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Alejandro Bedoya pleas for gun safety action in emotional post-game statement

“The easiest way to put it is some things are bigger than sports.” -Alejandro Bedoya

New England Revolution / David Silverman

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Philadelphia Union captain Alejandro Bedoya took a deep breath as he sat down to address the media following Saturday night’s 1-1 draw against the New England Revolution.

He could have spoken about the game, the sixth tie in the month of May and the first game in which the Union have fallen behind since opening day. But something else was on his mind, something more important.

During warm-ups, the Union players wore bright orange t-shirts with the words End Gun Violence across the front. Bedoya’s armband echoed the same message. Like they’d done in 2020 at the MLS is Back tournament, wearing jerseys with the names of victims of police violence and later during the season with Black Lives Matter t-shirts, the Union have been at the forefront of sparking conversations about social and political injustices. At the center of those movements has been its 35-year-old World Cup veteran.

“The easiest way to put it is some things are bigger than sports,” Bedoya said, his voice somber when asked about the message. “I want to send out my condolences to all those families that are grieving in Uvalde and Buffalo.”

Told by his tearful wife at dinner the day of the Uvalde shooting, where an 18-year-old evaded police and entered Robb Elementary School, killing 19 students and two teachers while inside a classroom for over an hour before law enforcement intervened, Bedoya said he hugged and kissed his kids like many Americans did.

“I can’t fathom what those families are going through and what so many other families go through when dealing with this type of stuff,” he said. “In the past, we’ve done other things, initiatives to show our support, but also to take a stance. I think when we talk about American exceptionalism, is this really what it looks like?”

As Bedoya locked eyes with me several times (there were only three of us crammed inside a 5’ x 5’ room for coaches or referees, Union banner draped across a set of five lockers with a small bathroom), his emotion shook me, and I briefly encountered what players in the Union locker room experience on a daily basis. A man who leads with his heart and his mind and is unafraid to speak up for what he feels is right, encouraging others to do the same.

He continued, “The statement’s maybe a bit of hyperbole and you’re never going to end it of course, but there needs to be something done about this. We can’t keep standing idly by just sending thoughts and prayers and seeing words. I’m sure they would much rather have their kids than prayers.”

In addition to the tragedy in Uvalde and the racially-motivated shooting in Buffalo that killed 10 on May 14, Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit organization that tracks gun violence, reported there have been 213 mass shootings in the United States so far this year, 10 of which were mass killings. Gun Violence Archive defines a mass shooting as “four or more shot (injured or killed) in a single incident, at the same general time and location, not including the shooter.”

“We’re considered by some folks, this is the greatest country in the world. Not with this type of gun violence where we fear for our lives, where our kids have to learn how to hind behind desks, smear blood on themselves to fake play dead. I get so emotional just thinking about what they’re going through. And you know there’s plenty of solutions where both sides are, can come to the aisle and make it harder, to end this type of stuff. And let me tell you something, the solution ain’t to arm more teachers. It ain’t more guns. And it’s not to make our schools, turn them into prisons. And it’s not fatherlessness. It’s not just mental health.”

It’s been nearly three years since Bedoya grabbed an on-field microphone after scoring in the third minute of a 5-1 win over D.C. United and called out lawmakers to do better. That statement was on the heels of back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, and a year removed from a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17, fifteen minutes from where Bedoya grew up. The Union captain expressed his outrage then, yet still nothing has changed at the congressional level, which surely elevated his anger as his tone intensified.

“This guy in Texas, the governor, he fought hard to lower the age limit to 18 in Texas,” Bedoya said. “What is an 18-year-old? Why does he need to buy assault rifles? Or an AR-15, an Armalite rifle. For what? Can’t even buy a case of beer until you’re 21. Rental car agencies, you can’t even rent a car until you’re 25. But an 18-year-old high school kid can go in and buy frickin AR-15, two of them, and other handguns and other things, thousands of ammunition and stuff like this. Come on, man. It’s not right. This ain’t American exceptionalism. It ain’t freedom that we have to now look over our backs all the time.”

