In June, the US men’s national team defeated Mexico 3-2 in the final of the CONCACAF Nations League. It was a moment to enjoy US football and raise a trophy at the expense of its greatest rival.
But there were countless more headlines about what followed: Defense attorney Mark McKenzie was racially insulted on social media following that win. There have been several other stories of a similar nature over the past month, notably the racial slurs 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 the Mexico Game, the prevalence of racial abuse, the way he works to raise awareness and fight racism, and 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, isn’t it? As a professional athlete, you’ll always have eyes and ears when you play in high-stakes moments. Things happen. And as a young player, I don’t try [dwell] too much … everyone will make mistakes, and as a defender, these things are more expensive than others. If I play against Mexico I give a bad pass and it becomes a goal straight away.
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We were punished for this and ultimately all eyes were on me and how I would react. So yeah, it was a moment that you can always look back on in retrospect and wish things had turned out differently, but I think I’m trying to make the best of it because it’s a learning experience for me to give rise to understand how to deal with certain things and then ultimately find out if I have the strength, the resilience, the character to really fight, to really bring myself back into the game.
I asserted myself, but this error again. These are mistakes that people will spotlight and emphasize. Now it is said: “Mark McKenzie cannot play at this level. He is not intended for the national team and he is not ready to play in these big, important games.” And I talked to my dad and he said, “Look, the speed people love you is the same speed people hate and criticize you”. So you have to be careful with that, because some might never play in the same shoes you are in. You could never deal with the same situations that you find yourself in.
At the end of the day, I know myself. I know what kind of player I am. I know that a mistake doesn’t define me, that 63 seconds doesn’t define me. I know I have an extremely high ceiling that I am still tapping into. There are areas in my game that I still need to improve. So I’m by no means saying that I am this versatile, perfectly planned player, as I showed in the match. And I look forward to challenging myself into this room of the question “Where do I need to improve?” and to make my game stand out even more. So it’s a learning experience again for me, and I’m very grateful and blessed to have played in this situation, to have played in a CONCACAF final for my national team.
ESPN: You experience the euphoria of the Nations League victory, then you go to Instagram and see some of the racist comments directed at you. How often does this happen?
McKenzie: A lot more is happening than people think. And people will say – and I keep using the general term “people” because I don’t mean to say that it is one or another person – but people generally get the impression that I am talking about these racist comments and Post racist slurs like, “Ah, that’s not a big deal. It’s just a comment.” But that’s why I feel like we’ve got to this point because, 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 problem. This is a problem that will not be addressed unless it is on our minds. Now, if we put it in the back of our heads, we get complacent, careless, it is no longer a priority.
But why does it seem a problem now when these comments and insults pop up when we post them? Why is it that when we have these problems that arise in our society about this race, racial sensitivity or homophobic insensitivity or whatever we had to do in society, why will it now when you post about it, “Ah, you know, you guys always do the same thing. It’s just a comment.” Yes, if it’s just a comment, why do we keep coming back to it? Why is this still embarrassing? [society]? Why is it still this common theme that we see regularly? If it doesn’t become a priority, it just becomes normal in our lives, doesn’t it? So when I post about it – at least in my eyes – I’m not paying any attention to these people, I just want to remind ourselves that it still does.
I have comments going on: “Hang yourself up. You suck and you don’t belong in the national team”, this and the other. Everything over 60 seconds and in a sport that I loved and for which I sacrificed my whole life.
In a way, I entertain thousands of other people with my teammates and then with the other team. We do this because we love the game. And as a by-product, we entertain many others. But the moment something happens outside of your control, something happens that you are not happy with, it now becomes a “Pick this guy and really attack him. Eat him” [alive]. “
We’re human too, man. That was my biggest thing, not highlighting the flaw, but highlighting the fact that this is a commonality. It’s one thing to criticize my game – I understand I made a mistake, I’ll learn from it, that’s not a problem – but digging someone for something so degrading, using comments and insults that are demoralizing, the make people feel humiliated is too far. It’s way too far. Criticize my game as much as you want, but don’t attack my family or attack me because of my race. It is unnecessary. It is totally 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 that this is your first, fifth, or tenth time looking at it, as opposed to the 500th or 1,000th. or 10,000. Times? Do you think that is not recognized?
