The NY Times has an in-depth article up today about a youth team in Clarkston, Georgia that faces hurdles most youth soccer teams could never imagine. It is an illuminating look at a situation where a team not only faces the usual ‘we hate soccer’ mindset found in many small towns, but also faces an uglier undercurrent of racism where longtime town residents resent ‘the soccer people’ who happen to be mostly African refugees.

Early last summer the mayor of this small town east of Atlanta issued a decree: no more soccer in the town park.

“There will be nothing but baseball and football down there as long as I am mayor,” Lee Swaney, a retired owner of a heating and air-conditioning business, told the local paper. “Those fields weren’t made for soccer.”

In Clarkston, soccer means something different than in most places. As many as half the residents are refugees from war-torn countries around the world. Placed by resettlement agencies in a once mostly white town, they receive 90 days of assistance from the government and then are left to fend for themselves. Soccer is their game.

But to many longtime residents, soccer is a sign of unwanted change, as unfamiliar and threatening as the hijabs worn by the Muslim women in town. It’s not football. It’s not baseball. The fields weren’t made for it. Mayor Swaney even has a name for the sort of folks who play the game: the soccer people.

Caught in the middle is a boys soccer program called the Fugees – short for refugees, though most opponents guess the name refers to the hip-hop band.

The article proceeds from there to highlight many of the challenges Coach Mufleh and her team face with the town, spectators from other teams, the police, and the traumatic experiences of many of her players.

Soccer fans in the United States have a bit of a persecution complex. Many of us feel like outcasts for loving a sport many see as foreign, boring, or worse. But that is nothing compared to the outright hostility many adults and children face trying to just play the beautiful game in this country. The story of The Fugees has many similarities to the story told by Paul Cuadros about his team of mostly Hispanic kids who struggle to form a team in Siler City, North Carolina. Facing hurdles most teams can’t even imagine, they end up winning the North Carolina high-school soccer championship. Except the story of the Fugees doesn’t have as happy an ending. But all the ugly racial overtones are there.

The Fugees’ coach exemplifies the best. A woman volunteering in a league where all the other coaches are men, some of them paid former professionals from Europe, she spends as much time helping her players’ families make new lives here as coaching soccer.

At the other extreme are some town residents, opposing players and even the parents of those players, at their worst hurling racial epithets and making it clear they resent the mostly African team. In a region where passions run high on the subject of illegal immigration, many are unaware or unconcerned that, as refugees, the Fugees are here legally.

“There are no gray areas with the Fugees,” said the coach, Luma Mufleh. “They trigger people’s reactions on class, on race. They speak with accents and don’t seem American. A lot of people get shaken up by that.”

Not all stories can have happy endings and the Fugees come close, but perhaps the most poignant part of the story was when the team is on their way to a big match, only to have their coach arrested for a traffic ticket erroneously marked ‘unpaid’.

Just outside Monroe, Ms. Mufleh looks to her left and sees a Georgia State Patrol car parallel to her. She looks at her speedometer. She isn’t speeding.

The brake light, she thinks.

Ms. Mufleh noticed it early in the week, but between practices, work and evenings shuttling among her players’ apartments, she neglected to get it fixed. The trooper turns on his flashing lights. Ms. Mufleh eases to the side and looks at her watch. If this doesn’t take too long, the team will make the field in time to warm up.

It isn’t so simple. Because of a clerical error, a ticket Ms. Mufleh paid a year before appears unpaid. Her license is suspended. The trooper orders her from her car. In full view of her team, he arrests her.

In the bus, the Fugees become unglued. Santino Jerke, in the country only a few months, begins to weep, violating the unwritten team rule that Fugees don’t cry. Several of the Fugees have had family members snatched by uniformed men, just like this. They have been in the United States too little time to understand court dates or bail.

If I was in a situation like this, it would have been a very annoying inconvenience, but most of my players would have probably thought it ‘cool’ that coach got arrested. Can you imagine the torment these kids endured seeing the rock in their world, their coach, hauled away by the police, just like they had seen parents and relatives taken away in their home countries?

