Jon Lowder did a followup on my recent post about racism in soccer and took it in the direction of the shortage of minorities of any color playing in North Carolina leagues:

I don’t think that overt racism is a contributing factor to the lack of diversity on the soccer fields. I think most clubs would gladly expand their talent pools in order to compete. I’m also not so sure if pricing is as big a deterrent as you might think, at least at the higher competition levels. There are lots of families that stretch dollars in order for their kids to play AAU basketball so I don’t see why they wouldn’t also do it if they and their kids felt the same way about soccer as they do about hoops. And even if pricing is an issue you do have clubs that provide financial assistance, as Twin City does for its players. The point is I really think it’s more of a cultural issue than a money or overt racism issue.

The question for youth soccer leaders is this: do you want to continue to be seen as the “white bread, upper class” sport? If not, how do you change the image of the game? How do you make everyone feel welcome?

I don’t think many leaders of youth soccer programs want any type of racial or cultural label on their sport. If it truly is a cultural issue, is that a bad thing? Consider this. Why doesn’t basketball have a ‘label’ like soccer always seems to? Look at the NBA and many top level competitive youth basketball programs and you might mistakenly say ‘Basketball is an African-American sport’, which anyone involved in it knows is not true as a whole. Basketball leagues flourish all across the country and they often represent the racial demographics of their area. For every league with where minorities make up the majority there are others that have almost none due to where they are played and other factors. Is there a higher percentage of minority participation at the competitive youth level in basketball than soccer? Yes. Is that indicative of racism in soccer, or basketball being more appealing to a specific segment of the population? And even if the latter, that can’t be the only factor at play here.

A while back I did a followup post to something written by the late Steve Gilliard, a wonderful writer who penned long passionate articles on racism in NYC and America as a whole. Steve felt that there were often more practical factors at play in the racial divide in youth sports. Here he nailed it:

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.

In the end as a youth soccer leader, I am not concerned at all with the racial makeup of the league. What I am concerned with is ensuring that the league is readily accessible to anyone who wishes to participate regardless of who they are. That means ensuring financial aid is available to those in need, ensuring league materials are available in languages other than English, and making sure the league is publicized all across town, not just in certain areas. The list goes on, but you get the idea. Obviously you can take steps to help increase your league’s racial diversity, and you should. But you shouldn’t be made to feel like you have to apologize for the demographics of your league if you’re doing everything you can to make your league accessible and are limited more by the demographics of your area, cultural preferences, and many other factors.

Soccer is the global sport because ANYONE can play it with almost no equipment. Jon Lowder touches on the importance of diversity from a personal growth point of view, and is spot on:

My feeling is this: youth sports provide a wonderful teaching and learning opportunity. I’ve played sports all my life and I’ve always enjoyed the fact that when we the players get in between the lines we usually forget who’s what race, who comes from where, and who has how much money. All we care about is competing and winning and so we’re held accountable to only what we do in between those lines. We also see each other more honestly. We see who really has character and who doesn’t, who has courage and who wilts under pressure, who is supportive in the crunch and who points the finger when things go bad. In other words sports are a great venue for discovering what’s beneath each person’s exterior.

I’ve made friends with people I never would have talked to without the common ground of a basketball court or soccer field and for that I’m eternally thankful. That’s also why I think it’s better for youth soccer and those of us who participate in it if the pitch becomes a little more “rainbow-y”.

And in the end that’s what it is about. We all benefit from diversity in many many ways. Yet all too often we hear youth soccer describe as an exclusive white suburban sport because that’s where it tends to be most popular AND feasible. But all we can ask for is for the leagues around the country to do their best to make their leagues and programs accessible to all. National organizations like the USSF follow up with grant programs and such to help get soccer going in areas it can struggle to. And that will be how it happens. “Build it and they will come” said Costner in Field of Dreams.

So let’s stop spreading this meme that youth soccer is the bastion of the suburban white player. Yes, they are the predominant participant, but instead we should focus on ensuring leagues strive to make soccer accessible to all and not fault them if other factors cause some kids to choose other sports.

Granted this strayed away a bit from the initial topic of the NC Soccer thread, which was the racial issues in the behavior of some parents at youth soccer matches, and those are simply intolerable. Any coach, league official, or referee that allows behavior like that to happen unpunished is doing a huge disservice to the beautiful game.