Creating a Space for African-Americans in U.S. Soccer: Guest Post by DeVon Thompson

By | July 28, 2015

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.

 

Category: Racism United States

About Laurent Dubois

I am Professor of Romance Studies and History and the Director of the Forum for Scholars & Publics at Duke University. I founded the Soccer Politics blog in 2009 as part of a course on "World Cup and World Politics" taught at Duke University. I'm currently teaching the course under the title "Soccer Politics" here at Duke. My books include Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France and the forthcoming The Language of the Game: How to Understand Soccer.

3 thoughts on “Creating a Space for African-Americans in U.S. Soccer: Guest Post by DeVon Thompson

  1. Babs

    I agree with you that more African-Americans should be playing soccer, but the problem is the pay-to-play culture for Americans soccer. Additionally, there aren’t many African-Americans professional soccer players. There are loads of black star players outside of the US, though.

    Also, I have to point out that futsal courts are twice as big as basketball courts. But yeah, Americans, in general, should play futsal far more because it would improve their technical skills- which are sorely lacking compared to players around the world.

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  2. Glenn Goodwine

    Thank you for your post, and yes as a kid growing up in the suburbs of Houston Texas, very rarely did you see other black kids playing. I noticed this as a child and recruited other black kids I went to school with to come out and play for my team which my dad coached. My dad didn’t grown up playing or knowing anything about soccer. He picked up a book and read the rules and started coaching. We had the best rec team in the city. To the point were all the travel teams started picking up our kids to play on their teams. Long story short, I ended up going to Howard University (HU… You Know!!!) and being able to play D1 ball with such a famed traditional program changed my life outlook. I am now coaching my son’s travel team in Maryland, where I have to say, has the most participation of soccer by African Americans than anywhere I have seen. I coach for a predominately black travel soccer club called “Future Soccer Club” (shameless plug). Maryland is a very diverse state, with many people of African descent from all walks of life around the world. I wish i could imitate the environment for other places but that is not possible. For me as a coach, and a former player… soccer is just now finding it’s swagger with Black America. Basketball, Football, Baseball…. all had their turns, but i do believe soccer is next. Why we have not been engaged with the sport previously is simple. There are not many options for kids to play in most black neighborhoods, much less adequate coaching of the game. My dad, someone who didn’t know what a soccer ball was until I was 5 years old changed the lives of at least 5 black kids by introducing them to soccer at a young age. More of us, including myself, need to take on the challenge and commitment, and time…. and start with pickup games, and then form teams of youngsters. If we all began to take on this challenge, we could make a huge difference on how this sport is perceived in Black America.

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  3. Carol C Smith

    Thank you for your post. I am a black woman with a black son. My son, now age 21 absolutely loves soccer. He has played soccer from age 9 on a recreational team to local and regional travel teams. He played all through high school on the varsity team and was recruited to play collegiate soccer on partial scholarship. He just graduated with a bachelor of science in economics and is on his way overseas to immerse himself in another culture and be of assistance to a community service team in Africa. Like I said, my son absolutely loves soccer, and I imagine him being involved in the sport throughout his life, whether it be on an adult league or coaching children with a passion for the sport, just like him. It took the support of a loving and nurturing community of family and friends to drive him to games when I was unable, and to encourage him and applaud his gift of playing soccer that kept him involved, passionate and invested in soccer. I’d love to hear other stories of other Blacks involved in the dynamic sport of soccer. Thank you for sharing your story and for starting a conversation on Blacks in soccer.

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