Monday, September 12, 2016
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.