The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For Shaw resident Ben Olsen, protests and pandemic put D.C. United on back burner

D.C. United Coach Ben Olsen. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Helicopters whipped the tense air Monday night, hovering just above rooftops in Shaw, the historic neighborhood D.C. United Coach Ben Olsen and his family have called home for a dozen years.

On their street, someone had dumped bricks and debris from the back of a truck. A few blocks away, dozens of protesters fleeing police had taken refuge in a stranger’s rowhouse.

“It’s a lot to process,” Olsen said a day later. “My eyes are more open than they’ve ever been and dealing with how we go about explaining this to our children. We try to keep it real with them, make sure they are part of changing our society for the better when it’s their turn.

“I don’t know if I am able to explain it to them in the right way. It’s such a f---ed up time, man.”

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For about two decades, the small-town Pennsylvania native has lived in the heart of the District, first in Adams Morgan, then in Shaw, which has gone through pronounced demographic change since the 1968 riots there following Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.

Olsen and his wife, Megan, settled in the city instead of the suburbs because, in large part, they wanted to maximize their three children’s exposure to culture and diversity.

“I don’t ever regret it,” Olsen said.

History and turmoil are transpiring before their eyes as law enforcement chases peaceful protesters and vandals scar the city following George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police last week.

“My parental hat comes on quickly in these times and making sure my kids have some type of grasp of what’s going on and why,” said Olsen, 43, who, since he left the University of Virginia in 1998 after his junior season has served United as a player for 12 years and a coach (assistant, interim and head) the rest.

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“It’s so complex talking about the systematic failure in this country that’s boiled over to these moments. It’s a tough one for me to truly grasp because of my privilege. I’ll say this: The conversations I have to have with my [white] children are a lot easier than the conversations some of my [black or Hispanic] neighbors have to have with their children.

“It’s sad it has had to come to this. But I am completely supportive of the outrage that is going on. I am doing a lot of soul-searching. My eyes are a little more open to the struggles that [minority groups] have in this country. I’m sad. I’m angry. I am confused. It’s just a strange time right now.”

Olsen’s politics are liberal, but unlike NBA coaches Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich, he has been reticent voicing those beliefs publicly. He is not on Facebook or Twitter. (He said he might join Instagram soon.)

He has supported D.C. statehood efforts and other civic projects, but when preseason arrives in January, he becomes fully enmeshed in soccer. Most everything else typically revolves around kids’ dentist appointments, weekend acts at 9:30 Club and gallery openings on 14th Street.

“I never feel worthy engaging in these [hot-button] discussions,” he said. “But it’s more important than ever to get out of that mind-frame and try to speak to it because there are some conversations people like myself need to start having more to try to help in some small way.”

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Diversity surrounds him not only in the city but on his team; 10 United players are black, and seven are Latino. The roster features 14 players from 11 foreign countries. Some, such as goalkeeper Bill Hamid, who is black, have expressed anger on social media about Floyd’s killing and President Trump’s behavior.

During the novel coronavirus pandemic, Olsen has remained in touch with the players via video conferences, texts and phone calls. On Friday, he saw them in person for the first time, albeit from a healthy distance, at voluntary individual workouts in Leesburg.

The players had planned to begin voluntary group workouts at Audi Field this week. However, amid economic negotiations between the league and union — talks necessitated by the owners’ losses during the shutdown and the league’s desire to hold a tournament in Orlando this summer — they canceled.

With his work family largely isolated, Olsen joins his wife in discussing the state of affairs with their children, who range in age from 6 to 11.

“We have had some walks in the neighborhood, and they’ve asked questions about some of the destruction, some of the signage,” he said. They have seen the police force and heard the helicopters.

The family has not joined any marches, but Olsen said, “We should.”

He said he speaks regularly with neighbors in the tightknit community of diverse backgrounds. He was part of a gentrification wave that first hit Shaw some 20 years ago, pricing out many longtime residents and businesses.

“My goal is understanding some of the issues with gentrification,” he said. “Just boiling it down and being the best neighbor I can and making sure we are doing our part to be good neighbors and good listeners.”

Stay-at-home orders and curfews the past three months have kept people apart physically yet brought them together spiritually.

They also have brought fear, hardship and empathy.

“Soccer is, in a lot of ways, on the back burner to the virus and what is going on in my neighborhood and these struggles in our community,” Olsen said. “I’m not sure how to process 2020."