Mark McKenzie, a 21-year defender for Belgian football club KRC Genk and co-host of the new “Orange Slices” podcast, discusses the importance of athletes finding a greater voice in a time of significant social change.
Just as it is with everyone who is reading this I would imagine, 2020 was a year unlike any other, and 2021 has started in much the same way. For myself, as a 21-year-old person of colour raised in The Bronx in New York City now playing a sport I love on a global scale, both with the United States men’s national team and now having just moved abroad to play with KRC Genk in the Belgian First Division after a few great seasons with Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union, it has been more tumultuous than I could have ever imagined.
Emotional, frustrating, exciting, lonely, challenging. Each feeling and emotion not what I may have expected for an age that so many point to as a tentpole. But for me, it’s also one of great learning.
I am very lucky to be able to have a great support system around me that has enabled me to continue to grow as a professional athlete. But I am also very lucky to be growing up in an era where athletes, many of whom from around the world have very different life experiences than myself, have been able to use social platforms to not just say something, but also do something to help change the world. And not just today, but into the future.
The pressing issues of the world around us – from the Black Lives Matter movement to the environment, social injustice, the improvement of technology in schools, and the issues related to the Covid-19 pandemic – have each been amplified because athletes around the world have listened, taken a point of view, and used their power and voices to help invoke change, not just today, but for years to come.
These issues are not trivial to anyone around my age, whether that is in the places we live or in the locker room. They are essential to our success and it is vital they are addressed, and I am both eager and excited to help play my part to help change the lives of those around us who have been affected.
It’s one of the key reasons I have been so interested in creating a vehicle to help drive change and explain what our lives are like both on and off the pitch. So when Richie Graham, co-owner of the Union and someone who I have been around my whole life as I have developed as a player, and Heath Pearce, who runs the creative side of Richie’s company For Soccer Ventures, came to me with the idea to start a podcast called “Orange Slices”, something any kid knows are essential to have at half-time of any game, I was all in.
I’m hoping my voice and the stories we tell, now on a more global level, can be relatable as well. Now we have a vehicle to amplify our voices, especially those men and women close to my age who are excelling at the game we love, but also have deep concerns, thoughts and feelings for the world around us. Here we can do both, amplify messages that are important and need to be heard, and give a voice to an audience in our game that needs to be heard.
Now as a young player in Belgium, my first time alone abroad, I know I have a lot to learn. I am not kidding myself to think that my time here could be short if I don’t continue to improve, and that I am competing at a level that is rising ever higher.
But I also have learned that the stage I know I have can get even brighter if I can find ways to grow the stories of those around me. There is so much we as young people, athletes, citizens of the world, and ambassadors of soccer have to say, and so many ways we can have an impact, a positive impact, on our communities and all we come in contact with if we just think, act, and keep moving things forward.
This year has not been easy for anyone, as I said at the beginning. I have seen, and felt, those hurting on the streets of Philadelphia as well as in The Bronx where I was born. And I am now learning more about the issues here in Belgium, and we can’t just look away. My hope is that we keep learning, keep growing, and keep pushing things forward.
As a young footballer I’m excited to be part of an organization, For Soccer Ventures, that is growing the game on all levels. But what I’m even more excited about is the possibility of where we will all be going, if we just keep working together, not as just athletes, but as compassionate citizens.
That’s what I would like to really help achieve, helping to use my voice to amplify and assist. Soccer is my life, but social change is my mission.