McKenzie: Yeah, I think because sometimes I try not to get too saturated with these topics in my media because I feel like it can get overwhelming for people at some point. People can only handle so much, right? You can only digest so much at once. So when the moment is right, I choose this moment, I go hard on it, let it sit, saturate, so people can really, really feel where I’m from. I am really feeling this on a level that is going to be beneficial. And if I keep going back and forth, now sometimes people will turn a blind eye like, “You’re exaggerating.” But that’s sad because this has happened to me over 50 times.
ESPN: After a game?
McKenzie: I get messages after the games. This is not unusual. It’s sad to say, but it’s the sad reality. This is a common topic we’ve seen, and I’m not the only player in the camp to have received racial abuse and non-racial comments after the game. So again, I don’t want to overwhelm people, but I also want people to understand that this is the daily thing, this is a more common topic than you would ever know. I also post this is only an instance. For the same tournament, I could have got 100 other comments that I didn’t post about. So the point is to understand that this is a reminder: let’s not make yourself comfortable, because the more comfortable you get, the moment you leave the door open to more. And that’s why you know it’s so important for us to keep fighting.
ESPN: To what extent are the efforts with the National Team or Black Players for Change continuing and how difficult is it to keep in touch with these efforts when you are overseas?
McKenzie: Yeah, it’s difficult because the time difference, man, is plus six hours. It will be difficult because the meetings will be at 7 p.m. [ET]but it’s almost 2 a.m. where I am I still talk to people in MLS about the problems, ideas and ways we can keep moving things in the right direction and keep putting pressure on these problems.
It still goes on, not only in our game but also in society. To be active in Europe too, to find ways where I can play a role now to advance these dilemmas, that [we] are still faced in Europe. Let’s not ignore the fact that like racism in America, there is still racism in Europe. There are still the comments, after games and so on. Reggie Cannon went through it in Portugal a few months ago, so we’re not going to let it go.
The contact with my teammates, the contact with various organizations here in Europe was also very important in my opinion. In this way we can now build a kind of bridge between the two worlds. Now you can merge ideas or create different methods of attacking the problems, as sometimes it is not possible to go one way. But I see it from a different perspective, maybe you actually hit it on the head, or you get an idea from this perspective, which now triggers the discussion of a topic in this area. So there are so many ways we can really connect. So I think that I also built my life in Europe, but also had a life in America, working with different nations, gave me the opportunity to work from both sides. It is extremely important that we continue to have these conversations across the pond.
ESPN: To what extent have your white teammates in Belgium and even your former teammates who are white in MLS tried to take on some of that responsibility?
McKenzie: Yes, they were extreme, firstly supportive, but secondly, active, trying to find ways to be active when these issues came up. I think firstly my team in the MLS who have real conversations with you, the awkward conversations as this was really where it started, in the locker room, and hearing the stories from people who are important to you, People you work with on a daily basis. And those raw stories, not stories that can be filtered and sometimes portrayed in other ways, but are all unfiltered and make you feel emotionally. I think that’s where it all started.
And they’ve been active, donating to resources that give them opportunities to listen and learn. [My teammates], They came to me, desperate to learn about individuals to talk to, be it at the Boys and Girls Club or local resources to provide opportunities for people in more difficult situations, in the inner-city communities. How can I help build this bridge? How can I make these people feel like I care? How can I make these kids feel like it’s real, that they can really talk, not the feeling of talking on a wall? How can I really get involved? I don’t want me to just go out and talk to my parents and then never come back. I want to be the type that kids can lean on and text them, “Hey, I’m going through a few things right now. Can you talk?” That was real to me. I think this is a real way to get involved in the community.
So I spoke to my father, a karate teacher and ex-cop, and he explained both situations. First, how difficult it is for these downtown children to see the police, and second, that the police just want to go home [every day]. To deal with these situations, and then how I work with some locals here in Delaware to make this happen, and want to be able to bridge that link between the community and law enforcement as I have a family in law enforcement, but I also have people who I know have been through some cases with law enforcement that have left scars on them. So this is something that I am trying to work on.
Here in the states, it’s on your face, and it’s very common. I think many of my white colleagues, teammates, acquaintances, friends were very open to dealing with the unpleasant situations and the unpleasant conversations. And then, my teammates in Belgium, we have a very diverse changing room. So I bring in my American experience, but also some of the perspectives I’ve heard from my European teammates, how they were affected and how kneeling in England led to boos from fans and supporters, and that’s exactly why they are kneel.
