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Parents Blog

Susan Boyd blogs on every Monday. A dedicated mother and wife, Susan offers a truly unique perspective into the world of a "Soccer Mom." 
Opinions expressed on the US Youth Soccer Blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of US Youth Soccer.


On My Way

Susan Boyd

I love the ambiguity of this title. It could mean “farewell” or it could mean a reflection, as in “on my way, I saw a rainbow.” This will be my last blog. I have had the pleasure of observing, participating in, researching, and enjoying soccer for several decades, and I’ve had the opportunity to bring some of those experiences and discoveries to you for nearly 13 years. Along the way, I’ve interacted with amazing coaches (some who instructed my sons, but most who managed opposing teams), all of whom displayed a deep knowledge of the game, a passion for passing on that knowledge, and a desire to nurture every player they taught. I have met parents from around the world, on occasion needing to converse in pantomime and broken high school language skills, but we all shared a love of soccer that serves as the universal language. I remember meeting a group of parents at Dallas Cup several years ago from Trinidad-Tobago. It was their first time off the island, and they could not get over the expanse of mid-Texas, where one mother said she felt like she was flying she could see so far. Seeing the world through others’ eyes has given me fresh perspectives I would otherwise have missed. I have been continually impressed with officials at the games I attended, 99 percent of whom genuinely wanted to call a fair game and kept their cools despite cat-calls, threats and derision hurled at them on a regular basis. I have worked with a strong staff at US Youth Soccer, but I especially wanted to highlight Todd Roby, who discovered my articles posted on the Wisconsin Youth Soccer Association website and asked me to write nationally. He left US Youth Soccer this summer to take a new job. I count him more as a friend than as my boss. Before I say farewell, I also wanted to reflect on five things about youth soccer that I think are the most important lessons I have learned.

One) Soccer is a portal.

Beyond the obvious benefits of soccer in terms of fitness, developing friendships, learning how to work collaboratively, and acquiring leadership skills, soccer provides opportunities for families and players to share in a sport that is enjoyed around the world. If you take a ball to any open space in any country and begin to kick it around, you will soon attract a crowd. You may not be able to speak the language of the country, but all of you can speak the language of soccer. When Robbie went to do a study seminar in Kenya, he took along his soccer ball, and in every town and village he visited he played with kids as young as 4 and as old as 44. The pictures from this adventure are priceless. In many cases, the fields were overgrown and the ball was nearly invisible in the tall grasses, but it didn’t stop play. When we were in Israel sitting at an outdoor café, there was a soccer game being played in the town square in front of us. Suddenly, the call for prayers came out from a nearby mosque and play stopped. Several of the boys knelt down and prayed, while others stood patiently waiting. We only realized at that moment that the game was with a mixed group of Jewish and Moslem boys, a true moment of successful diplomacy in a world filled with suspicion and hate. Soccer is the language that bridges divides. Additionally, soccer can be the means to explore the world. Our children have the opportunities to play soccer internationally with trips organized by scores of tour groups. They don’t have to be expensive or exotic. My boys both played in an international Croatian tournament in Canada — only a 10 hour drive away — but with teams of Croatian players from around the world. The festive occasion included crafts, food and music from Croatia, giving us all a taste of country far across the earth. Using soccer as a means for learning about and experiencing more global contact makes it a sport that expands boundaries.

Two) Youth players do best when parents support them rather than direct them.

It begins with that first foray onto a field, when they are 5 or 6 and hesitate to participate. It’s intimidating for a child to see kids, many of them strangers, cavorting loudly around, with little understanding of what it all means. I’ve seen parents carry a screaming child out into the melee and dump them there in an attempt to get them to join in, and I’ve seen angry parents berating their child as they head to the car embarrassed that it was their kid who staged a tantrum. Then there are the parents who sit calmly on the sidelines with their children and let them watch and see what all this hubbub is about. They may end up doing it throughout an entire six-week session, but generally I’ve seen that most kids eventually can’t resist being part of the fun. That spirit of support should continue throughout the term of any child’s soccer life. One significant element of becoming a strong soccer player is the ability to develop a passion for the sport and then to be able to advocate for him or herself throughout the experience. Parents can’t force that on a child. In my family, we all hoped my grandchildren would become soccer players. I paid for lessons, took them to practices and attended games. Not a single grandchild is a soccer player. I provided the opportunity but if their uncles weren’t enough motivation to dive head first into the sport, there was little chance that my admonitions would have any impact. The greatest compliment my boys ever paid their father came after a particularly disappointing high school game. Many of the dads were walking with their sons expressing their frustrations and giving advice on how to be better next game. We passed one father who was bent over his son yelling and the boy was obviously upset and embarrassed. Robbie turned to his dad and said, “I’m glad you never tried to tell me how to play soccer.” And Bryce laughed and said, “Yeah I have enough trouble with my coach.” By the way, they never said that about me because, unfortunately, periodically I couldn’t help myself and gave advice, which was rarely welcomed!

