Today we have a guest blog from my friend Ellie, who was one of my favorite (see? using American spelling today for this post) people – we met doing our MAs in London, and bonded over discussions about the South and America. She volunteered to write about soccer in Alabama, and I am pleased to present this blog:
“Sports, having somehow become the medium through which Americans derive their strongest sense of community, have become the state where all the great moral issues have to be played out, often rough and ugly, right alongside the games.”
– Gary Smith, “Crime and Punishment,” Sports Illustrated
Ok, I totally stole that epigraph. I have just finished reading Alabama in the 20th Century, written by long-time Auburn historian Wayne Flynt. The book is broken into chapters by topic – politics, economics, education, African-Americans, women, the military, “folk and elite” culture, and, naturally, sports. The epigraph above comes from that chapter.
So I’ve been thinking about Southern history a lot lately, and with the World Cup on the tv and in the news, I’ve also been thinking about soccer. This is pretty much the one time the U.S. will pay attention to the sport on a national level until the next World Cup, so I’ve been thinking about my own experience with the sport. My interaction with the sport of soccer basically breaks down into three categories:
- my high school has always had a soccer team,
- my brother played soccer throughout his childhood and for our high school team, and
- I saw a soccer game once in London.
(Look, I live in America, ok? Cut me some slack. And yes, I’m just going to call it soccer.)
When I was a kid, I occasionally got stuck at my dad’s office for an afternoon. On one of these occasions, I found a pamphlet that announced itself as a twenty-fifth anniversary history of The Donoho School, founded in 1963. Donoho is the private school I attended for thirteen years, from preschool (K-4) all the way through my senior year of high school. The pamphlet was a nice little story about the founding of a school by parents who were concerned about their children’s education, and the struggle to fund it, and the people who supported it, and problems they faced, like dynamiting through the side of a mountain in order to build a soccer field.
In short, it was the kind of story that revisionist history was invented to tackle, as it said nothing whatsoever about the nature of race, class, white privilege, white flight, or the history of education in the South that led to the founding of Donoho as well as many other private schools across the nation in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision and the rest of the Civil Rights Movement. Or the Freedom Ride bus burning that actually took place in Anniston that probably accelerated the town’s desire to found said private schools.
Though I would often think back to that pamphlet during college and graduate school as I studied the South, at the time, I mostly took note of the story about dynamiting a soccer field.
Number one, dynamite! Number two, soccer?
As it turns out, in the South, soccer has been a mainstay of white private education for the past fifty years or so. The pamphlet on my high school’s first twenty-five years of history also contained descriptions of highly fraught battles between the school and its arch-soccer-rivals, Indian Springs and Altamont. Both also white flight schools, in the Birmingham area. So for the first ten or so years of my high school’s existence, they had no football team. But, according to this pamphlet, they had a soccer team that was the envy of the state. Well, the parts of the state that paid attention to soccer.
When I was in school, football was game that drew the big crowds, not soccer. Any other sport could pretty much expect a spotty home crowd of mostly parents and siblings, maybe some friends. Those people could be plenty enthusiastic: my father once almost got kicked out of a basketball game for shouting at the referee to “call the fucking foul!,” which my brother remembers with embarrassment and everyone else with glee.
Jimmy, who is seven years younger than I am, played basketball and soccer and one season of football during his high school career. I left to go to college when he was seven, so I didn’t see many of these games, but I do remember one conversation I had with him that year about playing a team from Fort Payne, Alabama. Mostly because he used the word “wetback” to describe players on the other team.
Now, Fort Payne, Alabama, bills itself as “the Sock Capital of the World.” No, I did not make that up. Fort Payne’s major economic engines are mostly textile mills, which have been a key part of Alabama’s economy for about a hundred and fifty years. Though U.S. textile production dropped drastically after NAFTA was passed in the 1990s, Fort Payne still houses some businesses relating to that industry. But many of the factories left, and those that remain have turned to a growing Hispanic population for cheap labor. According to the profile on Wikipedia
(I make no claims that this is totally accurate), the population of Fort Payne is 12% Hispanic. Which is pretty incredible in a state whose population is only 1.7% Hispanic. Alabama apparently ranks #43 out of 50 U.S. states for Hispanic population, whereas approximately 15% of the United States population is Hispanic, mostly concentrated in the states along the Mexican border. (This is really not the time or place to get into how “Hispanic” is defined, but I’m sure you can go look that up on your own.) This demographic group is also the fastest-growing by far in the U.S. Though the recent economic downturn has slowed immigration numbers, our Hispanic population still continues to climb.
So, Fort Payne high schools are likely to have a significant number of kids who really, really love soccer. Most of them are probably first or second generation immigrants to the U.S., and their presence on the soccer field that day prompted my brother’s “wetback” remark. Without getting into some kind of discussion about racism on a personal level, I think that remark is a way of registering a changing social landscape in both Alabama specifically and the U.S. as a whole. Obviously immigration is currently a major political pressure point, and it’s only exacerbated by difficult economic times. The way we regard Hispanic immigrants today is unfortunately not so different from the way America reacted to immigrants from southern and Eastern Europe in the first few decades of the twentieth century, or the Irish during the mid-nineteenth century, or really any group that isn’t white and Protestant. Prejudice, whether based on skin color, ethnic identity, religion, or class, is a powerful tool that persists into the present moment, and is often wielded to garner support for various political or economic ideas. And, to recall the epigraph with which I began this essay, sports are a way of registering how that prejudice plays out in the world.
I guess what I’m trying to get at is that for me, someone who grew up in Alabama in the last two decades of the twentieth century, soccer is largely a sport for skinny rich white kids. The perception is that it’s a sport for the kids who aren’t tough enough for, or whose mothers are too afraid of, football.
But our increasing Hispanic population raises local interest in the sport, from almost the exact opposite population in the social spectrum: low-income, ethnic, first or second generation immigrant families. If you look at the article on the World Cup from my hometown newspaper, you might note that the only people interviewed are Hispanic immigrants and Donoho School students.
The increasing attention paid to the World Cup registers, for a moment, the changing American landscape. I think we’re actually lucky that the worst reaction I’ve witnessed is a racial epithet, even though I’m sure much worse has been said or done in other places. Immigration isn’t going to decline anytime soon, and I’m pretty sure we’re going to have to figure out a way to live with that in America. Meanwhile, I imagine we’ll be playing a lot more soccer in Alabama.