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Tuesday, June 21, 2005

It's black and white

The future of American soccer

Racial divide driving a wedge into soccer's grassroots

Steven Wells finds issues of race and class still blighting the sport's development in the United States

Friday June 17, 2005

Boston's Pop Warner "urban suburban" American football league collapsed earlier this month. Parents of the suburban 7-14-year-olds said that the urban kids played too rough. And urban playing fields were "unsafe". And that the urban kids played "intimidating" rap music.

You'll have worked out that "suburban" and "urban" are euphemisms and that this is a row about race and class. League director Al Perillo told the Boston Globe that white middle-class parents have been scared off by TV news reports of drive-by shootings. But they're also sick "getting beat 30-to-nothing every time they go to Boston".

It's easy for an Englishman to write about racism in American sports. It's easy to forget that you come from the country that gave the sporting world the banana barrage, the monkey noise, the "paki" chant and Ron Atkinson. And from a continent which - taken as a whole - seems to be stuck in 1938.

That said, the segregation of US cities still shocks. And nowhere is this divide more obvious than in US soccer. No one is keeping statistics on just how effectively working class African-Americans have been excluded from America's grass roots soccer explosion. But everyone is agreed that US soccer is - to use Greg Dyke's phrase - hideously white.

In Raleigh, North Carolina African-American kids reacted with disbelief when a teacher told them about her brother-in-law - black US defender Eddie Pope. They were reportedly "stunned" when Pope sent them an autographed poster.

When H. Wells Wulsin moved from a small town in Ohio to teach in inner-city Washington, he enthusiastically set about starting a soccer program. "Even after weeks of posters, PA announcements and word-of-mouth advertising, I still had barely enough players to fill the field. It was the first soccer team at the school in over 25 years, and the lack of interest shattered my world paradigm. Our athletic director had warned me: 'kids don't play soccer in the ghetto. Just football, basketball, track.'"

But others have succeeded. Steve Bandura runs the Anderson Monarchs youth soccer team in inner-city Philadelphia. He shows the kids footage of Pel´┐Ż and other black players (and, for some reason, David Speedie) "making the point that most of the world's footballers look like them". And every winter he gives his young players the option to switch to basketball until the new soccer season starts. And every year - without fail - the kids choose indoor soccer instead.

Every other team in the Monarchs' league is predominantly white. And most years the Monarchs win everything in sight. There is only one other non-school African-American team in Philadelphia - a city that is 40% black. "The reason is," says Steve, "that there just aren't soccer programmes being run in African-American neighbourhoods. If there were then what we do here would be repeated many times."


In his book Taboo, Jon Entine points that 65% of NFL and 80% of NBA players are African-American. Norman Mailer spoofed the fear these statistics provoke in an article for the New York Review of Books: "We white men were now left with half of tennis (at least its male half), and might also point to ice hockey, skiing, soccer, golf (with the notable exception of the Tiger), as well as lacrosse, track, swimming, and the World Wrestling Federation-remnants of a once great and glorious white athletic centrality." Mailer might have added to his list "extreme sports" and Nascar - both as dumb as toast and both white (or, to put it another way, both free of blacks). And both increasingly popular with white Americans.

Meanwhile, soccer has become - in the words of Tom Simpson, president of the A-League's San Francisco Bay Seals - the "dream alternate sport for the white suburbs". A safe place where the grandchildren of the "white flight" generation can play in monocultural safety. And who'd want to change that?

In the 19th century America's white suburban cricketers strove mightily to avoid any contact with Negroes, Germans and (shudder) the Irish. As a result the sport all but died and baseball inherited the earth.

Amazingly, in the first decade of the 21st century, US soccer might be making the exact same mistake.

This article doesn't surprise me. But it lacks context.

Youth sports as a whole are segregated. White parents don't like playing non-white teams of any color. You can find the same arguments in the Southwest and California. Teams from the Valley are not running to East LA for games.

These excuses hold true for all sports. They hate playing non-white teams in other sports as well.

In Boston, the kids kicking their asses are Cape Verdean and Brazilian, not American blacks.

Baseball has the same problems, with shrinking leagues in black and latino areas, despite their numbers in major league baseball.

What the reporter missed is the totally dominant influence that schools have in soccer development. John Kerry played for Yale at a time when Americans had no idea soccer existed. So even if black kids don't play in the numerous little leagues, and that's really more about location than pure racism, they can be reached in school.

Soccer isn't like cricket for a very simple reason: immigration. Soccer is a black, brown and white story, not just black and white. Latin American immigrants bring their game with them and they play it. Every Sunday, you can see Mexicans with Club America jerseys, Brazilians with Brazil jerseys and Irish with their national team jersey playing soccer in various parks.

Kids don't play soccer in the ghetto because they don't know about soccer. There aren't many soccer fields available to them while basketball courts are every few blocks.

But remember, the US national team labors in obscurity. The fact that Tim Howard plays for Manchester United was a 60 Minutes story, which somehow neglected to mention he was black. Freddy Adu gets some coverage, and SI did a take out story on DaMarcus Beasley and pointed out the US could field a an all black side. The reason they're playing international soccer is largely because of college programs. A scholarship is a scholarship. Remember, many of the US's games are shown either on the Spanish language telemundo or on tape delay on ESPN 2. Only when something happens do they get notice. No one is sweating the US coach's dating habits.

And there is a lot of hostility in the sports media to soccer. SI is breaking that down, but you still have cretins like Jim Rome sneering at soccer. I know a few New York bars he should be dropped into. But he really deserves to be dropped into West Belfast with a Rangers shirt and SAS beret. But that's me.

Kids see NBA stars everywhere, they see NFL stars everywhere. They don't see soccer everywhere, they don't see the national team everywhere. There isn't a schoolchild in Europe, not just the UK, which couldn't tell you Michael Owen wears 10 and is a forward and David Beckham is the England team captain and wears 7. In the US, a second generation of players, some very talented, are just getting some notice.

When black parents find that soccer can lead to the same success as basketball, but without the corruption, they will encourage their kids to play it, especially their daughters. Remember, there are a lot of fast, quick kids who are too short to play basketball. Instead of wasting years in basketball programs, soccer will become their alternative. Because a scholarship is a scholarship.

posted by Steve @ 10:04:00 AM

10:04:00 AM

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