Weston McKennie Is Fighting for Something Bigger

Proving he belongs at a club like Juventus is just part of McKennie's mission. The U.S. midfield star details his personal experience with racism and social injustice—and how it's shaped who he is and what he wants to become.
Author:
Publish date:

It was another day among hundreds that Weston McKennie spent on a soccer field. This particular field was unlike the majority since it was in a foreign country and surrounded by fans, but it was still familiar turf. The habits, instincts and reflexes that had been forged over a lifetime in the game probably kicked in as soon as he smelled the grass. The pitch was a place of structure and comfort—a place where he could focus on what he loved to do.

McKennie had recently returned to active duty after his summer break and entered as a second-half substitute in Schalke 04’s five-goal, DFB-Pokal rout of host SV Drochtersen/Assel, a team from Germany’s fourth tier. It was an early-August waltz for the Bundesliga club and a nice way for its young U.S. star to get his feet wet ahead of the 2019–20 season. Being on the field, in his element and among his teammates, afforded McKennie the time to focus on those things.

Privilege means, in part, being free from worry or responsibility. It absolves you from having to consider potentially dangerous, uncomfortable or burdensome possibilities. Some wander aimlessly through a store with privilege, while others don’t. Some drive their cars with privilege, while others don’t. Privilege allows you to be mindful only of what you’re doing, or to be mindful of nothing at all.

And that’s how McKennie, now 22, initially felt that day in Drochtersen. Being a pro and being part of a well-known team came with privilege, albeit the sort that’s earned. Stuff is taken care of for you, and people are expected to behave a certain way. You think you know what to expect, and that’s what you prepare for. So after the match ended and McKennie realized he’d left his shinguards on the team bench, he simply wandered back out to get them. It was a quick, mindless detour. How could something so innocuous and innocent end with confrontation? It never occurred to him that something might be stirring in the postgame stands.

“I just walked back to the bench and this guy just over the fence, the fence separated us, and he was just calling me a ‘sh** ape’ and making monkey noises at me, and just a bunch of racial slurs,” McKennie recalled. “I always try to be bigger than what people stoop down to and their level, their mindset and their beliefs and things like that. I try not to pay attention to it as much. But that was like the first time, and it was so surreal to me that I was just like, I can’t understand this. And then I think back [now] to other players that have had it done to them and have walked off the field or have reacted to it, and I couldn’t hold myself back either from reacting to it. And I walked up to the fence and I just mentally—it was a bit hard for me in the moment.”

His subconscious expectation of privilege had been annihilated. There was confusion. McKennie said he remembers other fans yelling at the man to be quiet. And several Schalke teammates returned to pull him back away from the fence, preventing a possible physical confrontation.

“Before, I didn’t experience a lot as many other players have,” McKennie told Sports Illustrated. “That was my first real, real face of it. I’ve been called ‘Black’ or ‘you monkey’ or something like that. I’ve been called that. But to actually be right there in that moment, it just kind of clicked. This is what many people go through all the time, and not just on a soccer field, and not with a fence that separates them from reacting.

“It was my first real look and first real situation where I was like, ‘Holy crap,’” he continued. “This is really, really out there. And it’s not just something where people believe the media makes it big, or it’s not something where people think, ‘Oh, he’s just sensitive’ or anything like that. It’s actually happening.”

Juventus and USA midfielder Weston McKennie

McKennie doesn’t really feel privileged anywhere anymore—not on the field, nor back in the U.S. There are potential problems over every fence, reminders that even if he’s accomplished—even though he’s a pro—he still might be unwelcome. But he’s not yielding. Instead, McKennie is motivated. The same fervor with which he approaches his role as a box-to-box midfielder will be funneled toward making an impact beyond the white lines, whether it’s with Juventus in Italy—which he acknowledged is an “exotic” destination for an American player—or at home.

“Barriers are meant to be broken down in certain ways,” he said.

McKennie’s way will be to use his voice, to leverage his platform and to take chances. That's what he did in late May, when he wore a custom armband in the aftermath of George Floyd's killing and called it "my duty" to raise awareness of social injustice. And after four years at Schalke, the Texan didn’t arrive in Turin only to keep his head down and remain quiet or deferential. Serie A represents relatively new territory to Americans, and it has an unfortunate, notorious reputation for racism in the stands and even institutionally (an antiracism campaign launched by the league last year featured paintings of monkeys). Soccer superpowers like Juventus, Barcelona and Chelsea also are welcoming U.S. players for the first time. All that considered, some might suggest a cautious approach. McKennie suggests another.

