Race-based Rosters? FTW?

Dear Mr. Jones,

I hope you’ll pardon my ineloquence in this open letter. I’m too stunned to write at my best level. But, I have to ask: what in the mother-loving hell?

To be honest, I’m not sure where to begin. Perhaps I’ll start with the simple fact that I am absolutely shocked and appalled that someone writing for a credible, 21st century publication would have the stones to posit what you did. For those who have not read the article: you assert that for our men’s team to arrive on soccer’s elite plane, it must have a greater depth of Black athletes. You state that “seven of the nine most impactful and interesting players on the U.S. soccer team being black (Howard, Altidore, DeAndre Yedlin, Julian Green, Jermaine Jones and DaMarcus Beasley).” As a solution to America’s supposed costly dearth of Black players, you tell your readers “that soccer must somehow germinate an urban black presence in this country is it so far does not have in the slightest.” Hey. I get it. I played a lot of soccer when I was younger, and I love watching the game. I would have loved for our guys to advance, too. However, I cannot believe that one would openly promote a “solution” rife with such ignorance and bigotry; within it, insults to all races and athletes fester, ready to infect your readers with hurtful prejudices. You should be ashamed.

In the second bullet point of your article, you wrote:

Among the emails I got after the 2-2 tie with Portugal was one that I dismissed rather thoughtlessly. The writer had suggested we could be more consistently competitive in world-level soccer if our best athletes played the game. The guy mentioned LeSean McCoy and some other NFL and NBA players…

But I missed the man’s point. It took me until the Belgium game before I saw it. He was right.

Specifically, if we had our most athletic young African-Americans playing soccer, what would our team look like late in games and in the knockout stage of World Cup tournaments?

You don’t explicitly say it yourself, trying to subtly pass it off as just the content of someoneĀ else’s communique, but you are absolutely making a race-based claim about exploiting genetic make-up for the sake of a title. You recommend that we fill our rosters with the best Black athletes from any sport without regard to their skill at the actual game of focus, with the intent of being able to push our team closer to trophies.

Further, you attempt to share your initial Righteously Indignant Response to this individual’s thought: “My kneejerk reaction was: What, are you kidding? We have guys running marathons out there. Our USA Soccer members along with possibly the elite MMA fighters are the best conditioned people we have in this country.”

I may be taking a cynical line here, and I would like to give you the benefit of the doubt, but I’m forced to wonder if this is an attempt to stave off any anticipated backlash at your newly adopted stance of roster-stuffing. I hope not, as that would indicate that you are, in fact, aware of how hurtful your perspective is. If I am wrong, there is still the matter of you still missing the point entirely, which you yourself admit. Instead of seeing as an issue of racial bias, you see it as a matter of conditioning. Your initial reaction was rooted in the view that we already have incredibly fit men taking the field, thus rendering the addition of Black athletes from other sports moot. Ultimately, the fact that you didn’t immediately see the prejudice dripping from the statement is a huge problem in and of itself.

Another manner in which you’ve taken our 2014 World Cup run and majorly FUBAR-ed is your rampant, and disturbing, invocation of minstrelsy. To be plain, the subtext of your scheme is to recruit Black men and exhort them to perform for us. Entertain us with exciting play. Gain international fame and glory for us. Use the supposed genetic advantage to win us championships that apparently are out of our reach otherwise. Do it all. ForĀ us. After all, we’re granting them the title of Physically Superior: the least that we should get out of it, is, well, everything else. Don’t worry. We’ll give lip service where it’s due. Or something. You do realize that you are fantastic at Othering, don’t you?

How disrespectful is it to say that we should rob Black men, or any other group, of their agency, and demand that they play solely for our gain? How shameful is it to submit that no white guys or Hispanic guys or any other guys can get the important stuff, i.e., the win, so we’re going to take cues from our darkest days and dehumanize Black men, idolizing them as mere caricatures and using them as tools to achieve our desires? Some will respond that these questions are going to an extreme, but I suggest that they are, in fact, the logical progression of the theory of racial superiority in sports. By urging urban springs of soccer talent for the goal of winning international tourneys, you are saying that we need to funnel kids into an activity that may not be their favorite. Why not urge those same springs for kids’ well-being? Their health and fitness? Their, dare I say it, enjoyment? No, according to your column, it has to be based in our need for the Big Win, not for anything a Black child might want.