Three) No matter who plays soccer, it can still be an entire family activity.

I don’t mean simply bringing the family to sit on the sidelines and cheer, although that’s always nice. I’m talking about involving everyone in the fun of soccer. When you go to games, let non-players select where to go for lunch or dinner afterward or where to grab a treat. On soccer trips, everyone should be involved in the planning. Checking out activities in the tournament city that the family can do in between games will add an extra special dimension to the event. Having each child select a movie or a game to play on the road trip gives them an investment in the experience. If you can afford it, offer to take friends of the non-players along so the kids can have company while the game is going on. At my grandson’s baseball game, his younger brother rotates wheels on a small board that keeps track of strikes, balls, outs and runs. He loves being an important part of the game his brother is playing. The parents ask him what the count or the score is, and he is delighted to tell them. Finding similar engagements creates an atmosphere where children don’t feel left out and siblings who play don’t become the sole center of attention. Make up a team roster and let a child keep track of substitutions and the score or let them create posters to encourage the team and show them off. Siblings can hand out snacks. Participating in soccer doesn’t have to be on the pitch.

Four) Soccer isn’t just learned during practice.

Kids need an immersion in a sport to develop not only a passion, but also a sense of validation for the sport they chose. Youth players often look up to the stars in their sport, take pride in wearing their jerseys, and cheer them on during televised games. For years, soccer in the United States languished in this area because there were so few media opportunities to watch matches. Now, however, kids can sit with the family and enjoy a game featuring their favorite player or team. Being able to watch top-level soccer players and matches will give youth players a boost in understanding the complexities of tactics and team formations. Likewise, kids can follow a particular player in order to scrutinize how he or she responds to a pass, moves off the ball, or creates space for him/herself or another player. Coaches can talk about how to do it, but watching it unfold at the highest level provides a significant tool for any soccer player. When a youth player can share a televised match with a parent, it gives strong validation for the choice of sport. Increasing passion for soccer comes from both feeling confident in a decision and in how one plays — confidence that can come from watching matches. As parents we can also foster the passion by taking our kids to see live soccer at the high school, college and professional level. Attending a game has an atmosphere of excitement and intimacy that kids participate in. And it ties into No. 3 above by involving as many or all of the family members in attending. Kids can get extra coaching, read books on the topic, and watch videos, but truly the time spent with their parents and their siblings sharing the sport will give them a special reason to focus on learning and improving.

Five) Enjoy the journey.

My sons played peewee, recreational, select, US Youth Soccer ODP, college and professional soccer. They had incredible opportunities, most of which they created and pursued on their own. Still, my greatest regret is that all too often I focused exclusively on the next step and didn’t just take the time to appreciate the moment. We parents can often find ourselves worrying more about whether a team is right for our kids or will be the best step up in their “career.” All of which underscores how important it is to relish the days as they unfold. Frequently, we parents find ourselves anxious when it comes to our children’s play, worrying about playing time, wins, ability to move up, and even things like procuring a college scholarship — all of which intrude on just gleefully concentrating on a match and wholeheartedly supporting our child. I will absolutely confirm that the times I let loose of expectations and just gave into the game were the best periods in my boys’ soccer lives, awarding me with far more lasting memories than any of any “plans” ever did. When I knew that Robbie had chosen going to medical school over playing professionally, I understood that once college was over, so too would be the time I could share in his activity. Having that knowledge released me from all my anxiety about “what happens next.” Instead, I dove into what I could do to make those four years special. I and a few other mothers provided dinner after every home game for the players, which gave us an extraordinary invitation after matches just to get to know the boys, laugh, and enjoy the community of players, parents and coaches. I realized those times when I let go of expectations and just immersed myself in the moment were things the boys and I remembered fondly. Ultimately, all my concerns about the boys “future” distracted from what I really should have been doing — being happy to share the journey with my sons. They controlled their destiny, and it was simply my job to support their decisions as best I could emotionally, financially and logistically (see No. 2). So I pass that epiphany on to you readers. Don’t be so concerned about getting your child moving along the trajectory to higher play that you fail to take time to savor what they are already doing.

