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What we really mean when we talk about needing more Black players in American soccer

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When “we need more diversity in soccer” can become a reductive a statement.

Costa Rica v United States Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images

You’ve heard this chestnut before: American soccer has a diversity problem. It manifests itself in different ways on the men’s and women’s teams due to the intersection of race, class, and gender, and the divergent history of men’s and women’s soccer in this country, but there’s no denying that there is an impact across the entire sport. So in general, it’s understandable when fans, players, and coaches talk about wanting more diversity in the sport. But it’s not helpful to simply say “We need more black players in soccer” without understanding some of the underlying historical relationships between black communities and soccer.

First, we need to understand what it means to say that black players are not a monolith. Of course they come from different background and have different circumstances, but they also come from varying cultures and traditions. And sometimes they literally come from different places.

Dr. Jermaine Scott, postdoctoral fellow at the Carter G. Woodson Institute at the University of Virginia, has written vividly about the various African and Caribbean communities that have immigrated to the United States within the context of soccer history. In Harlem, where his recent research focuses, Black teams that played from the 1920s to the 1940s were “largely made up of Caribbean immigrants, especially from countries like Trinidad, Jamaica, and Haiti.” At Historically Black Colleges and Universities, he writes they would often see “a wider scope of the African disapora” with students from Ghana, Nigeria, and Ethiopia. The players coming from these countries have different soccer histories, and so recruiters going to Black communities need to be aware that they may not necessarily be able to find a one-size-fits-all approach.

On the flip side, as Scott wrote to SSFC in an e-mail, “Of course, black people from Jamaica are different from black people in Trinidad, and black people in Trinidad are different from black people in Harlem. But, for example, Trinidadians also experienced anti-black racism in Harlem, alongside their African American neighbors. Regardless of the diversity of blackness that makes up the vibrancy of these places, it is always possible for that difference to be flattened by racism.”

To that extent, having black recruiters who understand the communities they are approaching - or who may even come from the same communities - could be crucial to diversifying the player pool. These are communities that have been playing soccer in the United States in one form or another for over a century, and cannot be treated as though they are newer to the scene than those from European countries. “It is inaccurate to suggest that the early black sporting landscape in the U.S. was confined to the gridiron, diamond, and court,” says Scott. “It was also constructed on the pitch. Which is to say, it is inaccurate to suggest that ‘black people don’t play soccer in the U.S.,’ because black people, albeit largely from the Caribbean and Africa, have been playing from the early 20th century.”

Second, when it comes to recruiting, we need to guard against racist ideas about black players - namely that they are strong and fast, but have low “soccer IQ” or aren’t tactically developed. The treatment of Black players goes to down to the youth level to ensure they’re trained and recruited in the right ways for the right reasons. Multiple black players have discussed the stereotyping that pigeonholed them at younger ages. Sky Blue FC’s Midge Purce spoke in an interview about how her first couple of coaches didn’t develop her tactically, simply using her for her speed, which delayed her development as a player. Crystal Dunn has said, as a youth player, she felt she had to “do above and beyond stuff to be noticed.” And let’s not forget the ongoing problem in soccer commentary, where black players have “pace and power” but white players are “intelligent” or “crafty.”

Scott says, “It’s very easy to look at the disproportional whiteness of the USMNT, and suggest that, because the USMNT is not that good, then ‘We need to go to the inner cities and recruit black players.’ This is great if the true aim is to diversify the team and make it more representational of the wider U.S. society. But, sometimes I fear that when observers make this claim, they are relying on those very same logics of scientific racism, that ‘if we only can get some of those naturally athletic black people, we will be so much better!’”

He adds, “I want to be clear, I am not suggesting that we should not recruit more black girls and boys into the game. I just want to make sure that we are doing so for the right reasons, and we’re not reproducing familiar and racist discourses about the black body.”

So how should US Soccer approach recruitment of more black players? Scott has two recommendations:

  1. Make soccer more financially and geographically accessible.
  2. Considering that the history of black soccer in the U.S. has largely been confined to Caribbean and African communities, U.S. soccer should recruit more in those communities, and attract more dual nationals.

Does this mean putting a little more money, research, and time into recruiting black players? Yes, absolutely, but that’s what is necessary to overcome the deficit created by soccer’s historical focus on including white communities, particularly starting in the 1960s with the formation of the American Youth Soccer Association. Consider that the founders of AYSO initially banned all “foreign-sounding” team names and, as Scott notes in a 2019 article for the Journal of Sport History, an early draft of AYSO rules forbid the use of any language except English. The shift to root soccer in the white suburban middle class combined with pay-to-play has perpetuated a system that has locked out black and brown communities, and it is going to take constant, dedicated vigilance from both within and without US Soccer to both unlearn attitudes towards black players and dismantle racist systems that disadvantage them.