ESPN: What do you think of the English and Irish players who got booed for it earlier this summer when they kneel down?
McKenzie: I think that’s an example of why we kneel. For me, I didn’t want it to be just part of the pre-game ritual, but I wanted it to have a purpose, and the boos somehow revived that purpose of kneeling, why it’s so important, and why activism can do not stop. Why we have to keep going on these issues because when it becomes something in common, when you feel like it becomes a formality, and you see it all the time … that’s what I meant by overwhelming. You know when people get tired of seeing it, they’ll let you know. But that’s exactly the moment when you have to withdraw and say, “Hey, don’t forget.”
So, yeah, I think the whole situation in England, I think they handled it first class. Again, it is a wake-up call for many people to rethink their values. Do you love the national team, but do you love the blackness of the national team? Is that uncomfortable? Does it feel uncomfortable when a national team speaks out on cases, on topics that you are not comfortable with? If that is the case then that is exactly why you should really start waking up.
ESPN: Is Social Media Worth It?
McKenzie: To be honest, I have phases during the year when I just refrain from doing it because it’s a lot. It’s a great way to connect with people you haven’t connected with before [before], or individuals or networks or established business relationships. On the other hand, we see the difficult side, the negative side of social media, and how it can be that depressing, overwhelming reminder that there are still many out there who still don’t understand the fact that social media is supposed to be have a binding force. I’ve had teammates who deleted profiles and their accounts altogether just because it’s too much.
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You could have this in your agency, or whoever does your social media, but it should come from you. It’s supposed to represent you as a player, as a person, and you want to play a role in it. But on the other hand, it can also be too much because if you spend too much time on it, sometimes you will find what you don’t want to find. It’s tough. It’s a difficult one.
So for me, I’m trying to part with it. And I think everyone should do that. I think we spend so much time on our phones now. We have to look around. Our work has stalled so much that we feel like we always have to stay connected. But at the same time, it’s extremely important for us to remember all the things that are going on around us, that there is a lot more to life than that little 7 by 3 inch device or laptops or iPads or whatever whatever is. I have so many devices. I have my iPad next to me, man. How what for
I can’t put it enough, it’s extremely important for us to remember the things that are really important in our lives. And at the end of the day, we won’t be able to get everyone to like us. It’s tough. It’s hard for me to say it is difficult for almost everyone. Everyone is not going to like you, and that’s just the reality. So why spend so much time impressing people who may never like me when I have what I need right in front of me? I try to make sure that someone lives in the other part of the world because I play for this club, have a Nike contract or travel to Hawaii. Enjoy Hawaii, man. Enjoy the trip. Enjoy the fact that you can do what you love to do every day. Don’t forget that every day is a blessing and I think that time here really taught me to just enjoy it. There will be ups and downs. It will come with difficult situations, adversities. But I have what I need. I’m blessed to say this, and there’s a lot more going on than just social media, so wake up a bit.
ESPN: Was it shocking for you to go from the US – with the George Floyd trial and last year’s protests – to Belgium?
McKenzie: Yeah, I think it was a lot to grasp. Just because I see it for myself personally, you know, “What if it was me?” That’s the biggest topic I get to people who ask about the situation. And then to let everything happen and then to leave, to have a lot of time and to think of ways in which I could be even more active, ways in which I can help even more. But it was a lot. It was a lot during that time, and with COVID it was a lot to understand. That gave me a perspective because I had to become even more active, I have to take on a more active role. It was a wake up call to me that I wasn’t doing enough, that I could do more. So I tried to take that and walk with it.
I’m very, very sad and that had to be with the death of George Floyd and the people who said, “He died for it.” No, that’s not what he died for. He was not sacrificed for that. This is something we, as a society, as humanity, could have done so much more. We have had cases where people have lost their lives, but what did we do before that to really fix this problem, to find a solution? No, he wasn’t sacrificed for that. He didn’t have to lose his life, and before this incident we could have taken steps to prevent it from happening. And there are a number of situations that that person did not have to lose their life for us to take action.
And unfortunately after these incidents we took action for a while and then stopped taking action. And that’s why we continue to have these problems, these situations that arise. So yeah, I think that was the biggest thing for me, not wanting this to be the trend again, going over the hashtag. Nobody should be a hashtag. It’s sad that social media turned this hashtag into … the way it should be and never should be the way it should be.