A few weeks ago, the editorial staff of SoccerGods.com had a brainstorming session, in the middle of which someone almost offhandedly said, “Well, it’s Black History Month.” It got a genuine laugh, because the idea of American soccer and black history intersecting sounded absurd. It was as if the ghost of Desmond Armstrong (who is still very much alive) came down and blessed us with an idea.
Baseball, basketball and football have all commemorated the journeys of black athletes, from times that pre-date their respective leagues through segregation, the Civil Rights Era, into modern times. The stories range from harrowing accounts of prejudice overcome, to stories of players breaking out of neighborhoods birthed by decades of institutional racism, to stories about today’s players reaching back to uplift often-neglected communities some still call home. Quite simply, other sports, whether out of genuine reverence or pandering, have made strong efforts to recognize these points in history.
That isn’t the case with American soccer. For generations, soccer in this country has included millions of players and fans from across the Pan-African diaspora. A beautiful tapestry of cultures and experiences exists within soccer’s black population — diverse within itself, with roots reaching from the United States back to Africa, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. Volumes of books and hours of documentaries have been filled with facts and folklore from other sports, but somehow, our nearly 102-year-old national federation and 20-year-old league don’t seem to have any legends of their own. Why not?
That’s the question I asked myself several times. The first answer was invariably “because Major League Soccer didn’t appear until 1996.” The theory we could all easily believe is that by the time MLS came into our lives, America was already breathing in Clinton-era progress fumes and had planted the seeds of a mythical “post-racial America.” Black players were on the field from the league’s first day. MLS didn’t have its Jackie Robinson, because Eddie Pope’s 1996 was a different world in every way than Robinson’s 1947.
It’s easy to offer a “we don’t see color” excuse for all involved, but that’s nonsense. America lives for celebrations of hyphenated-Americanism and microculture. Highlighting our varied heritage is what we do best, and rightfully so. But there’s no denying that black fans and players are still seen as outliers in many circles, especially in insular communities. If the organizations that are the caretakers of the American game, or the outlets that cover it, do nothing to highlight the flaws in that theory, the perception will persist that black participants in American soccer culture are somehow alien.
But if you still buy into the notion of a post-racial American soccer, then you’ll have to explain MLS’s Latino del Año or the league’s Hispanic Heritage Nights. It isn’t as if the American soccer powers aren’t open to the idea of cultural acknowledgment, but search “Black History Month” on the league’s web site and you’ll see its level of commitment.
All of this raises an interesting point about what American soccer can afford to ignore. On one hand, American soccer can’t ignore the contributions of Latinos, even if it did so in the past. And it would be a shame to ignore that history. Without a large enough market to appease, people seem to have no appetite for black contributions unless those contributions involve extremes, like poverty, violence, death threats and a lot of distance, whether physically distant (Europe) or temporally distant (the 1800s).
Perhaps it doesn’t help that the limited black soccer history that we know is recent, easily palatable, and probably, therefore, easy to ignore. Go farther back and it’s murky, without obvious heroes, and obscured by the neglect. That’s a perfect formula for a majority that wants to feel better about itself for being more tolerant people than its forefathers and foremothers.
If American soccer had a well-known figures who endured lives like Satchel Page, Jesse Owens or Jim Brown, or our treatment and view of the past would be greatly different. Those stories certainly existed in soccer, but no one seems to be telling them. History and the black player experience offers countless opportunities for conversations about racial and cultural identity, from developing youth through the MLS ranks, but we rarely hear them. In soccer, that history remains too obscure.
This week, we’ve chosen to close out and extend Black History Month by contributing in our own way. You may rub your chin in deep thought. You may laugh and wonder, “Am I allowed to think this is funny?” If we’re lucky, you’ll send us hate tweets, but as long as you watch — as long as you finally read and discuss — we’ll be one step further along.