U.S. soccer diversity a work in progress
The profile of African-Americans in soccer has never been higher, but to those committed to both the game and diversity, it's still not high enough.
Yes, the U.S. men's national team is probably more diverse than it has ever been.
Yes, the Division I men's participation rate for African-American players is at an all-time high.
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And it's worth noting that the past three M.A.C. Hermann Trophy winners have been black, more than doubling the number of black players to previously receive the game's highest college award. (The 2007 winner, O'Brian White, is Jamaican by way of Canada.)
"There's no question that there's an improvement in the number of African-American players playing soccer," said Hylton Dayes, University of Cincinnati men's soccer coach and a former chair of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America's Black Soccer Coaches Committee. "That [progress] manifests itself in the Hermann Trophy candidates and Hermann Trophy winners. So you can see that happening, but we also need to be cognizant that there's a lot of work that still needs to be done. The majority of the good African-American athletes aren't drawn to soccer."
That's mainly because -- despite the fact that the game has grown rapidly in the United States over the past couple of decades -- it still largely fails to resonate with the African-American community.
"Soccer still is very much a white middle- to upper-middle-class sport," said Mike Curry, chair of the NSCAA's diversity committee of the game in the United States.
It might seem like a blunt statement, but it's also true. The United States is probably the only country in the world in which the cost to participate in soccer increases as a player improves. The youth system in this country is generally built around playing for a club program -- which often comes with a substantial price tag.
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Many youth clubs offer financial-aid scholarships, but these few scholarships target only the most elite players, leaving the good-to-average players whose parents can't afford the club fees and tournament travel costs unable to participate. Programs such as the Urban Soccer Collaborative and America SCORES have been created to bring soccer at low and no cost to inner cities. However, they represent just a handful of soccer teams nationwide.
While the socioeconomic aspect doesn't solely impact the African-American community, it's just one of a number of barriers to participation. Unlike the Hispanic community, the black community in the United States lacks a culturally ingrained passion for soccer. So it becomes a matter of trying to establish one.
"We need to change an entire mindset, especially in the inner cities," said Al Albert, the past president of the NSCAA and a former college coach. "It's possible to change, but it's definitely not an overnight fix. … It's not just a talent-development thing, where we can pick the best two kids and put them in a youth program on scholarship. But it's [important] to make them realize how great a sport this is."
A big part of that is having role models who reflect the community.
In that regard, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb and others have been more relatable than, say, L.A. Galaxy star Landon Donovan. But Albert said he believes the exposure soccer is getting from the upcoming World Cup, as well as from more televised MLS and Champions League games, will introduce a more diverse sampling of players to communities that haven't had much access to the sport. As Albert put it, "Now kids do see people that look like them playing soccer."
But it's not just about changing the culture for those who aren't yet involved in the game or solely at the grass-roots level; the culture of U.S. soccer itself needs to change as well. Although there's far more diversity among coaches and players, Curry points out that "when you look at the groups responsible for soccer in the U.S., there really is not diversity there."
Acknowledging this shortfall is one thing, Curry said, but diversity isn't just about meeting some kind of a representative quota. The focus should be on assembling a group of different voices that can best represent the population soccer wants to serve.
"Is the game better than when we first started talking about diversity and inclusion? No question," Curry said. "But is it good enough? Is it sustainable? There is where I would have to swallow hard and say, 'I'm not so sure.' … It's going to take a collective commitment of the soccer community to accept where we are and where we need to be."
Curry is quick to point out, though, that he truly believes steps to take the game where it needs to be in terms of diversity -- as well as success on the field -- can be made. And his faith in that ability to progress is shared by others.
"It's all about shining a light on these things that can continue to move forward," Dayes said. "Having three Hermann Trophy winners in the last three years, I think that's good. It shows at that level there are quality players. A lot's happened, and a lot of progress has been made. We want to keep moving toward where [soccer within the African-American community reaches such a level that the need to focus on it] becomes an afterthought."
Soccer in the United States might not be there yet, but soccer is a game of two halves. And there's still time left.
Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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