This post is a tad late, but hey, not every blog post has to be in realtime! Over at The News Blog, Steve Gilliard comments at length about an article in the Guardian: Racial divide driving a wedge into soccer’s grassroots. Both pieces raise some interesting points, but I agree with Steve that the Guardian piece lacks some context. I’ll try to provide some more from the point of view of a town where soccer is exploding. So why is it that many youth leagues are mostly white outside of the cities (and many inner city soccer leagues struggle)?


The Guardian starts out with an anecdote about suburban kids getting their butts kicked against urban American football teams:

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.

OK the rap music thing is silly. As far as urban fields being unsafe – guess it depends where they are and if ‘unsafe’ means crime in the parking lots or gaping holes in the fields. I’m sure some parents get all weirded out by having to venture into the city to play. I know I used to play volleyball in downtown Raleigh at a community center gym located right next to a housing project with the highest concentration of shootings in the city. It gave you pause (but I still played as did many female members of our coed team – we just tended not to walk through the lot alone) That was also at 8 or 9PM at night. But I digress. The kicker here is the ‘play too rough’ excuse. The suburban kids got annoyed because they got their butts whipped in the city.

Funny thing is – that’s NOT a black/white thing. Its a suburban/urban thing. I live in a suburban area, no question. Our league is competitive, but self contained. However, in the off season our more dedicated kids will play indoor soccer in more urban areas, etc. They’ve encountered a rougher style of play that some parents aren’t comfortable with, even though the teams were predominantly white.

There is no denying that MANY suburban parents believe soccer is a non-contact sport. However, they quickly realize that its not and that contact between players is common. That doesn’t stop them from complaining about it. But even in mostly white leagues you’ll encounter coaches who encourage their kids to play dirty. Even in our league we had to ban a coach whose players (including his son) were known to throw punches on the pitch.

The Guardian article continues:

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.

There is no denying that soccer is predominantly white. Raleigh has a HUGE soccer program, CASL, and a diverse population. So these kids aren’t lacking in opportunity. So does Durham. I’d almost venture to say the urban kids have more of an opportunity to play soccer than the rural kids in the sticks, black or white. So the use of the term ‘excluded’ bothers me.

Are minorities being actively excluded in youth soccer? Hey – racism exists – I’m sure they are in some areas. But I would hope they aren’t in most. So are they being excluded, or are they simply not participating? And if not, why not?

Steve touches on this a bit:

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.

Exactly. One reason soccer is so popular worldwide, even in developing countries, is the low cost of participation. You need a ball and an open space. Goals can be made with cones, sticks, you name it. Many kids play barefoot. Well, there is no question in an urban area you’re more likely to find basketball courts than soccer pitches. Sure, one reason is that basketball is a very popular sport that kids like and look up to and many aspire to play professionally. But another reason is that soccer fields are BIG. Setting aside a 90m (100yd) x 45m (50yd) patch of grass in a city or a neighborhood is expensive. A regulation size basketball court is 28.7m (94ft) x 15.24m (50ft). So while soccer doesn’t require much equipment, it requires a large space. Basketball can be played on tiny flat surfaces with one wall or post where you can hang a hoop. Thus in urban areas there are a heck of a lot more locations for a pickup game of basketball than for soccer.

I’m not trying to say this is the only reason at all – but it IS a reason. Think about it – most urban area housing complexes have basketball hoops somewhere. But they often don’t have enough space to have even a small side soccer pitch. Kids who want to play soccer in urban areas have to travel to city parks IF that park has a pitch. They usually have to walk to the closest parking lot to play basketball. So even if kids are interested in soccer, they can’t just walk into a pickup match. I’m not sure how you counter that.
But wait – now I get to contradict myself. Even here in suburbia, many driveways have a basketball hoop. They also have some yard to play soccer in, but most subdivisions have so little land per house that you’d have trouble playing any sort of soccer match in them! So suburban kids have to travel to play soccer too. And they do it in droves – 2 or 3 times a week.

So while lack of nearby playing surfaces is a problem, there are definitely other things in the mix. As Steve notes:

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.

There is no denying this. Kids see NBA players everywhere. Soccer is some weird sport that seems to pop up on the US radar during this World Cup thing that our teams don’t usually do well in (1999 Woman’s win aside) But this is changing. Like I wrote about before, soccer is showing up more and more on satellite and digital cable. Some sports outlets are covering it more. When Freddy Adu came to play an exhibition match in Raleigh (ok Cary), it was an overflow crowd with young kids screaming his name. Yet on ESPN, who bought SoccerNet for goodness sakes, I have to look below Boxing, the NHL (which didn’t even PLAY last year), and Olympic Sports to find it! Are you kidding me??

So what about our area? There is no question that our league is predominantly white, even though our population is diverse. The local basketball camps thrive with a VERY diverse group of kids. But we have very few minority players. Are they being excluded – no. As an officer I can tell you we advertise wherever we can, send flyers to all the schools, etc. We take all the kids who want to play. And yet we have a handful of minority players out of 500, despite a county wide minority population of 25%. Sure there are people that might argue we’re unknowingly excluding minority kids – but I have no clue how we’d be doing that at all. I really think that the exclusion is voluntary in our case. Any kid in our area who wants to play, plays. There just doesn’t seem to be a desire to play soccer on a wide scale it our minority community.

I think Steve nails it with the macro issue of sport appeal. Will Freddy Adu appeal to a new generation of minority kids? Maybe – though he’s wildly popular with youth of all backgrounds. But I also get squeamish with his discussion of using sports for scholarships:

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.

It makes me squeamish because kids should play sports because of the love of the game, not some long shot hope of getting a scholarship.  Academic and need based scholarships and loans are more likely to be obtained.  But he’s got a point.  Too many kids get pushed through an endless series of basketball camps and programs with the dream of big money scholarships and a possible professional league windfall when the kids are clearly not going to make it due to size.  But nobody will tell them that there are other sports out there where agility and speed can lead to fun and even possibly money to get through college.

Its a tough nut to crack. On important thing is something the Guardian article touches on – the need for inner-city programs that encourage and publicize soccer programs.  I don’t think kids are actively being excluded on a wide scale.  There is a good chance the kids just don’t know enough about the game of soccer to want to play it in inner cities. And until more media outlets and local organizations start talking about soccer like a ‘real’ sport, these kids are going to go with what they know – basketball, football, etc.  So instead of talking about the ‘shocking’ racial divide in U.S. youth soccer like its somethign actively created, lets talk about the criminal underfunding of inner city sports and activity programs that require administrators to focus on a few sports and don’t provide enough funding to offer more diverse sports programs and broaden our kid’s horizons.