The Heavy Door of Race and Social Belonging in (American) Soccer

By Kate Aguilar

It was a Sunday evening soccer program promoted as foundational for anyone wanting to play travel soccer in Southern Minnesota.  We were new to the state and signed our middle child up immediately.  We thought it would be a great way for her and us to build community.  Between 50 to 75 U4 to U8 players were spread out across three practice pitches each Sunday night.  Our daughter was the only visible child of color.  The same proved largely true for our older daughter in her travel soccer league. 

Being a part of a multicultural and multiracial family in the Midwest – my husband is Mexican American, I am White, our daughters are Latina, and our son is African American – we are usually prepared for such racial dynamics.  It is not rare for my husband to be the only man of color in the workplace, for our daughters or son to be the only children of color in their classrooms or daycare, or for me to be mistaken for the childcare provider.  But for us, it was rare to be the only family of color on the soccer pitch.  Our daughter’s former team had several Latino players including her.

And yet the soccer practices and games we were now frequenting were predominantly, noticeably, non-Hispanic White.  The argument, of course, is that so is rural Minnesota.  But there is a significant Latino community in town, some of whom are a part of their own organized soccer league.  There is also a sizeable refugee community of color that plays soccer at another park.  Neither of these Brown and Black communities appeared to play in the town league.   

As a scholar of race and sport who focuses on American football in Miami, I am aware of how White coaches like Howard Schnellenberger built diverse programs.  He was determined to get the most talent from the local community, which meant going into and recruiting from predominantly Black areas, among other parts of the region, to gain buy-in.  In doing so, he recognized Black contributions to Miami in a way few White boosters ever had.  Many of these Black players appreciated that Schnellenberger recruited them without demanding they adhere to White sporting cultural norms. Black defensive back Tolbert Bain remembered, “Miami got a lot of players, especially from our class, because they let you be yourself.” The chemistry of the early 1980s program resulted in a 1983 national championship win, a supposed “miracle” in Miami.

Perhaps it should not be miraculous to assume the best play comes from ensuring the best players in the region take the field, or pitch.  It is also not eye-opening to say, as journalist Stephanie Yang recently did, that American soccer has a “diversity problem.” In “What we really mean when we talk about needing more Black players in American soccer,” Yang acknowledges that merely stating “we need more diversity… can become a reductive statement.” She goes on to highlight the research of Dr. Jermaine Scott, who has written extensively about African and Caribbean soccer teams in the U.S., challenging the belief that “Black people don’t play soccer.” She calls for more Black recruiters who understand the complexities of Blackness in America, as well as those who have an awareness of how biased sports media representations shape the recruitment of Black athletes regardless of their country of origin.  To be more diverse, Scott insists soccer must be more “financially and geographically accessible.”

When considering how to shift the racial makeup of a sport, a program, or a team, neither of these points are without merit.  They both tackle the myth of meritocracy in sport which claims that anyone can succeed if they want it bad enough to disguise how access, opportunity, and media coverage of White and Black athletes remains far from equal.  For many in sport history and the field of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, they focus on the numbers game.  The research of Kirsten Hextrum, for example, notes that in higher education Black athletes are overrepresented in track, baseball, basketball, and football but do not make up most NCAA athletes nor do they comprise most college administrators (university coaches, athletic directors, or presidents).  What this “numbers game” obscures is that to recruit more Black and Brown players, such athletes must feel safe and supported to play.  Yes, we as a nation must make soccer (and other PW sports) more accessible, which means more affordable and closer to home.  But when players of color do take the pitch, we must also ensure that they are treated as if they belong there.

Two weeks into the soccer skills camp, we felt this reality.  Because our older daughter played travel league and both girls were in the public school, we had several kids come up to visit with her and say hi to the baby while we watched our middle child practice.  About a half hour into practice, a parent of one of the schoolkids yelled for his daughter to return.  It appeared normal parenting behavior, and we waved her on.  The moment took a curious twist when the young White girl returned and said her dad wanted everyone who was “not in our family to come with him immediately.” At that point I approached, and it became evident his fear was that we did not share the racial makeup of the bulk of the players.  He struggled to determine how we “belonged” in the community and thus at the field. 

Issues of race and national belonging are, of course, not unique to American soccer.  Sports media has written extensively about English soccer players like Raheem Sterling who has been verbally abused by fans and discriminated against by the English press.  After the racist abuse of three more Black English players following Euro 2020, in which at least 1,913 tweets racially othered Jadon Sancho, Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford, and Sterling, Rashford responded, “I can take critique of my performance all day long… but I will never apologise for who I am and where I came from.” The creation of Black Players for Change in the U.S., an organization of more than 170 Black MLS players, coaches, and staff, in 2020, is a collective voice similarly seeking to effect systemic change.  

Still, the issue remains as to what should be done, and how.  The call to make predominantly White sports more accessible in price and proximity is critical.  The need for more coaches and recruiters of color is imperative.  There has been a meme circulating for some time highlighting a window sign that reads, “We are open the door is just very heavy.” Many have used it to refer to the experiences of people of color and women breaking into predominantly White, especially predominantly White male spaces like academia or sport.  Yes, Black and Brown players must open the door to playing sports like soccer, but when they take the pitch, they must also be treated as if it’s their rightful place. 

To do so, the sport must do more than simply educate Black or Brown players and their families as to the opportunities available to them; it must also educate White coaches, players, and fans on how the histories of slavery and immigration continue to shape Black and Brown players’ experiences, their positioning as “foreign” to the very communities and teams they helped build.  The door may be “opening” to diversity and equity but creating inclusion and belonging remains a heavy push.  The onus is on White Americans to recognize the ways in which we are still leaning against this frame instead of knocking it down to make room for others.  The onus is on White sports media to make clear that soccer, like other sports, was never merely a White man’s game.     

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