Guest post by DeVon Thompson
My name is DeVon, I am a soccer fan, a player and a hip-hop writer and blogger. I grew up in suburban America, a black girl who turned soccer at recess into a full-fledged childhood career with a local rec team. I was the quintessential suburban American soccer story, and then I played basketball and moved on track as a sprinter.
Through the years I’ve maintained some level of playing, whether in leagues or playing soccer with the kids at the day camp where I was a camp counselor – we played serious pick up, one counselor per team. The most important part is that from childhood I’ve always remained a fan, watching the World Cup, attending international games here in the states, watching the Premier League, La Liga and the French league (which I feel should be shown more in the US) and MLS. It is the fan in me that has led me to write this article. While I grew up in the well-managed and maintained leagues and fields of suburban America, I was mostly one of one when it came to soccer teams – by which I mean one of one black kids. Honestly that bothered me. I’d like to address the issue of the lack of black American participation in soccer either as fans or players.
There is an invisible wall in the U.S., and while many black Americans play soccer and go on to play at various levels, there are many more don’t! Soccer in the U.S. has become American in its way, and in the process has absorbed everything here including racial issues. Many black people still view soccer a “white sport.” While many Americans who dislike the game comment is “boring,” “slow,” or “uninteresting,” – and let’s be honest, just downright “foreign” – in the black community what can be heard is just that it’s a “white sport.”
Growing up as a middle-class black girl, I felt that I was participating in something that many blacks just didn’t. That was partly because living in the suburbs it afforded me the opportunity to participate in something uniquely suburban. My participation was encouraged and well-attended by various families, from my parents, grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles – and yes orange slices were on hand for all to enjoy. I could have played soccer until I couldn’t play anymore and it would have been 100% supported by family. The thing was, on the field I was always just one of one, not to mention I was one of one in my entire immediate family. I eventually left organized soccer behind to play basketball year-round, pursuing the ultimate child hood dream of playing varsity, my decision was 100% supported. My soccer cleats were left in the garage to be thrown away years later.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that my enthusiasm for soccer flourished again, now as a fan. But once again I was one of one. Now a little older, I looked at the overall picture and thought: “Where are the black kids, where are the black people!?” I can have an in-depth conversation about soccer with many whites I encounter. It feels almost like a club. Although my family and friends will wax poetic about basketball, baseball and lose their minds when talking about football. But when I bring up soccer and I get comments like: “You always were into that, but I just can’t get with it.” Being a black American soccer player & fan feels almost like a hobby, like I should have a special license plate that says “Black American Soccer Fan.” My conversations with fellow black American soccer enthusiasts feel more like therapy sessions. While some say not to worry about it, I can’t help it: I don’t want to create my own sorority or fraternity of soccer fans. I want to have free flowing conversations. I want to say to someone: “I’ve got tickets to a game” and have them say “Sure, let’s go!” the way that would if it was basketball or football.
“What is going on? What is the problem?” I’ve wondered this for years. “Why? Why?’ It was an article in the Huffington post about race in Canada, interestingly, that helped me to understand what is going on. It argues that minorities in Canada need more “safe spaces without white people.” Which made me realize: when it comes to sports in the U.S. black Americans have created their own spaces! If you look at the ‘Big 3’ in the U.S. – football, basketball and baseball – there has always been a space for black people in each of them, for close to a hundred years. These spaces were created, sadly, due to segregation. But they became safe spaces, places for the black communities to gather and play and be spectators. The Negro leagues in baseball were the most organized, but such spaces existed in all of these sports. Within them, black Americans had their own corners to just be!
Soccer is different. White America has created its own space for the entire game. To me it feels somewhat like a twilight zone. The way the entire game has developed in the U.S. has made it largely a white space, a white place. I have to admit that nothing is absolute and that when it comes to soccer in the U.S. there are many layers and I’m here exploring one of them, however there have been a few times when I played in an adult rec league, once again one of one, I would get looks that say: “I have a million questions.” When people experience my knowledge of the game, even just the understanding of the basics, it’s always as if someone wants to say: “How do you know this?”
In this sense the U.S. is its own bubble when it comes to soccer, Here, though, it’s hard to see outside of that bubble. There are some serious attempts going on to change things. But I’d like to suggest that maybe the best way to confront this problem is through a slightly different sport: FUTSAL!
Yes! Futsal could be that space that black Americans and really all of the U.S. needs to take us to the next level. The first time I played it was just because I was really looking for a way to play soccer that wasn’t in the cold and didn’t require me to keep running the length of a football field. After one game I thought: “Why isn’t America playing this game!??” Again (you guessed it), I was one of one. And immediately I thought: “Why aren’t black kids playing this game!??” It is the perfect way to start for people who don’t know about the game.
Futsal is essentially played on basketball court. There are two 20 minutes halves, a total of five players on each team on the court. For me, it combined my two personal favorite sports: basketball and soccer. It can’t get any better! It is quite different from the curator space of U.S. soccer played on Saturday mornings and weekday afternoons. Futsal is free-flowing and much higher scoring: it is a perfect form of translation between the more popular U.S. sports and soccer. There are basketball courts everywhere in the U.S., if there isn’t a court there is a street or an alley. The rules are simple and you can play it in basketball shoes if you want – I’ve seen it done.
The game of Futsal could be a way to create spaces for black Americans in a sport where there isn’t any already. Futsal allows someone to re-create what they already know: it welcomes a basketball mindset, with a smaller soccer ball on a basketball court. The U.S. has to work what it has and create something we can grow from. It’s an honest truth in sports in the U.S.: if you want something taken to the next level it has to include black Americans. But there needs to be a better space for development.