Along the west sideline, running 100 yards from almost end line to end line, read “I CAN’T BREATHE.”
Inside the center circle, they colored in “BLM,” for Black Lives Matter.
“It’s one thing for one person to go out and try to combat systemic oppression and racism,” said defender Chris Odoi-Atsem, who is one of 10 black players on the team’s 25-man roster. “But if you have the backing of a club, it makes all the difference in the world. It’s one step.”
The idea of a public gesture in support of racial equality and nationwide protests hatched over the weekend — after Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) authorized the painting of “BLACK LIVES MATTER” in yellow along 16th Street NW, just north of the White House, on Friday.
Jason Levien and Steve Kaplan, United’s co-chairmen, wanted to send a message, too. On Saturday, Levien called goalkeeper Bill Hamid, who was home preparing to join Odoi-Atsem at a protest march on 16th Street.
The white executives and the black players — both of whom grew up in the Washington area — decided the best course of action was to paint the field.
“As a club, as a community, we wanted to express our passion, our anger and our feeling around being united in being part of change in our society,” Levien said.
Audi Field’s grounds crew and operations team made arrangements. They pulled seven five-gallon buckets of paint from storage and stenciled the outline of the letters, which, along the sideline, are approximately 10 yards high and six yards wide.
“I CAN’T BREATHE” was the only message planned. But as they painted, the group brainstormed ideas to expand the message. They decided on “BLM” in smaller letters in the heart of the field.
About a dozen players participated. Several brought their families. Coach Ben Olsen’s wife and three children accompanied him. Olsen, whose hobby is abstract painting, left the brushstrokes to Megan Olsen and their daughter and two sons.
“I’m supervising,” he said, “because I don’t stay inside the lines.”
DC Scores, a soccer and writing program for children in need, was represented. So were members of the supporters’ groups and players from United’s second-division team, Loudoun United.
“Being a part of it as a player, it’s wonderful to see,” said Loudoun defender Peabo Doue, who graduated from Clarksburg High and West Virginia University. “As a black man, it’s great to see our organization take the initiative.”
The organization, Levien and others agreed, needs to do more.
“Symbolic gestures are great, but there has to be tangible actions and solutions to go along with it,” said Odoi-Atsem, who played at DeMatha and the University of Maryland. “This is just one step, but going forward, I would like to see some action we could take, maybe a collaborative thing to impact the community for the better.”
United officials said the next step is hosting an online seminar Tuesday with Hamid, former United players Charlie Davies and Rodney Wallace — both of whom are black — and Charity Blackwell, director of creative arts and education at DC Scores.
When United resumes hosting matches, Levien said, the club will donate a suite to groups involved in human rights and community causes. “We can — and will — do a lot more,” he said. “We’ve got to.”
The message will not be seen by fans in person anytime soon. MLS plans to resume competition next month near Orlando with a 26-team tournament, but it remains unclear if health conditions will allow the league to continue the regular season in home markets late this summer or in the fall.
Ahead of the Orlando event, United has begun practicing in small groups at Audi Field. Within a week or so, the team expects to gain permission from the league and local health officials to conduct full sessions there.
The red paint will remain for the foreseeable future, Levien said. Whether the league would allow such messaging during games remains to be seen.
“I think [the organization] wanted to make a real statement,” Olsen said, “and this is a powerful message that resonates.”