A shot at positive change
Chris Duvall hasn't been in Portland long, having earned a spot on the Timbers roster through a preseason tryout.
So the veteran defender hasn't had much opportunity to explore the city, aside from training runs through parks and across bridges during quarantine. But the reaction of area citizens to the death of George Floyd has made an impression on Duvall, a 28-year-old Black man who grew up in Duluth, Georgia.
"Portland's involvement in the protests has kind of inspired me to have hope that maybe things will be different in the future. That a city that is so predominantly white is so involved in the protests, I think that is a great sign," Duvall said.
Portland is the fifth MLS team in seven years for Duvall, who has also had a couple of stops in the USL Championship since 2014, when he was drafted No. 22 overall by the New York Red Bulls out of Wake Forest. Duvall made his Timbers debut on March 8. Then the season came to a halt.
"I was locked in my apartment and I might as well have been in a foreign country because I didn't know anything (about Portland). But I think that also helped me to stay focused on my training," said Duvall, noting that the Timbers supported players by getting them workout programs and stationary bikes.
"I came in as a trialist and earned a contract. For me, I can't take my foot off the pedal because I've still got a lot left to prove," he said.
In early June, in an essay for the Timbers.com website, Duvall wrote about his reaction to Floyd's death, noting in the essay that he learned the reality of racism early in life.
Expanding upon that in a recent interview, Duvall said seeing Floyd die in police custody was difficult.
"It's something that's been happening forever. It feels familiar. It feels like something that easily could have been me," he said. "From my experiences, it's really scary. It's really scary, because every time you see someone die at the hand of the police and it feels racially charged, you feel a little bit helpless."
Duvall doesn't pretend to have easy solutions. As he noted in his essay, ending centuries of systemic racism won't happen quickly or without effort.
"I'm not a politician, so I don't know what we should be doing," he said. "What I know is my experience. I know the things that I've had to explain to people because I'm Black are not fair for a kid to have to explain."
For example, Duvall remembers trying to explain to friends why it's OK that the Santa Claus and Nativity scene in his home were Black. And he remembers wondering if he was wrong and his friends were right to question it.
"For a kid, especially, if you don't have the answers for an argument, then people say you're stupid and you're wrong," Duvall said. "That's something that I struggled with and that's the experience that I've had."
Duvall, trying to keep up with a brother six years older, did have sports as an outlet. Growing up he played soccer, football, basketball and running cross country. But soccer was always his main sport.
His youth soccer club had a 50-50 split between white and Black players.
"We were very close. We had a really strong bond. Those are some of my best friends," Duvall said.
During his college career at Wake Forest, racism was sometimes discussed among teammates.
"We had moments where we had to fight for each other. In college, you come across people from all different backgrounds and some people maybe didn't like us for who we were. So those were topics that we touched on in college," he said.
Professional soccer in America is the ultimate melting pot, and Duvall said racism has not been a problem on any of the clubs he's been a part of.
In professional soccer "we have players from South America, players from Europe, players from America. Black, white, Asian, Hispanic — everything. There's just no room for racism in a locker room," Duvall said. "We have this bond. We have to work together every day. We have to grow together. We have the same goals. So there's no space for the negativity of racism in a locker room. And I think that creates an understanding."
Duvall said recent events have led to more discussions of race relations throughout the soccer world, including among the Timbers.
"It's a side effect of being in a locker room where people care about you," he said. "If you're around these guys every day and they know that something is affecting you, they're going to ask about it."
Jeremy Ebobisse, Duvall's Timbers teammate, is on the board of the new MLS Black Players Coalition, the formation of which was announced on Juneteenth with a stated mission of addressing racism within MLS and soccer worldwide while having a positive impact on Black communities across North America.
Duvall sees it as a significant development. "They're going to work hand-in-hand with the MLS. They're going to work hand-in-hand with the MLS players union. It's going to be a massively positive change to the league," Duvall said.
Noting that his family gave up extras such as vacations to pay for his club soccer, Duvall said making youth soccer more affordable — to bring the game to communities where families cannot afford the cost of high-level camps or travel teams — would be a huge step for MLS and for communities of color that often are ignored by America's youth soccer clubs.
"There were kids I grew up who were better than me who couldn't afford all the tournaments, who couldn't afford all the trips. We would do fundraisers and car washes and all these things to help everyone make it to these tournaments. But it wasn't always enough," Duvall said.
Soccer alone isn't going to solve systematic, ingrained racism. But Duvall said helping at-risk kids play the sport he loves is one way MLS can have an impact.
"In my opinion, this whole movement is about touching people," Duvall said. "I don't know the answers to how to fix the system. But what I do know is that the more people we can reach and the more people we can affect, the more we can pass on that affect to the next generation."
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