Remembering 2014: American soccer’s deafening silence in the face of sports’ new activism

On August 4, 2011, a 29-year-old black male, Mark Duggan, was gunned down by a London police officer in Tottenham, North London after his vehicle was pulled over during a planned traffic stop. Three days later, London was burning. Literally. A day that started with protesters demanding answers and expressing long-standing grievances ended with rioting, looting across the city, and local businesses in flames. Tottenham bore the brunt of the physical damage – a hefty price that still doesn’t account for the weight of both pre-existing and subsequent psychological damage to residents.

Later that month, the BBC ran an interview with then Tottenham Hotspur full back Benoit Assou-Ekotto. The interview was about soccer in as much as it involved a soccer player, but it was really about Assou-Ekotto’s perceptions of a community hit particularly hard by a whirlwind of unrest.

When you strip the interview down, it’s a simple story about a man, who tangentially happens to play soccer, reflecting on a transcendent moment, largely because an interviewer directly asked him about that moment without dancing around socio-politics. It was refreshing.

This year, I’ve found myself periodically revisiting that Assou-Ekotto interview, not because of any one particular question or answer, but possibly just because of its existence. In some way, the interview represents an unqualified reminder that soccer and soccer players also exist in non-soccer environments. Like any cross-section of society, some people will have worthwhile contributions to conversations that fall outside of their professions. The interview was a reminder of how easily and often sport can avoid hot topics, even when they’re in our backyards staring at us in the face. At times, our ability to avoid uncomfortable social and political realities is so obvious that the silence starts to become deafening.

I heard that loud silence consistently during 2014 as I watched Ferguson, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, police-community relations, and immigration reform dominate news cycles. These moments fueled conversation and action across the United States, turning 2014 into a fascinating year for social protest. Pundits, commentators, writers, actors, musicians, and standard, run-of-the-mill civilians were constantly grappling with social and political issues of the day. The voices ran the spectrum of hues and politics. Glenn Beck and Al Sharpton were on the same page regarding what they both viewed as a botched grand jury decision. Something’s clearly wrong when Beck and Sharpton are bedfellows.

People on real and internet streets were angry and frustrated and scared and feeling invisible or endangered. Aided by social media, they were speaking about it, searching, with varying success rates, for a frequency that would resonate with someone, anyone. Athletes were no different: In 2014, almost everyone had opinions. It was a beautiful thing to see. No place was safe from commentary.

In the NBA, players wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts during warm-ups, a reference to the phrase Eric Garner uttered 11 times while being choked to death by men with badges. NBA pundits engaged in Ferguson-related debates, giving interviews on cable news networks and writing open letters in major newspapers. And their comments had nothing to do with basketball. Sometimes the commentary was because players, via both on and off-court actions, gave pundits little choice but to address the signs of solidarity and protest unfolding before their eyes. But sometimes it was because it was becoming increasingly difficult to ignore what was happening outside of sport.

Indianapolis Colts v Cleveland Browns

In the NFL, some players, feeling a need to show solidarity with those protesting around the country, started to take public stands. Cleveland Browns cornerback Johnson Bademosi (above) took to the field with “I Can’t Breathe” written on the back of a t-shirt before a game. He then wrote an article about why he decided to make that statement. The lede reads:

“The NFL wants to make players’ public lives conform to its standards. But when exceptional issues call for us to speak our minds, the league and the fans need to see us as men, with our own opinions and the freedom to express them.”

Players around the league were refusing to remain apolitical. Instead, they were participating in a national dialogue:

Which brings us to American soccer. There’s something horrifically sterile and removed about American soccer. When you place soccer (and perhaps hockey) against the NBA and NFL, you start to see a reality extremely divorced from social and political realities. It’s not terribly surprising, but it is bizarre. Things have been literally burning outside while major cities have been brought to grinding halts across the country by people laying in streets, but if you looked at at soccer coverage in America in 2014, you might not even know that anything happened. You might not know that cities across the country have been protesting tirelessly all year.