I encourage you to share this article with friends, fellow soccer nuts, and anyone else you can think of. While many of us, myself included, complain about America’s latent hostility towards soccer in many parts of the country, there is no denying that for many, the hatred of soccer is also hatred of something foreign, played often by ‘those people’ – foreigners (in their eyes). It doesn’t matter that 17 million kids play soccer in America, both on lush green suburban fields as well as inner city parks. Our country has a long way to go when a town outright prohibits a team of legal residents of this country from using public facilities while more ‘American’ sports like baseball and football are welcomed with open arms. It’s easy for many of us involved in vibrant youth soccer programs to forget that many teams and programs across the country suffer from discrimination, lack of funds, and outright hostility.

Ask yourself this question. If the Fugees were made up primarily of white kids, would they get to use the park? Even more telling, if the team was diverse, but made up of kids from long time residents, would they get the park?

Mr. Swaney does not relish his reputation as the mayor who banned soccer. But he must please constituents who complain that refugees are overrunning the town’s parks and community center – people like Emanuel Ransom, a black man who moved to Clarkston in the late 1960s.

“A lot of our Clarkston residents are being left out totally,” Mr. Ransom says. “Nobody wants to help,” he says of the refugees. “It’s just, ‘Give me, give me, give me.’ “

Racism isn’t just black and white. Think being a Muslim or even a secular person of Arab descent is easy in this day and age?

Not trying to be a total downer here. So I’ll leave you with some choice quotes from Coach Mufleh, both regarding her team’s situation and for motivating kids on the team:

  • [Reflecting on a coach she had played for] “For the majority of the time she coached me, I hated her,” Ms. Mufleh said. “But she had our respect. Until then, I’d always played for me. I’d never played for a coach.”
  • When she ordered her players to practice barefoot, to get a better feel for the soccer ball, a player’s mother objected on the grounds that her daughter could injure her toes. “This is how I run my practice,” Ms. Mufleh told her. “If she’s not going to do it, she’s not going to play.”
  • “She’s a girl – she doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” Ms. Mufleh overheard a Sudanese boy say at an early practice. She ordered him to stand in the goal. As the team watched, she blasted a shot directly at the boy, who dove out of the way. “Anybody else?” she asked.
  • Ms. Mufleh made a point never to ask her players about their pasts. On the soccer field, she felt, refugees should leave that behind. “It was learning to not react,” Ms. Mufleh said. “I just wanted to listen. How do you respond when a kid says, ‘I saw my dad shot in front of me’? I didn’t know.”
  • [After getting arrested for the ‘unpaid’ ticket in front of her team] “”This was my fault, and I had no excuse for not being there,” she tells them. “I should have been there and I wasn’t, and the way it happened probably messed you guys up.”
  • “You need to ask yourselves what you need to do for your team.”

I like this coach’s style!

If there is one uplifting thing this story teaches, it’s about persevering in the face of overwhelming odds and good old American ingenuity. When the town kicks the team off the field again, instead of railing on about the injustices, Coach Mufleh fires up Google Earth looking for open patches of green in town. Genius.

UPDATE: Curious to see what other kind of information might be out there about The Fugees and Coach Mufleh, I found very little, but enough to know that the NY Times article didn’t include some of the nastier things thrown Coach Mufleh’s way.

UPDATE II: If you’re in the mood to read more about the impact that soccer can have on kids, Newsweek has a story about Soccer as Therapy for Mental Illness. Found via Prospect Park Pick-up Soccer.

UPDATE III: Socster has the right idea. Tell Mayor Swaney what you really think thanks to Clarkston’s handy contact page. Remember – be polite yet constructive in your feedback! Phone, fax, or email!

UPDATE IV: Oh the irony. If you go to the City of Clarkston website, look in the left sidebar. “Certified City of Ethics” You think?

UPDATE V: This NY Times article is getting a lot of attention from blogs across the Internet. Find out what they have to say via Technorati.

UPDATE VI: I tried to find this earlier via Google but came up empty. The Fugees have their own website. Found via AmericaBlog.

UPDATE VII: A commenter at Firedoglake provides a bit of contrast to some of the descriptions in the NY Times article, primarily related to the racial makeup of other teams in the league.

UPDATE VIII: The mayor of Clarkston has posted a response on their website noting they only suspended soccer at the complex because adults were using the field and they couldn’t get ahold of Coach Luma.

The New York Times reporter repeatedly confuses Milam Park Field – which is dedicated to little league baseball and unsuitable for soccer – with Armstead Field which is where the Fugees continue to play.

Hmmm. Our league practices on little league fields all the time up until baseball starts. Until we got our new complex that was the ONLY place we could play.