In a recent interview with USA Today, USMNT and Colorado Rapids goalkeeper Tim Howard questioned the commitment of some players on the national team. Specifically Howard said:
“Jurgen Klinsmann had a project to unearth talent around the world that had American roots. But having American roots doesn’t mean you are passionate about playing for that country.” He went on to say that "I know there were players that came in that it didn't matter as much to. If you get enough of those players, one or two can get found out, but if you get enough of those players you lose sight of what you are all about. While it was a good idea in theory, it had its flaws.”
Make no mistake about it, Howard is blaming the poor recent results that US has experienced on having too many foreign born players who were not passionate enough about the team.
Howard walked back his comments in an ESPNFC interview saying that "some of them are [dual nationals], but I think others are players who have their roots here in America too," said. Howard. "It's not exclusive to them because some of our dual nationals have been brilliant.”
While Howard may have been seeking to clarify his comments, this doesn’t explain why he singled out Klinsmann’s project in the first place and named one of his former manager’s flaws as bringing in players who lacked passion for the team.
A similar sentiment from a different source
If a prominent US National Team player calling out foreign-born players sounds familiar, it may be because Abby Wambach has made similar comments. In an interview on Bill Simmons’ podcast ESPNW reported that Wambach said:
Jurgen Klinsmann “hasn't really focused, I feel, enough attention on the youth programs.’ Wambach went onto say that "the way that he has brought in a bunch of these foreign guys is not something I believe in wholeheartedly. I don't believe in it. I don't believe in it in my heart. I love Jermaine Jones, I love watching him play, and I love Fabian Johnson, and he plays in Germany and is actually killing it right now after being sent home for 'faking an injury.' But I just think that this experiment that U.S. Soccer has given Jurgen isn't one that personally I'm into.”
These comments echo one another in the way that both question foreign-born American players commitment to the USMNT and call into question Jurgen Klinsmann’s strategy of bringing them in. What has not been similar, however, is the way that soccer media, players, and the US Soccer Federation have responded to each situation. Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl, Fox Sports writer Caitlin Murray, Deadspin’s Billy Haisley, among others, criticized Wambach harshly. The story was big news, even Business Insider ran an article on her statement.
USMNT players with foreign roots also chimed in. After Wambach got a DUI, US Men’s National Team player Alejandro Bedoya posted this to Twitter:
@FOXSoccer must've been a foreign American player's fault.......— Alejandro Bedoya (@AleBedoya17) April 3, 2016
Mix Diskerud issued a lengthy Instagram post condemning her for ‘disenfranchising’ Americans born in other countries. Sunil Gulati was asked about the comments but brushed them off as Wambach speaking her mind.
Despite the similarities in the comments, the response to Howard from the media and other national team players has been markedly less critical. Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl called Wambach’s comments offensive and said they were ‘bizarre,’ noting that John Brooks was the best player in the Copa America Centenario. Not only has Wahl failed to make the same points about what Howard said, Sports Illustrated merely reported that the goalkeeper made the comments on their site.
In response to Howard, Deadspin posted an article observing that American players have also played without passion and compared his attitude to one popular in England in the 1970s and 1980s when heart and desire were thought of as key attributes to success. However, the site reacted much more harshly to Wambach, calling her ‘idiotic,’ ‘xenophobic,’ and noted that the foreign born Americans don’t owe Wambach anything. The Washington Post ran a story on the controversy around Wambach but hasn’t yet published about Tim Howard’s comments.
For their parts, Alejandro Bedoya has not fired off a snappy tweet about Howard’s statement and Mix Diskerud did not feel it necessary to remind him that foreign-born Americans make up the majority of military volunteers during wartime. One MNT player has not been shy about discussing Howard’s comments, as yesterday Jermaine Jones called Howard’s comments ‘dangerous stuff’ and it will be interesting to see if his response elicits more media condemnations of his teammate’s statements.
One voice , one hot take
Alexi Lalas had the most troubling reaction to the Howard story. After Wambach’s interview on Bill Simmons’ podcast, Lalas tweeted lengthy quotes from it and asked her to define ‘foreign’. While he may have questioned her, he never rejected the comments and even offered praise to her for speaking her mind.
In response to Howard, Lalas hosted a Periscope broadcast posted to Twitter and said that “I don’t think Tim Howard questioned if they were Americans,” this is despite the fact that Howard said that “having American roots doesn’t mean you are passionate about playing for that country” which is clearly questioning the passion foreign born American players have for the national team.