To me, it’s been clear for some time that American soccer is a bizarro world, one that feels like everyone, at all times, is running for public office. Public figures with influential voices stick to easy talking points, rarely veering away from their comfort zones. For some players, controversy was literally burning in their backyards while they remained publicly silent. Sadly, the same voice athletes in other sports used so powerfully in 2014 was largely wasted by soccer’s stars.

Now, it’s unfair to suggest that any individual player or media member should feel compelled to comment on the day’s political or social happenings. That’s a ridiculous ask. But looking at the soccer establishment in the context of 2014’s chaos, the collective, deafening silence leads to a series of interesting questions. The most obvious being: Why so silent, American soccer?

Here are some thoughts:

  • Maybe American soccer’s so silent because no one is watching anything but soccer. I doubt it this is true. But, maybe. People are busy and there’s lots of soccer to watch.
  • Maybe American soccer’s voice was silent because there aren’t enough voices to adequately cover the game. I don’t believe this, but sure, it’s possible.
  • Maybe American soccer’s voice was silent because those collectively framing the discussions only see racial conversations as newsworthy when a banana is thrown or someone is accused of being horribly racist, which doesn’t happen on U.S. soccer fields at the same rate it happens elsewhere. I sort of believe this.
  • Maybe American soccer is scared to have an opinion that ruffles feathers and possibly alienates fans who like their sports politics-free. Don’t anger your customers, right? I sort of believe this, too.
  • Maybe various camps within American soccer are concerned about job stability and feel like they can’t afford to be political. Jobs are being slashed on a regular basis, money is tight, and there’s a collective bargaining agreement to negotiate in 2015. I believe there’s some truth to this.
  • Maybe it’s because American soccer features so few women and people of color asking the questions. I think this is part of it.
  • And maybe American soccer’s sensibilities are driven by a demographic that is so divorced from the daily realities outside of their comfort zone and experience that it just doesn’t know any better. I also believe there’s some truth to this.

Maybe there are more innocuous reasons, but it isn’t difficult to recognize that political and social messages become real talking point in other American sports. It’s news. Yet D.C. United’s Eddie Johnson posting about Trayvon Martin or Mike Brown doesn’t land on a radar.

People can have any number of perspectives or opinions on Johnson’s post, but what’s clear is that people who frame American soccer narratives from the top, collectively, aren’t touching this stuff. No one reaches for a BBC-Assou-Ekotto moment to ask Johnson how what’s happening outside affected him. Has it affected him in the past? Has it had an impact on his soccer development and career? There are countless avenues to explore, but American soccer rarely does that, because American soccer seems allergic to a non-whitewashed reality. It wants to be everyone’s friend, even when exceptional issues call for us to speak our minds.

And it isn’t just Johnson who may have something to say. New Orlando City signing Amobi Okugo seemingly had some thoughts:

“Studies have shown black children as young as toddlers are seen by police and educators as older, more violent, less innocent, are treated with less empathy, and receive harsher punishments than their white peers.”

If you take a moment to really reflect on Okugo’s Instagram post, a reasonable reading suggests the Orlando City defender, who grew up in California, is pointing out a systemic problem in our country. Blackness is an obstacle in America. Yet somehow, we can’t seem to find the connection to soccer. There may not even be a need to align his post to soccer to find worthwhile avenues for exploration, but there’s certainly a line of inquiry about how this study, if its conclusions are valid, would impact youth development in soccer.

And here’s the thing: While American soccer sits on its hands in the corner, people all around the world are talking. Something is definitely happening in America that is resonating. It’s hard to ignore the reach of America’s 2014 fireworks when even a Nigerian player in Germany (FC Köln’s Anthony Ujah) celebrates a goal like this:

But somehow we don’t seem to care. Maybe American soccer is just conditioned to avoid race because we’ve bought into the idea that it’s irrelevant, because it’s rarely discussed in the coverage unless it involves racism abroad. Maybe American soccer just finds it hard to see a connection between protests across the countrywhether they have to do with race relations, power, or immigration reform — and American soccer. Maybe American soccer just doesn’t want any of that extraneous political baggage infecting our conversations.

