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Zack Steffen: If you're silent, you're against us

Kai Dambach
June 12, 2020

US national team goalkeeper Zack Steffen, currently on loan at Fortuna Düsseldorf, has had enough of police brutality and racism. He believes the time for talking is over – now he, and others, must take action.

Zack Steffen jubelt
Image: Kai Dambach

 "What does it mean when the very nation I protect the goal for won't protect its citizens who look like me? When its leaders disregard our most basic human rights? When our lives are at risk by simply existing?" 

That is part of what Fortuna Düsseldorf goalkeeper Zack Steffen wrote in a tweet on June 2, a week after George Floyd died while in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  

Floyd’s death has sparked protests calling for an end to police brutality and racism not just in the United States, but around the world. Germany and the Bundesliga are no exception. Steffen decided he had to do something, not just as someone who has been subjected to racism, but as a professional soccer player with a massive reach. He launched the VOYCEnow platform. 

'Can't just let this thing go' 

VOYCEnow is designed to give a voice to black athletes, but also to allow others to learn more about black life and history in the United States. Steffen has also started an online fundraiser to help businesses damaged in Black Lives Matter protests. That fundraiser has already raised over $40,000 (€35.000). 

"If you're being silent, then you're on the other side and you're against us. And that's just not okay because every life in this world should be equal and every life should matter," the US national team goalkeeper told DW via Skype.  

His usually calm, reserved demeanor changes when talking about the impact the past two weeks have had on him. Steffen says racism is not just something you shrug off – he has experienced it throughout his career, including hearing monkey chants from opposition fans. 

He couldn't bring himself to watch the entire video of Floyd's final moments, described what happened as murder and choked up as he thought about it. 

Steffen wants to help ensure that this is not forgotten. He has shared several videos of police attacking protesters in Philadelphia, near where he grew up. He has shared other black athletes' posts in which they have expressed their own thoughts, including fellow American athletes Lebron James and Odell Beckham Jr. Before Floyd's death, Steffen only tweeted sporadically. Now there's no holding him back. 

"We can’t just let this thing go away," Steffen said. 

Not going it alone 

Over the past two weeks, Steffen has enjoyed the strong support of his current club, with Fortuna Düsseldorf using its Twitter account to tweet in German that he "has something to say. And we should listen to him." 

Steffen said it meant the world to him that his team has his back, but support and speaking up are just a first step towards tackling racism – not just on the football pitch.  

"I created VOYCEnow to take actionable steps to give answers to people who are asking 'what can I do now?' or to the people who are feeling helpless but are wanting help," he said. 

Different upbringing 

Steffen is biracial, with a white mother and a black father. After his mother re-married a white man, parents of other teams often wondered why he was with a white family. He told DW that other parents would ask his parents why they had "pretty black kids."  

He said he was protected from the worst of it by his family and notes the important role of another father figure who helped him when he moved out of the house for the first time: University of Maryland men's soccer coach Sasho Cirovski.  

Under Cirovski, Steffen would win two conference titles, a trip to the 2013 College Cup final and eventually a youth deal with Freiburg. However, he was never able to break through at the Bundesliga side and after two seasons he headed back to the US.  

Breaking through in MLS 

After signing for the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer (MLS) in 2016, he eventually became the team's starting goalkeeper. The 2018 season was really his breakout year, he posted 10 clean sheets and a 525-minute shutout streak  on the way to being named the league's top goalkeeper. He also became the first-choice keeper for the national team.  

That persuaded Premier League giants Manchester City to reportedly pay £7 million (€7.8 million, $8.9 million) to secure his services. According to mlssoccer.com, this was the highest transfer fee paid for any MLS goalkeeper. City then flipped him to Düsseldorf on loan where he had begun to make his mark.

Though injuries have kept him off the pitch in 2020, he is very comfortable in his own skin and abilities. After laughing about the nerves as a kid, and his first big move to Germany, a cool smile drifted across his face as he thought about his journey to the Bundesliga. 

Steffen’s loan period is about to come to an end, and even though he will return to England, he said he wouldn't mind a return to Germany someday.