“I’ve always stayed true to myself. I’ve always been my outgoing and outspoken self, and just a funny guy,” he said. “I always have the mindset, I’m going to be me. I’m not going to change just because I’m talking with [Cristiano] Ronaldo. I’m not going to change because I’m talking with [Gianluigi] Buffon. Of course these are guys I have massive respect for, and I’m not going to disrespect them. But I’m also not going to go from gear five to gear two just because I want to leave a good impression. For me, I’m a person if you accept me, you accept me. If you don’t, then that’s on you.”

So over the summer, while his club future was being determined, McKennie inserted himself into the conversation. He stayed true to himself. Working with Adidas, he shot a short video in which his name was presented with “Standing for Equality” written underneath. As images of McKennie training were presented alongside those of him as a boy and social justice protests around the world, he referenced the incident in Drochtersen and then said, “I went back home to Dallas and I’m afraid to drive at night, just because I don’t know what’s going to happen if I get pulled over.” Then he said, “I’m representing a country that possibly doesn’t even accept me just for the color of my skin.”

McKennie doesn’t see this as a political issue. It’s one of dignity, or even survival. The video was released in early October, shortly after he’d played his first two games for the Bianconeri. His Italian adventure had only just started, yet he was willing to add the extra attention, and potential scrutiny, to his plate. A case could be made that the timing was awkward. McKennie is still a young player. He’d just signed for a Champions League contender. Perhaps he should focus on getting acclimated and securing his place before adding a potential distraction. That strategy didn’t interest him. He won’t deny who he’s become.

“As a professional soccer player, [scrutiny] comes with the job. You have to be able to adapt to these situations, and the situation that's going on is much bigger than me having to move and adapt to my new club and new environment and everything,” McKennie said. “There’s really no time to waste. We wanted to get the production done and get all my ideas and what I felt and how I felt about everything, and just try and put it out there for people to see and for people to just be able to watch and hopefully understand it a little bit more—where I come from and where the situation is and where I stand.”

It’s a point he made in the video, and one he was happy to expand upon.

“It’s as simple as this: I think in many people’s eyes, I’m seen as a soccer player and someone that can bring forward American soccer or be a pioneer in American soccer,” he said. “Before I’m a soccer player, I’m also a human being. You know if I get pulled over or something, I can’t be like, ‘Hey, I'm a soccer player. I represent the United States.’ That’s not going to change anything. For me, when I said representing a country that may not accept me, everyone accepts me as a soccer player, as the player that’s representing the crest when it’s game day. But it’s more so, how do they respect me? How do they treat me? How do they see me when I don’t have that on?”

Juventus has made an effort to convey its commitment to McKennie the person. The club tweeted his video, saying, “Together with you….” And on the day McKennie signed his contract, Juve’s director of communications gave him a book featuring Nelson Mandela.

“It’s a small gesture, but it’s still a monumental one for me,” McKennie said. “[The book] is just about the whole movement and everything, and [the club executive] was like, ‘I want you to have this also as a sign to know that we are with you, we stand behind you and that we support you as well. You’re not in this alone.’”

Schalke and Juventus signed a €4.5 million loan agreement, not a permanent transfer. The deal includes options and even potential obligations for the Serie A champs to acquire McKennie’s rights permanently. But none of that is inevitable. That leaves some space for uncertainty to creep in.

McKennie said he had those thoughts initially, but no longer. He’s ready to make himself at home in northwest Italy.

“In the beginning I was thinking, yeah, it’s a loan and it feels maybe like a year-long trial,” he acknowledged. “But [now] I feel like I belong here. I feel like I found my new home. I feel like this is a level that I can play at, and these guys of this caliber are the ones I’ve been dreaming about playing with. So to realize that I can keep up with these guys, I can play with these guys, I can play a role for this team and I can [make] an impact for this team, it doesn’t worry me as much as it may have in the beginning.”

There are photos of McKennie bumping fists and laughing with Ronaldo. He made fun of Buffon on Instagram over the renowned goalkeeper’s shampoo ad. McKennie is, as promised, being himself—confident and engaging. And he’s already got a handle on his famous teammates. Ronaldo, he said, isn’t the cocky and arrogant archetype one might see in goal celebrations or underwear ads.

Juventus's Cristiano Ronaldo and Weston McKennie

“He’s actually a really funny guy and he’s also like Buffon, he makes you feel part of the team. In the gym, you can see he puts in his work. He does what he has to do. On the field, whether it’s a shooting drill or whether it’s just lollygagging after practice, like this guy wants to do it 100% and mentally he’s always in it,” McKennie said.