Lalas then proceeded to put words into Howard’s mouth by saying that the goalkeeper was noticing cliques forming in the team unlike in Lalas’ day when players like Ernie Stewart were fully a part of the team. He also said that Howard put it correctly when he said Klinsmann’s strategy may have been good in theory, but that in practice it may have created challenges that weren’t anticipated.
To be clear, Howard did not say anything about cliques or unanticipated challenges. Lalas used the controversy to assert his perception, one that he has consistently put forward, that the problem with the national team is that it isn’t homogeneous enough. This position is a pure hot take. It is an opinion that he strongly holds for the sake of being adversarial despite having no evidence for it. What’s worse, it reinforces what Howard said without explicitly agreeing with him.
So, what’s going on here?
The media is giving Tim Howard a pass on his comments about foreign-born American players and it should be more critical of him in the coverage of the story. For one thing, it is ironic that Tim Howard, and Landon Donovan for that matter, challenged the passion that national team players have representing America when both took sabbaticals away from the team. For another, the problems that the national team has do not have to do with where the players on the team were born. It has to do with the fact that at the moment, the USMNT does not have the talent level to beat the top teams in the world.
Perhaps in a way that soccer and politics don’t usually intersect in the US, Howard’s comments are more troubling. On the eve of the inauguration of a President who was elected after calling immigrants criminals and otherwise demonized foreigners throughout the campaign, the soccer media should stand up for a more diverse and inclusive national team by strongly rejecting Howard’s statement. Writers like Grant Wahl, who is taking a stand by marching in Washington this weekend, need to make the connections to the statements that Howard made to the increased anti-foreign rhetoric and discriminatory actions that have taken place during and since the election.
In the wake of the election, there have been incidents (NSFW) where people have been harassed, threatened, and even assaulted for their ethnic, racial, and religious background or for their sexual orientation and gender identity. These incidents have occurred in schools, churches, and mosques. Hate groups are finding a new footing as the KKK has tried to recruit members after Trump’s election and White Nationalists see his victory as a validation of their views. There have been Nazi style rallies and anti-Semitic rhetoric was used during the campaign.
As of now, this hasn’t crept into the world of US international soccer and the US and Mexico National Teams even formed a solidarity wall after the election in their World Cup Qualifier in a show of sportsmanship while the crowd in Columbus was by all accounts positive.
But if the media is not going to hold one of the most well known national team players accountable for making comments that doubt the commitment of players to the US team because they were not born here, what should be expected if incidents like those mentioned above appear in the context of international soccer? It is especially important that the soccer media deal with these issues given the president elect’s displays of contempt for the media in general and the history that soccer has as a tool of nationalism and fascism.
In the US, soccer has mostly shown that it has the power to unite people in support for a team. However, it also has the power to be a tool of nationalism, fascism, and ethnic violence. Mussolini fixed matches to gain political support as Italy won the 1934 and 1938 World Cups. Francisco Franco of Spain leveraged political power to bring star players to Real Madrid in order to build loyalist support there while isolating political opposition by funneling players away from Barcelona. In the 1980s the National Front used soccer in England as a platform for harassing and assaulting minorities in that country. Russian fans with alleged links to the Kremlin caused violence in France in last year’s Euro tournament. This website has documented other recent examples of how soccer and politics have mixed in the past and how the sport continues to be a political arena.
America is a diverse country that has made strides in being inclusive of the myriad of backgrounds that its citizens offer and the USMNT has showcased that diversity. These gains have been made at great cost and with tremendous effort but, they are fragile and could easily be lost in a changing political climate.
Aside from Jermaine Jones, Howard’s teammates have also not condemned his remarks strongly. The different reaction, especially from Alejandro Bedoya, may reflect the divide between the Men’s and Women’s National Teams. But it is also easier for Bedoya and Mix to criticize Abby Wambach, who is retired and not a current teammate. Bedoya has also been critical of the WNT and their effort for equal pay and does not seem to have as much of an agenda when it comes to criticizing Howard as opposed to Wambach. The players should also take a stand when it comes to these comments especially when they have not been shy to show solidarity with marginalized groups who have been targeted for discrimination in the past.
Tim Howard, who did not vote in the election, may be oblivious to the political context of the comments that he made, but at least he seems to be acknowledging that he was wrong for implying that a players’ foreign birth reduces the passion they have for playing on the national team. Jermaine Jones was right in calling Howard’s comments dangerous. What is more dangerous is that not aggressively challenging them risks creating a slippery slope where comments like Howard’s are seen as legitimate in an atmosphere where exclusion and discrimination are finding a footing again in this country. In no small part it is the media’s job, and yes that includes soccer media, to ensure that does not happen and it has failed its first test in doing this vital work.