The Problem of Soccer in the US
The edict from my daughter’s soccer team manager arrived Monday morning: A state cup match had been rescheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday in Vancouver, Wash., a two-and-a-half hour drive from our home in Seattle. Families were expected to travel and check into a hotel Saturday night. Players were required to appear at a breakfast and pregame strategy session with the coach at 9 a.m. on Sunday.
Did I mention that my daughter and her teammates are just 10 years old?
The embedded presumptions here — that our family can afford a last-minute hotel stay, that we own a reliable vehicle with gas to burn, that the grown ups in the household don’t work weekends, that a sudden change of plans won’t adversely affect our other children, and that it is reasonable for a group of adults to direct so much time and money toward a single soccer match for fifth graders — is business as usual in the world of hyper-competitive youth soccer.
With an 11-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter who also play, my husband and I have served as lackeys of the youth soccer machine for nearly five years. Soccer consumes our adult lives, which I find infuriating and exhausting, but we make the sacrifice because our children passionately love the sport. Through soccer, they’ve gained confidence, fitness, discipline and skill, but the truth is, if my husband and I weren’t blessed with financial resources and flexible, professional jobs, competitive play just wouldn’t be an option for them.
In the book “Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race and Family Life,” a middle-class soccer dad tells Annette Lareau, a sociologist, that there is “something arrogant about soccer” and the demands it makes on parents’ time. “What if you worked a job that paid an hourly wage?” he asks.
I’ve been pondering that same question ever since our family relocated from Silicon Valley to Seattle last year. With this move, we shifted away from a homogenous suburban lifestyle, settling instead into one of Seattle’s oldest neighborhoods, attracted by its racial, ethnic, and economic diversity. Our two younger children were adopted from Ethiopia and our eldest from India, and we love that our new home offers access to black barbershops, good Ethiopian food, Asian bakeries and other amenities important to our multiracial family.
Unfortunately, what our diverse neighborhood does not offer in abundance is soccer teammates and carpool buddies.
My children joined a soccer club with an all-city draw, and we’ve discovered that the majority of the club’s players hail from Seattle’s whiter and wealthier neighborhoods. Most soccer fields are found in those locales as well, so for us, practice is often a 30-minute drive away. With three kids and limited carpool options, my husband and I, and often a babysitter as well, spend all our weekday evenings in the car schlepping kids in different directions. Fellow soccer parents have even suggested that we sell the house we’ve owned for less than a year and buy another closer to the fields.
Outside the United States, soccer is a working-class sport. The game requires no special equipment: Children can fashion a ball out of rags, throw down shoes as goal markers and happily play barefoot in the street. Pelé, perhaps the greatest futboller of all time, learned the game exactly this way, in a Brazilian slum, before being recruited for an elite team as an adolescent, as did Marta, the most celebrated international women’s star. In contrast, our club charges $2,200 per child per year, and that doesn’t encompass hundreds of dollars in required uniforms and gear, or in-and-out-of-state travel expenses. Fees in other urban areas run even higher.
Sociologist Paul Kooistra asserts that American parents have turned youth soccer participation into an elite status symbol, establishing boundaries of “cost and custom” that keep lower-income and minority players out. Although most leagues — including ours — offer scholarships, indirect costs, like the incessant drain on parents’ time, prohibit many. Clubs will often try to help exceptional players also overcome those secondary hurdles, but it’s not easy.
Last fall, our club asked me to provide transportation for a promising player from my part of town. The girl’s parent didn’t own a car or speak English, so I would need to communicate arrangements via the family’s pastor. I wanted to say yes. Every interested child deserves a piece of the “beautiful game,” and the inequities of this soccer business eat at me. Instead, I sadly said no. Getting my own children to practice and games is a Sisyphean struggle that interferes with laundry, meal prep, household maintenance, medical appointments, family fun, adult friendships and my career. I know I made the right choice for our family, perhaps the only one I could make, and yet my choice, and being forced to make it, still feels deeply wrong.
Source: NY Times