But then you realize that Robbie Rogers gets wall-to-wall coverage. Now, don’t get me wrong; that’s a wonderful thing. It’s fantastic that we care about Robbie Rogers and his journey. It’s important that we listen and ask questions and support. We should care. But it’s interesting how no one is scared to ask Rogers what it’s been like to soccer while gay.

For years people in the media have been thirsty for gay soccer players to walk out the closet. They’ve been searching, secretly speculating, wondering, dreaming up locker room scenarios, counting down the days by playing the “what if” game. But when’s the last time we’ve engaged players to find out what it’s like to grow up playing while black, or Latino, or a woman and playing soccer in the United States? American soccer doesn’t ask these questions about itself, even after we turn on our TVs or walk outside and into protests, or read the news about people laying down in streets blocking traffic or marching for days, or walking out of Congress with their hands in the air. American soccer seems to think its immune from American life.

I suppose it isn’t surprising that a community that struggles to acknowledge race in the midst of 2014 will shy away from those issues in its own house. Probably not of malice, just reflex, but even if it is just reflex, that’s a problem. For years, the American soccer power center has had the voice of an old, suburban white guy with a station wagon and good intentions. But, over time, this perfectly swell gentleman may have grown noticeably blind to changing landscapes. One day he wakes up and realizes that he doesn’t understand why people in other sports are talking so freely and openly about politics and social movements. One day, he realizes that he may not have anything to add to the conversation.

Perhaps, even worse, he doesn’t even realize he’s being silent. He’s just standing awkwardly in the corner, talking about stats and transfer rumors and trying to get scoops on hirings and firings. All the while, he’s unknowingly training the next generation of scribes to carry on in his own image, carrying on the myth that American soccer is somehow inherently apolitical. These suburban cul-de-sac stories are painfully boring and quite possibly, ironically, not in sport’s best interest.

As insidious as that sounds, there is an even more frightening possibility, one that imagines the sport’s lack of inclusiveness as a deliberate stance. Perhaps decision makers don’t intend for the game to ignore the “browning of America,” but the practices in play may nevertheless lead to that end. Even if that isn’t the intention, the practices power brokers seem to be passing down may make marketing to a largely heterogenous, “keep politics out of it” crowd the safest and most intuitive option. And in a landscape where we’re told soccer is still struggling to gain acceptance, deliberately playing to the familiar core may have the same effects as intentionally excluding minority voices.

Population-wise, the United States is evolving. So is the soccersphere. Some wonderful, nuanced stories are being written stateside covering more topics than ever. But the social space in American soccer remains fearful of tackling anything that truly requires spending any social or possibly professional capital. FIFA isn’t hard to blast. Everyone’s doing it. It’s important work, but it isn’t exactly going out on a limb to call out the governing body for being terrible. People talk about U.S. soccer culture all the time, but somehow the conversation rarely ever gets around to talking about what everyone else is talking about in 2014. Instead it’s songs, tifos, apparel, gatherings, and talk of “growing the game” without exploring the darker corners of what that really means.

Part of the cultural conversation in American soccer has to involve a conversation about identity. Not whether a German-born player is really American, but whether a black or brown player has the forum to tell us about what America’s really like for them. I’m talking about conversations about whether Latino players have a space to talk about what it’s really like to grow up playing in the United States, beyond the soccer field. Sure, training is important, but no one develops as a player or a person in a vacuum. The world we live in matters, and we need to find channels to have these talks. But it’s difficult for people to know what to say and where to say it when there’s no precedent – when there’s no place to talk or watch or read.

Maybe we’ll find out that American soccer is immune to America’s problems when we finally turn down the loud silence. I doubt it, but we won’t know unless we muster the courage to reach for the controls. Perhaps we can all experience the refreshing feeling I felt when I originally watched that Assou-Ekotto interview, but in America. We have some work to do, but I guess that’s what new years are for. Here’s looking at you, 2015.