His voice cracked as he recalled the block party he attended with his family days before, looking around, judging, planning exit strategies in case something went wrong, a process of modern thinking shared by many around the country, especially parents, as we engage in normal everyday life during abnormal times. And as Bedoya spoke, I was reminded of my own experiences in crowded places, scanning for potential dangers, but especially the increased trainings over the past several years inside my elementary school, where students are taught to barricade themselves in a room if they can’t exit the building, stopping perpetrators with pencils and books and random classroom objects in any attempt to distract or persuade a committed killer from reeking more carnage.

“People need to stand up and take action,” Bedoya said. “Fund community gun violence intervention programs. There’s the H.R. 8 bill sitting in the Senate. Universal background checks, which millions of Americans, majority Americans can get behind and support. Close the Charleston Loophole. At the federal level, red flag laws. There’s so many initiatives that we can support and get behind and get the people in power. And that’s all we can do with this type of statement.”

H.R.8, or The Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021, expands background checks for unlicensed sales and transfers, notably online sales and gun show sales, which would help close the “Gun Show Loophole.” Current federal law requires background checks for sales and transfers from licensed dealers only. The bill first passed in the House in 2019 and was reintroduced and passed in March 2021, but still sits in the Senate waiting to be taken up. H.R. 1446, the Enhanced Background Checks Act of 2021, would help close the “Charleston Loophole,” which allows gun sales to proceed after three days if a background check has not been completed. The bill would extend background checks to 10 business days and require a purchaser to ask the FBI to complete the check before receiving authorization. The bill is linked to a 2015 shooting in South Carolina when a 21-year-old white supremacist with a criminal past obtained firearms through the loophole and later killed nine members of a black church. H.R. 1446 also passed in 2019 and again in March 2021 yet still awaits action in the Senate.

According to the independent research website, since 1994, background checks have stopped more than 4 million illegal gun sales to violent criminals and other people prohibited from buying guns since 1994. But since not all states require background checks, buyers can still purchase firearms online or via informal transfers. Every town in states that background checks delayed more than three business days are four times more likely to be denied. Between January and mid-November 2020, the FBI had flagged nearly 6,000 gun sales because a purchaser who could not legally possess a firearm was able to buy one because of the Charleston Loophole, more than in any other entire calendar year.

With 11 countries represented in the Union first-team squad, Bedoya said he’s led several open-ended discussions with teammates on the issue since the most recent tragedies. “We have a locker room full of international players, my teammates, Norway, British, Danish guy, all over the world. They come here and they can’t fathom. They don’t understand the obsession and why these types of mass shootings happen in this country. Why do we have to live like this?”

Britain tightened its gun laws following a mass shooting in 1987 known as the Hungerford massacre in which 16 people were killed in the small English town. Britain’s government responded by banning semi-automatic rifles. Following a school shooting in 1996 in which a Scottish man killed 15 students and 1 teacher, Britain went further by banning a majority of handguns and tightening the licensing process. Britain is not immune to shootings but now has one of the lowest-gun-related death rates (0.7 per million people) in the developed world.

Norway took longer to adopt legislation following an attack that killed 77 people in 2011, but despite possessing one of Europe’s highest-gun ownership rates, the country banned semiautomatic rifles and high-capacity magazines following a mosque attack that killed 50 in 2019.

So as Bedoya better articulated what many frustrated Americans are feeling, he reflected on his role in the evening’s message, which was more than just the captain of a professional soccer team, but as an informed, thoughtful, well-spoken, leader in a free nation on the verge of allowing another tragedy to come and go without any political intervention.

“I’m sick of talking about this. It sucks. It’s draining. All we can do as players is continue to use our platform, to advocate for those in power to do something about it, to take more action because what’s there right now ain’t working.”

Following Bedoya’s press conference, I thanked him. For stepping up, for representing his teammates, his organization, and although those two words weren’t enough to comfort him, I still felt it was necessary. But he was distraught, talking to himself, maybe talking to me, still thinking, processing but visibly shaken about how this problem is not going away, maybe about the game.

As the Union enter a three-week break before hosting FC Cincinnati on June 18, hopefully change is on the horizon. There’s talk of conversations, renewed interest in addressing the issue when congressional leaders return from recess. Historically, we know better, but that won’t stop Bedoya.

“You have to try this,” he said. “You have to stay optimistic. I’m always going to continue to use my platform. If you have any heart or any human feelings, how does this not hit you so hard?”