Today in this country, there are more African-American soccer stars than ever. College teams have the highest percentage of African-American players – ever. Yet as a recent ESPN.com article by Maria Burns Ortiz pointed out, getting African-Americans children interested and passionate about the game remains a struggle throughout the United States.
At DC SCORES, we strive to accomplish what Ortiz is writing about. As our athletic director, Kenny Owens, pointed out, however, the only soccer that is played east of the Anacostia River – where the population is almost entirely African-American – consists of DC SCORES games.
Owens, who is African-American and grew up in D.C. playing soccer before leading the Georgetown University men’s team, answered questions about African-Americans and soccer in the U.S.:
What is the state of soccer in African-American communities today?
“I think it’s getting better. More kids are being exposed to the game because of programs like ours. And the more kids that we expose to the game, the better.”
What have you noticed about kids once they are exposed to the game? How do they react to it and take it from there?
“From my experiences, once they’re exposed to the game they love it. Soccer’s a sport that anybody can play and it doesn’t really cost a lot to play. All you need is a ball.”
Growing up in D.C., how did you get into soccer?
“I was lucky enough to be exposed to it at a recreation center by my house. There was a Trinidadian guy who ran the center who was a soccer player and soccer fan. So he got all the kids who went to the rec involved playing. Once I started playing, it was something I went with and never stopped.”
You went on to play at Georgetown. What was the makeup of your team there?
“All white. We had one kid from Jamaica.”
At that point, you were probably used to being a minority on your team. So it wasn’t really an adjustment?
“Other than playing at my rec center -- and there was a lot of soccer going on in my neighborhood -- as I started to grow up and get more competitive, I had to go out of D.C. to play on better teams.
“And I was always the only black kid on the team.”
Mike Curry, the chair of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America’s diversity committee, says soccer is still very much a white, middle- to upper-middle-class sport. Do you agree?
“Yeah. That’s why exposure to the game is key, because if you don’t know anything about the game, you look at it as a white-boy sport or a boring sport. Until you get exposed to it and you play it and know how much fun it is, you look at the game a different way”
Why is it so difficult for children in poorer communities who are good-to-average players to participate on club teams?
“When you get on the club teams, you pay to play pretty much. It gets expensive. It’s not just like rolling the ball out at your local community center. You’ve got to pay for uniforms. If you want to fit in, some teams have bags and warm-ups and all that.
“And then the transportation is always an issue, too. You’ve got to be able to get out to the games. Some can be as far as an hour away, so if you don’t have the transportation or the money to pay to play, the opportunities really aren’t there for you.”
How is soccer perceived in African-American communities compared to basketball or football?
“I guess it’s looked at as a boring game. And that’s not even just in African-American communities. It goes across color lines, really.”
Does that relate to people in society today wanting instant action and goals, points, touchdowns on the scoreboard?
“In American society, that’s totally true. They like excitement. Soccer is an exciting game, yeah, but it’s like a strategic game more than anything.”
Do you think that’s a reason why it’s hard to attract kids who have never been involved with soccer?
“Totally, and even in the U.S. it doesn’t pay big bucks (in the professional leagues). But what people don’t understand is, you can go over to Europe and you can make just as much money if not more money than the average basketball or football player.
“And kids don’t see it on TV (here). You don’t really see too many black players on TV, so it’s not something that kids in an urban community can really relate to because they don’t see people who look like them playing the game.”
In the last three years, the Herman Trophy winner for best collegiate soccer player has gone to an African-American. Is there a way this can be used to promote the game in those communities?
“The U.S. has always had great African-American soccer players. So that doesn’t really tell me too much. If we can figure out a way to get into these urban communities and have more programs like DC SCORES that are able to expose kids to the game, then I think that’s where it will make a difference.
“Because I think a lot of the big-time players who are African-American or minorities have had the money to go places with teams, they’ve had the money to pay for their uniform and do all those things. We haven’t really tapped into the real urban community where basketball or football dominates.”
Can the upcoming World Cup be a beacon for creating popularity of soccer within African-American communities?
“I’m not sure. Thinking back to the 1994 World Cup that was here (in the United States) and even the Women’s World Cup that was here (in 1999), there was great hoopla around it and everybody was excited. And then a few years later, the women’s league folded.
“So I don’t know. Kids have to be exposed to the game first, be interested in it, because all that’s going to happen is the game might be on TV, but more than likely they’re going to flip by it because they have this negative perception of the game as being boring or a white-boy sport.”
What steps ultimately need to be taken to make African-America kids become passionate about soccer and even adults or parents who could get their kids interested?
“I think it’s definitely difficult because of how much in this country we love basketball and football and even baseball. The exposure to it is key, the more they understand the game.”
-- Kenny Owens is DC SCORES' Athletic Director