I have so enjoyed this time writing the blogs, hearing from readers and keeping my finger on the pulse of soccer. I have been a soccer fan since I lived in Germany in the late 1960s, so I imagine it will always be a part of my life. However, now it’s time to pass the “pen” and for a new parent who is beginning the journey to carry on this conversation. Soccer is amazing. See you on the pitch.

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Throw Me a Line - I'll Tell You a Story

Susan Boyd

Lately I’ve been noticing the prevalence of the word “line” in my day to day life. These could be synonyms for stripe, quotation, queue, and instrument or could be words containing the word, “line.” In fact, there are 752 words in the English language that include the word line. Many of these are scientific terms like phosphatidylcholine or cholinesterase that I’m sure show up in my medications or my foods, but I’m totally unaware of their existence. However, others like “online” and “sideline” completely invade my experience and shape my actions and conversation. There are over 150 phrases centered around the word, “line.” Of course, once you notice something, it seems that’s all you notice, like neck tattoos on swimsuit models or how George Clooney’s eyes are uneven. Now that I’ve become aware of lines drawn everywhere, I can’t seem to look away. I’m amazed at how often lines figure so significantly in our lives in a way that actually define our environment. This is a youth soccer blog, so I’ll eventually get to how the terms impact us there, but to lay the groundwork, I need to talk about all the other “lines” in our lives.

Financially, lines figure in how we deal with our money. There’s the proverbial “bottom line” that either panics or delights us depending on how often we shopped on QVC that month. If we are short of funds, we may want to line our pockets, but that usually implies something illegal. When we’re dealing with a bad bottom line, we’ll want to bring our spending into line. If we can’t do that, we’ll probably find that we have to pay cash on the line rather than be extended credit. But as long as we hold the “financial” line (a sports metaphor I’ll bring up later) we might just improve our position enough to afford top of the line items. Should we buy on credit, then we’ll be expected to sign on the dotted line and meet payment deadlines.

As a writer I’m always concerned with my byline, redline edits, what my audience reads between the lines, and how I can lay some sweet lines down. I work from an outline in creating my plotline, and underline sections I want to revisit. As a mother I encourage my kids to drop a line of thanks for their birthday and holiday gifts. I want my children to toe the line, but that’s a difficult goal to achieve. They can be known to step out of line. I can draw multiple lines in the sand though they are generally unheeded on a regular basis. Therefore on occasion I have to draw battle lines which are much firmer than any line in the sand, an action which can elicit conflict where I have to take a hard line. If I encounter a sassy reply I may counter with “don’t hand me that line.” The older kids get the more gullible they believe their parents become, expecting us to swallow their excuses hook, line, and sinker. All of which means it’s harder to keep our kids in line since there’s no clear line of action. Somewhere along the line, our kids grow up and we find ourselves at the end of the line as far as raising them, but never at being their parents.

When it comes to sports, lines are everywhere. We can begin with the obvious ones sprayed in white on the pitch. There are touch/sidelines and end/goal lines which define the parameters of the field, although guidelines for the dimensions of a full-sized field are a variable 50 to 100 yards wide and 100 to 130 yards long (for international competition FIFA says lines should be 70 to 80 and 110 to 120 yards). A half-way line is drawn side to side across the middle of the pitch with an exact center spot surrounded by a center circle having a 10-yard radial line from the spot. On either end of the field extending out from the goal mouth is the six yard box framed by two six-yard lines drawn outward parallel to the sidelines and joined by a line parallel to the goal line. Surrounding the goal area is the 18-yard box. Two lines extend 18 yards outward parallel to the sidelines from spots located 18 yards from the left and right back goal posts on the end line. These two lines are joined by a line parallel to the goal line. There’s no blurring of the lines on the pitch all of which must be a consistent four to five inches thick.

