On Friday, the heroes of the U.S. Women’s National Team will get a parade in New York City to celebrate their amazing World Cup victory over Japan–a major milestone for women’s sports and for U.S. soccer in general. But as stars like Carli Lloyd, Abby Wambach, and Hope Solo are showered with ticker tape on the streets of the most diverse city in the nation, the line-up of players will look glaringly white by comparison.
Soccer is the most popular, universal sport in the world, largely because it can be played anywhere, with no equipment (you can even fashion a makeshift ball out of anything from tape to rolled up socks). But in the United States, it’s less the sport of the streets, and has long been associated with the largely white suburbs, as symbolized by the infamous soccer mom archetype. For talented kids who want to move to higher levels of the game–to be recruited for college scholarships or professional teams–their parents must pay thousands of dollars in private tournament fees and shuttle them to games that are long drives or even plane rides away. This is a very different set-up than the club development systems many European teams use–where talented young players sign with and are supported by teams instead of going to high school and college–and it’s certainly not a recipe for diversity at the elite levels.
“It’s very much a pay-to-play model,” says Angela Hucles, a retired midfielder who won two Olympic Gold medals. During her time on the U.S. National Team from 2002 to 2009, she was one of only one to three players of color on her teams, she says–a situation that’s about the same on the U.S. team today. In high school, she attended Norfolk Academy, an elite private school in Virginia, and she counts her involved parents as a major reason for her success.
“I think it’s a problem not just higher up, but everywhere. If we’re starting out without a whole lot of diversity, we’re definitely not going to see a lot at the top. There’s a large drop-off at around high school age,” Hucles, who is also president of the Women’s Sports Foundation, says.
Doug Andreassen, the volunteer chairperson of the U.S. Soccer Federation’s 17-person diversity task force, is similarly dissatisfied with the status quo. He believes it’s time that the soccer governing body–which oversees both amateur and professional leagues–devote more resources to increasing diversity and lifting up underserved communities. Unlike many other sports leagues, he says, U.S. Soccer has no paid staff focused on improving diversity in the sport, other than a staff liaison for the committee that also has other responsibilities. The U.S. Tennis Association lists a six-person diversity team, for comparison.
“It’s just not taken seriously enough,” he says. “Families that can afford to have their kids involved in sports at a high level, their kids get seen. In many underserved or emerging communities, those kids don’t have the ability to be seen on a regional or national level.”
Diversity is better in high-level men’s soccer, but not by leaps and bounds. Andreassen says one reason is that girls are often discouraged from playing in Hispanic immigrant communities where soccer is popular with boys. In 2009-2010, 75% of Division I, II, and II men’s soccer players were identified as non-Hispanic white, while 85% of women’s players were, according to the NCAA. And globally, women’s soccer still has a long way to go. Many countries have not supported robust women’s soccer programs, with the U.S among a few countries leading the way–aided by Title IX, the 1972 law that banned the gender discrimination in sports programs that receive federal money.
All of that said, the face of soccer is starting to change. Soccer is becoming a more popular sport in the United States, and that’s trickling down to urban areas. That also makes the imperative of expanding access to the game in the U.S. more important, especially to recruit the best possible players to compete against the world.
The road to change requires better financial support for underserved communities and alternative networks for recruiting. Today, for example, the Women’s Sports Foundation offers the Sports 4 Life, a grant program for schools that serve girls of color, while the U.S. Soccer Foundation, the charitable arm of the U.S. Soccer, has indeed given out $100 million since 1994 in grants benefiting underserved communities. Meanwhile, Andreassen’s diversity task force has proposed to U.S. Soccer setting up a national training program and network that connects urban leaders–such as a pastor at a church–who want to set-up organized soccer programs in their communities with coaches, recruiters, and other soccer professionals who can help.
“If kids aren’t seeing it in their own neighborhoods and communities,” says Hucles, “they are not going to necessarily relate when they see it on television.”