For families like mine, September doesn’t just mean back to school – it also means back to soccer. My oldest daughter, 15, adopted from India, has just begun her first season of high school ball. Although my younger son, 14, and daughter, 13, both adopted from Ethiopia, play soccer year-round for competitive clubs, it gets more intense in the fall as we try to juggle school, homework and family time with the grind of practice and weekly games.
Soccer has shaped the rhythm of our family’s life for almost a decade, and yet, year after year, team after team, across the two states we’ve lived in, my children end up racial minorities on the pitch. The kids never complain, but they notice, and as a mom, I worry, especially for my girls.
This summer at the Olympics, the women of Team USA emerged as the games’ brightest stars. From gymnastics to swimming to track and field and beyond, little girls discovered role model after role model. For girls of color, watching athletes such as Simone Biles, Allyson Felix and Simone Manuel triumph proved particularly inspiring. Rio showcased America’s strides toward gender equality and racial inclusion in athletics. But as a soccer mom of players of color, I couldn’t help but note that the United States’ less-than-diverse soccer squad was the women’s team that stumbled in competition.
Let me be clear: Like President Obama, I know that the hardworking players on our women’s national team are “badasses.” I’m a huge fan. But I’m also not the first to remark on the problematic nature of the team’s perpetually homogeneous roster.
Writing in the Bent Musket on SB Nation’s website last year, journalist Stephanie Yang observed that between the first women’s World Cup in 1991 and the 2015 tournament, only 11 women of color appeared on U.S. World Cup or Olympics rosters: Brianna Scurry, Staci Wilson, Thori Staples, Lorrie Fair, Saskia Webber, Tasha Kai, Shannon Boxx, Tina Ellertson, Angela Hucles, Danielle Slaton and Sydney Leroux. Christen Press played on the 2015 World Cup team. Add Crystal Dunn and Mallory Pugh to the mix from the 2016 Rio team, and the grand total rises to 14.
That’s 14 players of color in 25 years.
Racial identification can be nuanced, complex and not always visible. It’s possible that athletes who privately identify as non-white have been on the team during its history. Players such as Amy Rodriquez, a blonde Latina whose father is Cuban American, have brought other forms of diversity to the squad, but it is undeniable that, to date, the USWNT has never embodied America’s melting pot ideal.
U.S. Youth Soccer, with more than 3.2 million participants, is the country’s largest youth sports organization. With a sample that large, you might expect to find abundant diversity within its membership – but you’d be wrong, particularly on travel, or club, teams. Although U.S. Youth Soccer doesn’t publish racial demographic data, other numbers tell the story. According to a 2012 study by Project Play, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting youth sports participation, only 32 percent of U.S. households report an annual income of $75,000 or greater, yet 54 percent of households with children involved in soccer come from that income group.
American youth soccer has evolved as a fixture of the suburbs, where economically advantaged families typically reside and where competitive team fees can run in the thousands of dollars annually. A 2014 University of Florida study found that overall sports participation rates for white children exceed that of every other ethnic group in America. Researchers and cultural critics agree: The inequities in youth sports revolve around money, and soccer is one of the least equitable. As Doug Andreassen, chairman of U.S. Soccer’s diversity task force, told the Guardian in June: “The system is not working for the underserved community. It’s working for the white kids.”
According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, by age 14, girls drop out of sports at twice the rate of boys. Factors such as lack of access, safety and transportation issues, cost and lack of role models drive their exit. Fold in the challenge of competing in an environment where the majority of your teammates, opponents, coaches and referees come from a different racial, cultural and/or socioeconomic background, and it’s obvious that persevering in athletics demands extraordinary maturity and strength of character from young girls of color. If gymnast Gabby Douglas was publicly attacked for her hairstyle after winning Olympic gold, what must it feel like to be the only 12-year-old girl in cornrows on a suburban soccer field, adrift in a sea of blond ponytails?
America’s youth soccer system wasn’t established with racist or elitist intent, but it’s been allowed to evolve in that direction without meaningful efforts at course correction.
When Simone Manuel became the first African American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in an individual swimming event at Rio, her victory repudiated America’s long history of segregation and discrimination at swimming pools, but her triumph didn’t emerge in a vacuum. USA Swimming, the governing body of the sport, has commissioned multiple research studies through the years to help understand and address low minority participation and develop successful outreach programs. Between 2004 and 2015, USA Swimming’s African American membership grew by 55 percent, and its mixed-ethnicity membership grew by 77 percent. The organization also has created a Diversity Coach Mentorship Program for coaches who come from unrepresented populations or wish to coach kids who do. The U.S. Tennis Association has made similar efforts to attract children of color, with former USTA President Job Vegosen stating that making tennis “look like America” in terms of diversity is one of the organization’s top priorities.
In contrast, U.S. Youth Soccer, established in 2007, has done little to increase player diversity or meaningfully support children of color who do participate. Unlike USA Swimming, USA Gymnastics, USA Volleyball and the USTA (all of which are admittedly older, more established entities) U.S. Youth Soccer has no mission statement or formal policy addressing diversity, discrimination or inclusion (although the organization has taken time to draft a policy prohibiting the use of drones at U.S. Youth Soccer events). U.S. Youth Soccer does promote a program for underserved communities called Soccer Across America, which relies on the resourcefulness of local community organizers to design and run initiatives with advice and “guidance” – but no guaranteed funding – from the umbrella organization.
Despite their poor showing in Rio, there’s no question that the U.S. women’s soccer program is the best in the world. Some might argue that the existing system works just fine. But how much better would the competition be if girls of all backgrounds had access to the sport? And what will it take to spur a change? I feel encouraged when I hear other parents express private concerns about the lack of equity, but in a system where children are competing for opportunities, speaking out can feel fraught on multiple levels.
In an interview this summer, current USWNT player Crystal Dunn, a 24-year-old African American, told Sports Illustrated that while she understands that she’s a role model for girls of color, she doesn’t want to be defined by her race when she steps on the pitch. My 13-year-old daughter feels the same way: She loves her teammates and coaches, and when she is on the field, she’s focused on her game, not her race. The question is, what will women’s soccer look like a decade from now, when players like my daughter have reached Dunn’s age? And what will America look like if we allow a sport involving millions of kids and their families to continue to operate without equity?
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Sharon Van Epps is a writer and a mother of three. You can find her on Twitter @sharonvanepps.