My son, Ben, played soccer for a racially diverse club team more than 20 years ago. The Croation Eagles had Latino kids, African American kids, and kids of just about every white European heritage possible. Ben was one of the few members of the team who was actually of at least partial Croation heritage. The BS the kids of color had to put up with was deplorable. On numerous occasions I heard parents from opposing teams drop the N bomb and call the Latino kids spics.
The Croation Eagles team parents did our best to shield our kids but the slurs from the opposing teams continued. And our parents weren’t always well behaved either. One of the moms on our team actually screamed “You must be on the rag,” to a female ref at one game.
I really did think it was going to be better by the time my two grandkids played soccer. Last winter, Ben was coaching his boys Noah and Ezra’s 10 and 8 year old teams in indoor soccer through the local rec department. During Noah’s game, one of the Latinas on Ben’s team, Breeza, accidentally collided with Vickie, a white girl from the other team, accidentally knocking off her glasses. Vickie picked them up. Breeza asked her if she was okay. Vickie nodded yes and the game continued. No big deal. Noah’s team won. The onlookers and players started heading for the door
Vickie’s uncle, a young guy of about 20 wearing a neck brace that we later learned was because of a drunk driving accident, started talking smack to Ben. “So I guess it’s easy to win when you teach your team to play dirty,” with lots of cussing for emphasis. It became clear that it was the “aggressive” Latinas like Breeza that he had a problem with. Ben told him to watch his language in front of the kids and suggested they go outside the school to talk. They did.
Vickie’s uncle immediately throws off his neck brace and pulls out a switch blade posturing for battle. Shocked, Ben said that if he wanted to fight him he needed to lose the knife. A crowd gathers around. Vickie cries. Her mother yells to the uncle, her brother, to quit and come home with them. There’s lots of commotion but finally, the uncle stalks off.
Everyone was upset. But if there was anything good about the situation, it was that I got to watch my son in action. He stayed calm and coached Ezra’s soccer game immediately after the incident. He talked to his sons about how men behave. “Tough guys don’t use weapons and don’t start fights.”
He said really thoughtful stuff about how they should be kind to Vickie because none of this was her fault and not to let anyone else be mean to her either. That Monday at school, Vickie told Noah that she was really sorry for what happened, that she didn’t want anything bad to happen to his Dad. Noah hugged Vickie and told her that she didn’t do anything wrong, just like his dad told him to.
This spring, Noah and Ezra, now 11 and 9, left rec soccer behind and joined the fabulously diverse teams of the Club Deportivo Aztecas (Aztec Sports Club) along with Breeza and her friend Nonny. These girls are a force to be reckoned with. All last year during community rec soccer, all the boys whined that no one could get past Nonny. And Breeza, I saw her take a ball in the face and just keep moving.
The families are friendly, sharing food and carpooling. There’s lots of Spanish and English flying around and we’re all learning from each other. The kids are respectful and the coaches are smart and caring. It’s a poor team compared to some of the big clubs. We have one field at local elementary school compared to clubs that have more than a dozen fields, a concession stands and bathrooms. We don’t go to a lot of tournaments. But the Aztecas are affordable and inclusive and we like that. I thought everything was pretty hunky dory.
But then this happened at the Aztecas versus a big club game last weekend.
Nonny’s uncle lit up a cigarette. Within seconds, a tall man I assumed was a parent from the opposing team demanded that he put it out.
“This is a kids soccer field. There’s no smoking.”
Nonny’s uncle, a slight man with a long scraggly brown ponytail, said something like, “I don’t see any signs,” and suggested that he mind his own business. And he put out his cigarette.
The tall guy, the kind of good looking well dressed and groomed guy that has the arrogant glow of privilege, wasn’t satisfied.
“When you’re a guest in our house you follow our rules.”
That comment sparked a conversation between Nonny’s uncle and Nonny’s mother in Spanish. And then the shit hit the fan.
“Speak American. You’re in our country, at our soccer field,” said Mr. Privilege.
“Hey this is my America too,” said Nonny’s uncle.
Mr Privilege said something like “you don’t act like it.”
It was like he lit a match. Nonny’s mother unleashed a firestorm of cuss words. This is what happens, I thought, when weeks and months and years of the constant drip, drip, drip of racial insults and stereotyping finally ignite.
And there was plenty of fuel flowing from Mr. Privlege…”You people this and you people that…”
One woman came over to take video of Nonny’s cussing mother on her cell phone. Another woman gently walked up to her and asked if she was drunk or high.
There were so many people standing around gawking that it was hard to tell who was there to support Nonny’s family and who was there to watch the side show of a Latino family melt down. Mr. Privilege stormed off somewhere to “file a formal complaint.” It was whispered in the crowd that he was on the board of the soccer club.
Ben was the only person who came up with a way to end the stalemate. He simply invited Nonny’s family to join ours. To the gawkers, Nonny’s mom said, “We’re going to go sit with the cool people.”
Noah and Ezra’s other grandmother, Char, welcomed Nonny’s mother to our group by saying, “Nonny is so tall. Where does she get her height?” I intervened with “So now we’re going to call her (Nonny’s mother) short!” People chuckled and a tenuous calm was restored through the rest of the game.
Up until then, the families of both teams had been interspersed along the spectators sideline of the field. Slowly lawn chairs continued to be rearranged until all of the Aztecas families were on one side and the big club on another.
After a hard fought battle on the field, the Aztecas won! 6 to 5. Of course, Nonny’s uncle couldn’t resist giving the finger to Mr. Privilege who shook his head and looked away in disgust.
When the teams came around for the ceremonial round of high fives, both sets of parents congratulated both teams although Nonny’s uncle needed a little encouragement. I was grateful that the kids had been too busy playing a competitive game to pay any attention to what their idiot families were doing.
I’m sure that not every adult associated with this big club was in agreement. And it’s true that Nonny’s uncle shouldn’t have been smoking and her mother should have tried harder to contain her rage. But as Ben says, “tough guys don’t use weapons,” and I can think of no sharper weapon than the racism Mr. Privilege and the smug group of parents wielded on this fine sunny afternoon.