Teams are made up of frontline attackers, midfielders, and defending linemen (or linewomen). The defense is expected to hold the line by not letting opponents dribble past. To begin the match, players line up alongside one another, then disperse as the ball is kicked to take up their various lines of attack or defense. To insure a good play, a teammate will put it all on the line but may also take the line of least resistance. Communication is key to any good strategy, but occasionally players will get their lines crossed. Offside occurs when someone gets ahead of the defensive line before the ball is struck, but many fans will argue there’s a fine line between infraction and legality especially when it involves a goal. In the line of duty, players may overstep the line of law and accept a penalty in order to thwart an attack. Defenders are expected to clear the line when a ball lands in their 18-yard box. When shot after shot fails to score, players and fans may believe that opponents are moving the goal line. Coaches will try to streamline the plays but ultimately circumstances dictate the lines of action.

Getting to games and tournaments requires dealing with timelines and intermittently with airlines. We’ll cross several state or even national borderlines on our travels. We may end up traveling from coastline to coastline, and once on the shoreline we may want to take a dip. In bigger cities we might negotiate the beltline surrounding the metropolis or take mainline streets. While our primary focus is on seeing our kids play, we can still take advantage of the views in the cities we visit by driving or climbing up a ridgeline to take in the skyline at sunset. Thank goodness we no longer have to depend on landline phones or we’d never find Starbucks on our journeys. An amenity on our trips is the over-the-bath clothesline, which we end up using to dry our swimsuits and those socks we rinsed out in the sink after two games in the mud. We can’t maintain our normal diets which means we have to really watch our waistlines (or not when Cincinnati Chili is so awesome!). We shouldn’t forget to check out the local newspapers especially if the team is doing well since the sports headlines might be about our kids on any given dateline during the event.

This has just been a baseline exploration of the many ways “line” inserts itself into our lives. Obviously it’s never this concentrated, but it can be pretty close, especially during a match. Somewhere along the line you’ll run into these. Now you won’t fail to notice them. You probably aren’t thanking me. That’s okay. I just needed to lay it all on the line.

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Hard Knocks

Susan Boyd

My son’s soccer coach argued regularly that soccer was “getting too soft.” He would proudly display his war wounds earned through years of battles on the pitch. “We never wore shin guards,” he’d proclaim whenever a kid would go down after a swift kick to the legs. “You need to be a man,” and he’d roll up his pants to reveal gouges, bumps, and scars riddling his massive shins. “That’s real soccer,” he’d declare. When discussions began about the effects of concussions, he dismissed the talk as too “touchy feely” and announced that no goalkeeper on his teams would ever wear a head guard. Bryce was a keeper. Part of the coach’s bravado was certainly a knee-jerk reaction to the prevalence of dual soccer and football players on his squads shuttling back and forth between practices and games for both sports. He wanted to sell soccer to those parents as a real man’s sport where players run non-stop for 45 minutes and have no protection, no oxygen, and no sideline cooling stations. Why should football players have any concerns over concussions when they wore helmets, neck supports, and padding? Soccer players hit heads all the time without benefit of any protection, avoiding any concern for concussion. For this coach, a concussion was less than a non-issue; it was a ridiculous distraction.

This week the NFL announced a $100 million campaign to address the issue of concussions among youth players. This initiative called the “Play Smart Play Safe” program will primarily be devoted to medical research to discover how concussions occur in players and in developing technology to create a safer environment for players. Included in the program will be a push to help youth coaches learn the latest techniques for protecting players from concussions through safer on-field tactics and proper equipment use. The hope is any results will translate into policies and materials for adults as well as for other youth sports. Likewise there will be a strong move towards evaluating players with strict concussion protocols for any hard contact involving the head. Part of this push is to help assure parents that football is safe for their children to play. Participation has dropped in the last few years with even ex-pro players saying they wouldn’t allow their own children to compete. But a more important aspect isn’t so self-serving; they want to make the sport as safe as possible for everyone who plays because that’s the right thing to do.

I can just imagine how my son’s coach would react to this news. $100 million would go a long way to improving soccer exposure and facilities in America. I’m sure he’d rather see people contributing to promote the sport that he grew up playing in Serbia and that most children around the world play on a regular basis. The NFL is a billion dollar industry who has every reason to want to keep their sport front and center in America’s attention. The seven most watched programs in U.S. television history are the last seven Super Bowls. The income generated from each event ($620 million) is higher than the GNP of nine countries. Therefore, donating $100 million towards a project to improve concussion rates in youth players is truly a very small percentage of the NFL’s budget. Nevertheless, there are plenty of researchers on the topic who are grateful for the monetary support of their studies. The emphasis seems to be on finding a technological answer to preventing concussions – better helmets, more neck support, impact sensors, and scientific tools to assess possible concussion. My son’s coach would definitely not favor that approach, and he is not alone. There are many critics who argue that depending on science to relieve concussions gives players and coaches a false sense of protection. They believe the emphasis should be on education that addresses three areas: improved coaching techniques, alerting parents, coaches, and officials to the symptoms of concussion, and providing trained concussion evaluators at every practice, game, and tournament.