Buffon uses an adjacent locker and likes to call McKennie “Big Mac” each day upon arrival. Giorgio Chiellini is “Il Capitano,” McKennie said, someone who “doesn’t make you feel like you have to respect him—you just feel like that just because you’re in the presence of him.” And then there’s manager Andrea Pirlo, who FaceTimed with McKennie before he left Schalke.

"The type of player he was says it all. He was that player who made everything look elegant. He played with grace, and that’s exactly how he coaches and how he is around the team and players,” McKennie said. "He doesn’t speak a lot. He doesn’t get outrageously mad or anything like that. But he knows what he’s talking about.”

Turin sounds like a good place to be, and it places the welcome he’s received at Juventus into starker contrast with the words, images and sentiments he’s shared—both in the video and subsequent conversation—about home. He’s still not sure whether his nation will accept or embrace him, even though he’s captained its national team. And this uncertainty comes at a fascinating time, just as there’s renewed optimism for a U.S. squad that’s anchored by young, talented and ambitious players starting to make their mark at the sport’s highest level.

McKennie hasn’t played for the USA since Concacaf Nations League group play concluded last November—not that he’s had the chance to. But think about how much has happened in the world, and in his world, since then. He said his continuing commitment to the national team isn’t dependent on an election result or an incident here and there. But he does expect support and acceptance.

“I’m not forcing people to try and believe what I believe. Everyone has their own thing. The election for me, obviously, I have my beliefs and I have who I would prefer to win the election. But if it didn’t turn out that way, it’s not like I’m going to shut down and say ‘No, just because this guy was elected, I don’t want to play anymore.’ There’s challenges that come and you just have to learn which way to face them,” said McKennie, who voted in Texas via absentee ballot.

“[But] if things got out of hand and things came to fruition where it was like, the national team doesn’t support the movement, or the national team doesn’t try to actively show that they ... support the players that are going through situations like this, then I would, in my right mind, I probably would have a word first,” he continued. “I would have a word with my other teammates as well. First of all, because I’m battling on the field with those guys, and I would have a word. Initially, if I didn’t feel comfortable with the whole situation, then I could possibly, yeah, decide, 'Hey, I’m not coming into this camp.'”

USA midfielder Weston McKennie

USA coach Gregg Berhalter has remained in touch with his players through the pandemic. Social justice, and potential ways the team could show its support for the cause, has been among the topics, according to U.S. Soccer. The women’s national team held similar conversations during their camp last week. In June, the federation repealed its policy requiring players and staffers to stand during the pregame national anthem, beginning its statement with the words, “U.S. Soccer affirms Black Lives Matter, and we support the fight against racial injustices.” The following month, it established a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council, a group of employees from various departments that meets biweekly to shape U.S. Soccer’s efforts and evolution. Features on the USSF’s website include a recent Hispanic Heritage series, voting information and a Pride/LGBTQ+ hub.

Next week, a president will be elected and the first new U.S. men’s national team roster in 10 months will be announced. Berhalter expects to gather his players in Wales ahead of a Nov. 12 friendly in Swansea. A second match in London might follow. McKennie should be rested and ready to go. Following his pair of appearances for Juve he was isolated for two weeks after testing positive for the coronavirus. But he appeared to emerge from quarantine unscathed, and he played as a substitute in this week’s UEFA Champions League loss to Barcelona. Next month’s international friendly against Wales represents a long-awaited chance to see the likes of McKennie, Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Giovanni Reyna and others—the present and future of American soccer—on the field together. The excitement surrounding this unprecedented generation of U.S. players isn’t lost on McKennie. It represents yet another narrative, another burden and another opportunity he’s eager to take on.

Change is coming on multiple fronts.

“It wasn’t so common for young players to be playing at a high, top level. And then to be able to come to Juve and hopefully be able to start that trend here in Italy, and at a superclub in general, hopefully I can show and prove that hey, times are changing and you know, there’s no need to feel like Juve’s an exotic club. There’s no need. They’re showing interest in me. They’re showing interest an American football as well now,” McKennie said.

“It’s obviously going to be a challenge. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. But that’s something I’ve always loved. I’ve always loved a challenge,” he added. “I’ve always been a very competitive guy. Who can finish this water bottle first, even though I’m not thirsty? It’s always a competition. So the challenge for me is something I hit the ground running and I try to give my 100% and just be myself as well while I’m doing it. For me, this challenge is exciting, and it’s something new and it’s something that hopefully I can break through and show myself, and then show that American soccer is improving and show that just in general the type of person I am.”