What a thrill. What pride. What a show of skill and prowess by the US women’s national soccer team in the 2011 Women’s World Cup even as they lost in penalty shots to Japan on Sunday.
Too bad that this fabulous squad does not yet quite look like America.
Wambach made magnificent header goals. Rapinoe great centers. Boxx streaking shots from outside the box. I cheered them along, as they deserved to be cheered, and relished their hard fought battle on behalf of a nation.
But my feelings were bittersweet. In a roster of 21 players, there are only two Latinas and no Blacks or Asians. In the team picture of bright, young, exuberant, and inspiring faces, the hues and shades of a multicultural America that is 30% racial/ethnic are quite limited.
There is something deeply amiss in the lack of diversity in both the women and men’s national soccer teams. Not only because 1/3 of the nation is missing in their composition, but because when we look at the age range of those who play professionally the gap is even more striking: 40% of this age group are people of color.
Further, given soccer’s popularity, particularly in the Latino community, this lack of diversity can’t be excused. While it can be said legitimately about golf, tennis, and swimming that the pipeline of diverse talent in the game is significantly limited given low participation numbers by minority children at the entry point of the pipeline, the same cannot be said about this most populist of sports, futbol.
Yes, golf, tennis, and swimming must find ways to get more minorities involved, not only for the sake of these marginalized communities, but also for the sake of the vitality of these sports. By limiting the talent pool it draws from, is it any coincidence the US has not dominated in golf or tennis in the past decade? But soccer has a huge built-in advantage over these other sports even as the US Tennis Association (USTA) significantly steps up its efforts to introduce tennis to ten-year-old kids of color. But the massive numbers of female and male participants of color in soccer are getting bypassed by colleges, US Soccer teams, and pro-soccer farm systems.
As one looks at the player roster both in women and men’s soccer, how is it that diversity, in this sport has been whitewashed?
When I played on the varsity soccer team at Northwestern University, I was the only Latino on the team — and a walk-on from South America and not a Hispanic American at that — and Floyd the only black. Granted, NU was not that diverse to begin with, but surely, in the soccer subculture there should have been some sort of over-indexing of diversity.
To increase the diversity of the US teams – not only to be truly America’s team, but also to ensure that US teams remain competitive – an all-out diversity effort must be launched.
First, more minority children must be enrolled in the largest soccer youth programs around. When I coached my daughter’s AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization) girls’ soccer team, the $100+ fees were out of reach for many working class Latino families. To Highland Park AYSO’s credit, it began instituting a sliding scale fee funded by local individuals and companies. But while this upped participation some, the lack of relations between the white and Latino communities made it hard to spread the word about the program.
And even when more Latino youngsters did participate, coaches — many new to the sport of soccer themselves — did not know how to reconcile the differing expectations from Latino parents when practice schedules conflicted with work schedules at the family store or other business. And given standard “fairness” principles, the “no practice, no play” policy killed any nascent enthusiasm among working-class and immigrant kids and parents.
The barriers to entry in the more competitive youth travel soccer leagues are even higher given the $1000+ fees and far away road games that assume parents have cars and free weekends to schlep their cleat-clad kids.
But the institutions that truly have no excuse for their lack of diversity on their soccer teams are colleges. Thousands of girls and boys nationwide are playing on public middle-and high school soccer teams. Here participation is free, school busses transport the teams to their matches, and immigrant parents have at least some working knowledge about school culture that they don’t have about para-organizations such as AYSO and travel soccer.
Title IX, which demanded the playing field be evened out for collegiate women in terms of budgets, facilities, and scholarships, is the number one reason women’s sports in the US has risen to the world-class caliber we saw in Sunday’s World Cup. But like in corporate America, women’s gains have unfortunately ended up being white women’s gains, with Black, Latina, Asian, and Native American women conspicuously absent as beneficiaries of powerfully important gender diversity programs.
To break through we need US Soccer, college soccer scouts, and parents to shift their assumptions and behaviors.
In machista societies like the Latino one, girls have to be seen as legitimately able to compete in sports for fun or career just as boys are. Scouts need to get comfortable going into barrio and inner city schools and to suburbs dominated by immigrants just like football and basketball scouts started doing a generation ago.
And US Soccer can up the ante by insisting its scouts and coaches source greater diversity for players considered for the US uniform.