How common are concussions in youth players? A fairly significant number of players suffer concussions, although most recover sufficiently to return to playing after a few days of rest. The five sports recording the most concussions from highest number to lower are bicycling, football, baseball, playground activities, and soccer. There are 1.6 to 3.8 million sports- and recreation-related concussions reported in the United States, although most don’t require a hospital or doctor visit. However 6% of the annual emergency room visits annually for children 5-8 years of age during 2001-2005 were due to concussions (135,000 annually). In soccer the rate of concussions among female youth players was 68% higher than among males and in basketball their rate was 268% higher. Among high school athletes during the 2008-09 school year there were 400,000 concussions. The greatest percentage of injuries in youth sports occur during practices (62%). Emergency room visits for concussions sustained during organized team sports doubled for 8 to 13 year olds from 1997-2007 and nearly tripled for older youth players. High school athletic trainers testified that nearly 15% of all sports-related injuries reported to them were concussions. History of injury is a risk factor for future re-injury, which speaks directly to the critical need for education, prevention techniques and equipment.

Since sports-related concussions don’t play favorites and seem to affect youth players at a significant rate, occasionally even higher than that among adults, it might be useful going forward to form partnerships among youth sports organizations and their adult governing agencies to address this issue. Certainly what the NFL is doing will benefit more than just young football players because these results will be applicable across several sports platforms. However, imagine how much more research could be done that specifically targets the dangers concussions hold for youth players if there was a joint effort with MLS, US Soccer, NBA, World Rugby, FIFA, and other national and international sports organizations. Donating what funds they could add to NFL’s contribution could give a concerted push to identifying causes of and creating preventive solutions for concussions that would benefit more than just youth players. While equipment innovations aren’t in the picture for sports like soccer and basketball, they certainly would be important for bicycling, football, and the playground. Additionally research might reveal how better playing surfaces could help prevent concussion, which would benefit every sport.

Concussions gained national attention through NFL players suffering severe mental deterioration, so the spotlight was focused on football. Now that medical researchers have access to the brains of deceased players so they can study how concussions change the brain, their findings won’t just impact football. Likewise, serious explorations of how to prevent youth concussions through better coaching techniques and playing guidelines in youth football will help all youth players. US Soccer has already mandated that players who are 10-years-old and under shouldn’t be heading the ball. When he heard this, my son thought the policy was ridiculous. “How will they build up their neck muscles to handle headers if they don’t train for them regularly?” His point of view was probably the result of some lingering influence from his tough coach. However, when I explained the science behind the decision (Kids’ brains are smaller in their brain cavities, so they rattle around more.), he understood the requirement. That scientific insight came from research. More is needed. Finding funding should be a top priority which would greatly benefit from a joint effort.

Deciding the thrust of the research will be more difficult. The NFL wants to focus on equipment; soccer would probably want to focus on preventive training techniques. Therefore, a partnership may be unworkable, even if it would be far more impactful by creating deep financial pockets for research. Nevertheless, I would expect that any discoveries however funded and by whom will benefit all youth sports.

What can we, as parents, do to reduce the possibility of a concussion for our child? At a minimum, we should never take a head injury lightly. If a child gets hit in the head even if he or she doesn’t black out or even wobble, that player should be removed from the game to be assessed. I sadly watched a football game in which a player received a blow to the head. He ran off the field on his own power and exhibited little effect from the hit. He sat on the bench for about a minute and then suddenly collapsed to the ground. He was rushed to the hospital and got treatment, but ended up being debilitated by the bleed in his brain for the rest of his life. On some occasions a bleed can be slow and symptoms only show up as much as an hour later. Therefore, no child should return to play that game, even though the “tough guy” standard says he or she should suck it up and get back in there. Every adult should be trained in concussion protocol. It’s available online on dozens of sites. Here’s the form physicians use to do a pre-evaluation to set a baseline for a player and then a check list that should be gone through after any head injury ( The NFL offers an even more extensive form which includes questions to ask the player to help assess his or her mental status ( I’d suggest that these forms be accessible to coaches at every practice and game. As a parent, you can stuff some copies in your bag and in your child’s soccer bag. When in doubt make a doctor’s visit. Know the symptoms of a concussion since these may not appear immediately. Obviously dizziness would be a strong signal, but vomiting, drowsiness, slurred speech, and confusion are serious indicators that the brain has been injured. Having a baseline study on file with your family physician will help your doctor assess the level of change and seriousness when considering a concussion. No one should rush back to playing. Guidelines say that any loss of consciousness, even for a few seconds, dictates three to five days away from any activity. If the blackout lasted longer, a longer period of rest may be necessary. Don’t minimize symptoms when a child presents concerns. Consider the level of change in a child’s alertness, acuity, and pain (headaches and neck pain in particular).