Also egregious, you write the following: “When I look at the rosters of the world’s teams, regardless of continent, what I see are elite black athletes nearly everywhere and in important positions. That includes the Americans’ last two opponents, Belgium and Germany.” To address this particular point, let’s shift for a second and look at our women’s national team. Since the inaugural women’s World Cup in 1991, Team USA has placed in the top three in every single tournament: third place three times, second one time, and champions two times. Additionally, they have played in the Olympic women’s soccer tournament since the sport’s 1996 introduction to the Games. They were silver medalists once. Gold every other time. And the rosters? They have never been strategically packed with Black athletes, with white women “nearly everywhere” on the field of play. You, sir, are either unaware of or purposely ignoring the very clear composition of one of our best teams fielded yet; their glorious history defies your prejudicial paradigm, showing that a successful dynasty on the international level is based on the skill of the team, not the racial identity of its players.

I am further gobsmacked that you have equated high fitness levels to success in soccer. You state that you initially objected to the email you received because our guys are “running marathons out there.” In truth, you may be more accurate on this point than you know; Michael Bradley has been tracked as running 23.6 miles during group play alone. But then you changed your mind, presumably because Black men in other sports, namely basketball and American football, are apparently our best athletes. I’m surprised that a sports journalist would take such an absurd view; as one who reports on sports for a living, wouldn’t you be fully cognizant of the wide variety of training and skills necessary to win in different disciplines?

To wit: football players, while needing a degree of endurance to last the length of a physically demanding game, spend a great deal of time developing their fast-twitch muscles. These are the muscles necessary for the explosive movement off the line, used to power their rush on the quarterback or fast break down the field for the incredible reception. Soccer players, on the other hand, do sprint, but they typically run about seven miles if playing the whole game. That requires emphasis on slow-twitch muscles.

And those skills? Ball-handling in basketball and soccer are two very different abilities. Top tier ability in one does not guarantee ability in the other. Agility with hands does not necessarily equal agility with feet. Don’t forget sport-specific mental acumen–experience within a sport helps develop an athlete’s ability to “read” what’s going on. E.g., LeBron or Kobe may be expert at slicing through the other team’s defense (to be honest, I’m not really sure if they actually are, as I don’t follow the NBA), but are they able to translate their deconstruction of five opponents on a smaller court to the dismantling of eleven opponents on a much larger field? Without having spent time in a sport’s environment, surprise and discomposure are going to undo even the finest athlete’s game. In the end, raw talent almost never outdoes years of training, as moves and strategy become second nature. Bless their basketball cred, but Lebron and Kobe would be schooled by the likes of Dempsey and Donovan. And that has nothing to do with the color of anyone’s skin, but everything to do with their significant commitment to the sports that they love. Shame on you for suggesting that a player’s years of personal investment would have nothing to do with his or her ability to play.

Last, your proposition simplifies and distorts the intersection of race and sports. Those seven players you mentioned? You have committed an error akin to Jon Entine, who, according to Paul Achter and Celeste Condit, concedes “Tiger Woods’s multiracial origins but then lumps him back into a mythical racial group called ‘blacks.'” Your seven “most impactful and interesting players?” Before you make blanket assumptions about darker complected individuals, you ought to do your research because a number of the men on the team, as well as on the U.S. junior national team, are of mixed heritage, including Howard, Jones, and Yedlin. And while we’re on it, despite his crucial goal versus Ghana, is John Brooks not “impactful and interesting” enough to be included on this list? Or does his mixed-race heritage disqualify him? Maybe he’s not “Black enough” for you? I’m just wondering.

How appropriate is it for you to ignore the rest of these athletes’ ethnic backgrounds, simply because they don’t fit the within confines of your recommendation? Personally, I don’t know the soccer players’ feelings on the issue, but I know that for my biracial nieces and nephews, understanding and celebrating all parts of their history, Caucasian and Asian alike, is critical to knowing who they are. My brother and sister-in-law incorporate traditions significant to both families. All four of the children are very physically active, gifted in dance, soccer, and running, and the oldest just completed his first triathlon. The kids and the adult multiracial athletes have this in common– none is just one race or the other; each individual’s existence is more nuanced than that, and inherited genes grant far more than just the presence or absence of athletic ability.

If it’s not clear, Mr. Jones, I am sorely disappointed in you. Though you may have couched your view in a “Rah, Rah, Go America!” mindset, you have perpetuated a dangerous and grievous stereotype that injures people of all races. Consciously or not, you are participating in a perspective that has historically placed Blacks in the “Physically Superior, But Mentally Inferior” box. As someone writing in and making his living via the public media, you have done further damage by tacitly giving the green light to some of your readers who may wish propagate biases that have no place in American society. Through your very public example, you have implicitly shown that it is perfectly permissible to use people based on their race for ends that may not even be their own. This is severely not okay, as you have, in effect, dehumanized an entire group of people. As of now, please count yourself among those who need to truly examine their hearts and decide what interpersonal perspectives you actually hold. Make yourself accountable. I deeply hope that you will assess yourself honestly and come to see what a grave disservice you have done. To everyone.

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