Commentary / The Overlap / Union

The Overlap: Priorities, cont.

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

Well, my ethical doomsday scenario did not come true. The Union lost in the playoffs, short of MLS Cup, so never had to make the choice to play or not play Kai Wagner in that biggest of all games.

However, against all odds (though probably helped by Wagner’s racist outburst killing his market a bit), what they did do was sign him to a three-year contract with a team option for a fourth year, according to reporting from Jonathan Tannenwald of the Inquirer and Tom Bogert of The Athletic.

From a winning-soccer-games perspective, this is undeniably a good thing for the Union. From an ethical one? It’s not so clear.

Your feelings are your own

First off, let me just say that I’m not here to tell anyone how to feel about this. I know opinions run the gamut and that’s okay—we don’t all need to agree about everything. There may be many who would be disgusted by Wagner’s new contract and many who might just be pumped to have a great player finally commit his long-term future to the team.

I, like a whole lot of other folks, find myself somewhere in the middle.

I’m an anti-capitalist, so the “it’s just business” trope in sports doesn’t work for me. The players are humans. The coaches, GMs, executives, and the rest of the Union apparatus are all humans, too. They, as humans, have a responsibility to treat each other and the rest of the world with dignity and respect.

When Wagner used racist language to abuse Bobby Wood, he failed at doing that, in a profound way.

Since then, it seems like he’s done “the right things.” He quickly admitted his wrongdoing and apologized (via Instagram, which doesn’t count for me but I’m 42 so maybe I’m too old), and has been seeing a psychologist as part of league-mandated training to understand the harm he caused. That’s all we’ve heard about it publicly and it’s the offseason, so the team isn’t together right now. I think it’s unlikely that we will hear much more about it until preseason officially gets underway.

What’s enough?

I said in my piece during the playoffs that I wouldn’t be comfortable with Wagner playing in the final. He didn’t, of course, but now we know that he will be playing for the Union again, and soon. In my piece, I also said that there needed to be a way back for players who make mistakes like Wagner did. After weighing the harm caused and the steps he’s taken to be a better person, at what point would I be okay with Wagner playing, or with the team allowing Wagner to play?

For me, I haven’t seen enough yet. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how much more we’re going to get on the public front. There will be questions asked, by reporters and fans, when the team reconvenes, about how Wagner is fitting back in and how his teammates feel about it. We’ll all have to judge the sincerity of those answers (or non-answers) for ourselves, and watch how his teammates interact with him, on and off the field, as best we can, to glean what we can about how the team culture is or is not accepting him. Since I’m not there, I’ll be outsourcing my judgment of his character to people like Andre Blake and Alejandro Bedoya (hopefully)—I don’t know them, either, but they have shown themselves to be of good character, for many years, so if they can accept him, that would go a long way for me.

Maybe we’ll hear more from Wagner, too. He’s not someone who speaks to the press very often but this might be the time for it. Down in Clearwater or in Chester, it would be good to hear from him on what he’s doing to change.

The ledger

In the end, I doubt I will get the kind of transparency and catharsis I am looking for. Wagner will be playing and I will have to sit with my feelings of discomfort about it. I’m not going to stop watching. The Union are still my team, even though they employ this person. It’s another mark on the ledger I keep in my head about whether or not I can continue to support something even though it fails to be perfect. There are a lot of marks on the good side of the ledger for the Union in my mental book. There are some on the bad side, too, and I’m betting this will end up on that one.

Everyone has to keep their own book and make their own choices about what their ledger says.


  1. I think a wait and see attitude is best. Was it just a one-time aberration or is it something we see repeated? Is he able to use this as a chance to teach others the wrongs of racism?
    On a separate note, given the time of year and likely weather, I’m not sure the last game of the suspension is actually a punishment. Most of us would love being told we don’t have to stand outside in shorts from 7:30-9:30pm in February in Chester. Maybe the suspension should have been for the Union’s first game in May rather than their first of the season (I haven’t checked the schedule to see where that game is or who it is against, was just thinking of that as a better weather time).
    And as I wrote in the comments to another article before I saw this one published, I’m wondering if there is any possibility that Wagner will be trying to get US Citizenship before 2026 and potentially play in the World Cup for the US? I don’t know what the depth at left back is like for the US.

  2. Jeremy you are being too intense on this i would further suggest to let it be and let nature take its course.

  3. Jeremy, I am with you on this.
    When the “incident” occurred I was very vocal about 2 things. First, letting the process play out without prejudging. And second, after it was found true, that Wagner should hit the pavement and good riddance.
    Now… having had time to calm down… I am less vehement against him staying. As you say, Jeremy, he seems to be doing the right things. He seems — as much as we can tell — committed to the process with seriousness.
    Because of that, because people should have a path to redemption, I will support his return. I hope we never hear the like again.

  4. Sensitive topic, Wagner did a horrible thing. It was something that will obviously tarnish his reputation forever but In the end, people make mistakes, and even though Wagner made an especially bad one, he deserves a second chance. But if he does it again, I will refuse to support him at all.

  5. Soccerdad720 says:

    Have we ever gotten word of what actual words were exchanged? Or are we reacting to the league suspension for racist remarks?

    • Is your knowledge of German that good that the exact words of an Asian slur spoken in German makes a difference? Wagner admitted to wrongdoing so I think Jeremy is reacting to the issue of using racial slurs rather than just the fact he was suspended for using them.

  6. I am extremely happy to see Wagner on the team. He is a very good player. Jeremy you need to move on. Your character assassination is not helping anyone. The details of the incident were never publicly disclosed. Unless you have new verifiable details just stop.

    • What character assassination? Why do you need the details when Wagner admitted he said something wrong? How about you stop saying that racism is acceptable and that we should just ignore it and move on?

      • Racism is Wrong ! Ok I said it happy now. Lets move on and discuss how the Union are going to build a competitive team and continue to compete in the Apple/Garber Era of MLS soccer. The signing of Wagner is step 1. The Union must continue to build the quality of the team or drop into total mediocrity. They cant afford to lose any good players and compete. Now Sign Caranza and Bedoya and start the season with at least a healthy full team that have played together.

  7. Great article, Jeremy! I think a lot of us have been keeping a mental ledger about how to feel if/when Kai came back to the Union. I’m still a bit torn about it myself, but I think there is a lot of opportunity in the coming months for Kai to show the fans that this incident isn’t who he is.

    Whether we like it or not, when people become celebrities–athletes, influencers, whatever it may be–they’re also becoming potential role models. There’s a code of conduct we expect them to follow. Kai broke that code, so this situation is a bit more layered. Not saying it’s hopeless, but it might take a good bit of work for him to repair relationships…and even then, I think they’ll always be slightly less than what they were.

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