I applaud the NFL for its initiative and can look past any self-serving aspects of their investment because any study in reducing concussions among youth players is a step in the right direction. There are head gears for soccer players, but these are not widely accepted as they don’t fit into the image of a standard soccer player. There are also head rings that look a bit like ear muffs but again are regarded as “geeky” looking. Should more professional players start wearing the gear, they would be more acceptable to youth players. Until then the best line of protection is the coach who can promote a safe playing environment and will teach proper techniques for headers, tackles, and player to player contact. Since most concussions occur during practice, it’s important that coaches regulate the tempo and intensity to insure safety. A game actually has a more controlled environment because the teams are moving in expected directions and have singular jobs, whereas in a practice, there are lots of kids on the pitch often doing different drills in different areas which the coach can’t completely oversee. Finally, keep your cell phone charged to call 911 if necessary and know the actual address of the field since sometimes fields are difficult for emergency workers to locate. Most concussions will be transient and not impede a player from returning to the pitch after a proper period of rest, but repeated concussions can put the player’s brain at risk, so whatever we can do to understand how to assess, treat, and, importantly, prevent concussion will make youth sports all the more enjoyable.

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Much Ado About Something

Susan Boyd

Various sports periodically use their public platform to highlight social injustices. Leagues, teams, coaches, and players may speak out collectively or individually when they perceive an issue that requires attention. In 2005 after a particularly ugly year for racial incidents on pitches across Europe, French soccer player Thierry Henry began the Stand Up Speak Up campaign in conjunction with Nike, who produced wristbands to both advertise and support the movement. Since that time, racial incidents on the pitch seem to have dropped from that peak, but are still prevalent throughout Europe including clubs who refuse to recruit and sign black players, taunting of players, attacks on players both on and off the pitch, and general hooliganism sparked by racial prejudice. While the protest was well-meaning and broadly supported, the overall impact wasn’t as productive as one would hope based on the exposure the situation received. Nevertheless, many sports analysts, political pundits, and world leaders joined in, praising how the movement had sparked a serious discussion of race in sports. Sound familiar? Though not as controversial as Colin Kaepernick’s refusing to stand during the national anthem, both Henry and Kaepernick were attempting to highlight how minorities experience racism daily and to energize a discussion.

Kaepernick’s protest has been greeted with mixed reactions. While many people acknowledge that there are racial issues that require our attention, fans are split on whether or not his methods were the best way to go about it.  Unfortunately while Colin was hoping to cast light on unjust treatment of minorities and police brutality against African Americans, the discussion seemed to focus solely on his patriotism. While some athletes have joined the movement, most notably Megan Rapinoe in soccer, Stephen Curry in basketball, and even President Obama, who defended his right to protest, the question remains if this is support for his cause or for his right to protest. An important indicator of the support for Kaepernick has come in the record sales of his jersey. To his credit he announced that he would donate all of his profits from those sales back to the community and thanked fans for their support. As we look at these two crusades separated by a decade, we should take note of two facts: (1) sports and race are significantly intertwined and (2) the topic remains in need of exposure.

How do we begin a conversation about race? So often our attitudes spring from our own experiences making it difficult to empathize with the life events of others.  We depend on anecdotal evidence from our lives to make arguments for or against the truth of racial injustice, which makes conversation difficult. But there is also data to support Henry’s and Kaepernick’s concerns.  When Henry’s home country of France won the World Cup, there was a surge of French politicians who called the national team “unworthy” of the victory because most of the players weren’t white. A 2016 European Network Against Racism report highlighted among their facts that people of African descent had unemployment rates from two times higher (UK) to five times higher (Finland) than the rest of their countrymen. Records on U.S. public high school graduation rates shows a tremendous gap: Whites have an 89% rate, Hispanics a 73% rates, and blacks only a 69% rate. Theories abound as to why these discrepancies occur to include unemployment, single-parent families, poor nutrition, and lack of role models. However, the facts are still the facts. We need discussion on how to solve these problems, which is Kaepernick’s point. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center Study, black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men. The study also noted that “fewer than half of all Americans (45%) said the country has made substantial progress toward racial equality, and 49% said “a lot more” remains to be done”. That indicates that many people recognize that racial issues are far from resolved, and they are amenable to conversations on race.

