asked McKennie to remove his armband. McKennie refused. “I was like, ‘I’m not taking it off’. There’s a rule in the league that you can’t make political statements. But I mean, if you really, really look at this as a political statement, then I don’t know what to tell you,” McKennie said in the Forbes interview. “[E]veryone (in soccer) always preaches ‘say no to racism’. So I didn’t think that there would be a problem. If I have to take the consequences to express my opinion, to express my feelings, to stand up for what I believe in, then that’s something that I have to do.”
However, after the weekend, the German football federation said it was going to examine whether the statements made by McKennie and others broke the rules that prohibited “political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images.” In a statement released that day, the federation stated:
“There has been worldwide uproar and widespread protests against racism and police brutality after the violent killing of American George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The topic also reached the Bundesliga on the weekend, with players like Weston McKennie (FC Schalke 04), Marcus Thuram (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Jadon Sancho and Achraf Hakimi (both Borussia Dortmund) demonstrating solidarity in different ways. While their actions have been met with much approval by the public, there has been some discussion about Saturday’s announcement after Weston McKennie wore an armband with the slogan ‘Justice for George’ that the DFB’s control body will address the matter and examine the situation in the coming days.”
There were a ton of fans who tweeted support for McKennie, with some even offering to pay any fines that came his way.
McKennie also received support from some of the biggest names in soccer, including Kylian Mbappé:
A couple days later, after criticism of the federation heightened, the DFB announced that no action would be taken against McKennie or the other players that demonstrated in reaction to George Floyd’s murder. The federation made it clear that “[t]his line will also be taken should further players make demonstrations on racism and the death of Floyd over the course of upcoming matchdays.”
It shouldn’t have happened. George Floyd shouldn’t have been killed. Weston McKennie shouldn’t have had to take his stand. He shouldn’t have had to be supported by teammates and opponents and fellow athletes from around the world. He shouldn’t have had to worry about what people will think and fines or suspensions. However, Weston McKennie risked a lot to make his statement, draw attention to an injustice that had plagued the United States for far too long, and let everyone know that he wasn’t going to be silenced. Because for Weston McKennie, this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the only thing that mattered:
“The time is always right to do what is right.”
For more Black History Month stories, check out our Black History Month hub. We will be bringing a story each day this month to highlight some of the biggest moments in black American and world soccer history.