How does this relate to youth soccer? Things trickle down. Kids learn opinions from older kids and adults that they then ascribe to and repeat without testing the validity or rationale for such opinions. Racially charged comments can be expressed at just about any age depending on how much kids are exposed to such language either from home, school, or the media. We also live in an anonymous age online where people express some really ugly personal attacks hiding behind a faceless and shadowy screen name. Our children have been both victims and perpetrators of these attacks, and their experience can spill over to outbursts and attitudes on the field. While a national conversation on race would be exciting and possibly productive, what really matters are the smaller, more intimate conversations we have with our kids, neighbors, and friends. We should encourage our children to express how racial situations have impacted them and how they handled them. No matter what race our children are, they all need to think about their place in the world. How will they react if they are attacked for their race or if they overhear someone attacking a teammate? What do they feel is appropriate language concerning race? What are our attitudes about race? If we don’t have much experience with other ethnicities and cultures, how might we achieve a better understanding? What stereotypes do we hold about all races?  Are we tipping the scales too far in political correctness? Kids want to talk about these things, but they may not have the opportunity in school due to instructional constraints. Teachers may worry that if they initiate or encourage a discussion on race, they will be singled out for saying the wrong things. They may not feel equipped to talk about race. Therefore, kids are left with a variety of news stories, movies, music, and sports, which may influence their experiences with racial issues, yet they have no responsible sounding board to sort out these stimuli and feelings.

When Thierry Henry came out with his Stand Up Speak Up campaign, I remember that the wristbands were a prized fashion statement on the soccer pitch. Even today the wristbands are available on eBay. However, the reason for the statement printed on the band was often ignored then and awareness hasn’t increased in the intervening years. Even as kids sported the strap, they had little idea of what it actually represented. In Europe the reasons were clearer since the continent had witnessed several incidents including beer bottles hitting players and bananas being thrown on the pitch with racial taunts. But in the United States those episodes weren’t on the radar for young soccer players. Rather, it was Thierry Henry who was a soccer icon that prompted kids to want to own and wear the wristband. Instead of a social issue, the campaign ended up being an exercise in coolness. I’m concerned that Kaepernick’s stance will likewise be drowned in the rush of young players wanting to sport his jersey for the sake of being coolly attached to the player, not to his cause. As parents, we can have an important role in directing our children’s attention to the issues even as we acquiesce to their wish to have the jersey.  

Talking about race doesn’t mean we all have to have the same outlook or agenda. As the mother of two African American/Hispanic sons I know firsthand some of the difficulties that exist for minority children. I also understand that like me other people come to these situations with their own moral, religious, and political histories that will shape their points of view. We need to hear all of those voices, but more importantly, our kids to need to hear our voice. This weekend the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of African American History opened in Washington, D.C. Visiting institutions like that or a Mexican street festival or a Caribbean music concert with our children can be a way to jump start not only some insight to other cultural histories and populations, but also open the door to talking with our children about the variety of ethnicities and religions that exist in America. Considering the recent concerns over refugees and national safety, I’m certain our children have questions that we can answer. No matter where we stand on the issues, we owe it to our kids to be transparent about our views so they can begin to discover their own way of dealing with the racial matters they encounter at school, among friends, and on the field.

This is why we need to narrow down the conversation to encounters our kids understand and have personally experienced. Even as they hear about Colin Kaepernick’s protest, they probably don’t have the context in which to understand it. However, relating his action to episodes from their own lives will give our kids the basis on which to begin an important discussion, not only with us but also with their friends and teammates. There are certain topics that we should take the lead on – money management, birds and bees, religion, and race. We can’t expect our schools to be handling them because each of these has a very personal quality centered on our own morals, beliefs, and lifestyle. Therefore, we need to initiate the conversation and then be good listeners and guides. Using Kaepernick as a portal to begin the talk seems like a great way to start on a serious and significant examination.

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