Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Soccer in the City of Angels, Part II: "You don't belong here"

Michael Wells, Lafayette Park (2008)
"You don't belong here!"

It was a surprising turn in the argument.

We were standing on the sideline. I was in a heated discussion with an AYSO parent/volunteer who played in our league. (We were arguing about field 'security' - the subject of a forthcoming post in this series.) We were both angry. Apropos of nothing, he shouted "You don't belong here!"And then he shouted it again, and again. It was like a smack across the face.

I nearly lost my composure. Meaning: I thought I was going to cry, right there in front of the two teams, their supporters and the referees. I probably did, in fact. That was definitely one of my worst days with the league.

My interlocutor was, like me, a member of the professional class. I'm a professor, he's a lawyer. We are both in our 40s (am guessing on his account). Neither of us are very good players, not relative to the skill level of the league's best teams. His team - composed entirely of AYSO parents - was slaughtered in competition, week after week. (They got a lot of credit in my book, as they usually played with a good spirit and improved over the season.)

Yelling "you don't belong here" at me was clearly an unconscious projection: for he didn't "belong" on that field any more than I did.

It's funny, but the folks who live around the field never said anything like that to me or to my co-organizers. They never needed to - that I "didn't belong," that I was a guest, was patently obvious.

But I heard "you don't belong here" regularly from AYSO people. Mostly from white men who were visibly uncomfortable with the whole situation: A mixed league in a Latino part of town, run by three anglos who were supporters of the neighborhood's existing fútbol culture, but who had no obvious  link to it.  (Not obvious was that one of us grew up in LA, played AYSO and has strong connections to the neighborhood; I played pickup in the neighborhood for two years and joined a local team there before becoming involved with the AYSO experiment; the third participant had a good history of working with AYSO - our version of adult AYSO was really his brainchild.)

The first time an AYSO person shouted "You don't belong here" at us I thought he was joking.

One day, I saw an AYSO administrator standing on the outside of the chain-link fence framing the field, yelling at my collaborators and a couple supporters. I walked over to see what was going on. This dude was having some sort of nuclear melt-down, sparked by someone who had set their folding chair down on the turf - which one shouldn't do if its corners are sharp, as it can damage the surface. Not a crisis. One just tells that person not to use that chair, or to put it on top of a blanket. People are happy to fix the problem, especially when you ask them nicely.

For some reason, this man responded to an extremely minor problem by sputtering nonsense about the people participating in our league, whom he described as "dirty" (and he didn't mean their tactics). The stuff he was saying was so insane ("You people are dirty! You don't belong here!"), I honestly thought he was kidding around.

I accidentally made things worse by laughing the guy off and telling my collaborators not to take him seriously. "He's kidding," I said, looking at him and expecting an exchange of jokey recognition. It was right out of a Seinfeld episode, in which a character's behavior is so bizarre that at first everyone imagines it is all an act. I had to walk away: my unintentional dismissal of his lunacy only made him more lunatic.

Nearly two years later, I was doing it again: walking away from a white man about my age, maybe a little older, who was heaping pounds of rage on me (in response to my anger about the above mentioned 'security' problem).  Whatever our problems might have been, for him, they were explained by the simple observation: "You don't belong here!"

I'd become so used to moments like this that it was starting to feel normal. I turned my back on him and walked away, like a good referee might.

It was exhausting. In my work with this league, I was confronted again and again by angry men who resented my involvement, or resented the league itself and found me to be a non-threatening target for expression of that resentment - because I'm female? Because I wasn't playing as much as the guys, so I was available for being yelled at? To them, maybe at first glance I register as "some woman," or "somebody's girlfriend." I don't really know what was in their heads when they dished this kind of anger out, but I think it was easier to launch in my direction, because the consequences of doing so were minimal.  That's what it felt like.

If I'm turning the focus of my writing to myself, it's because that sentence "you don't belong here" made me think a lot about where I was supposed to belong, according to those guys, and why my presence was so provocative as to produce this constant reminder of my status as interloper - from people who were much bigger interlopers in that particular setting than me. (At least I had a history as a player in the neighborhood, an awareness of the existent fútbol landscape.)

It took me a while to absorb that I really didn't 'belong' there (working with AYSO), and that my departure was inevitable.

At best, I was at risk of allowing myself to be deployed like some sort of proto-colonial missionary, facilitating enough contact with the "population" so that the space could be properly "administered." (Again, that's what it felt like for me.)

My affinities are for pick-up scenes and neighborhood leagues. I liked being a part of that scene. I never wondered where I belonged in those games. Until the police or park officials or whoever asked you to leave, nobody owned that space - whatever that space was, it was created in the game.

As an organizer of a league, as the woman collecting cash, holding the checks and the clipboard, I was not an outsider - I was the host of a conflicted space over which, for a range of reasons, I had no actual authority.

Given the mission statement of AYSO and the national organization's open structure, I thought it would provide a great point of access to a valuable resource - I thought we could get one of the best competitive leagues in the city going in that spot. But there was always something going on there that I didn't understand - trying to run a league there was like trying to play soccer in a hall of mirrors.  Telling the story of what we did there is hard, because so much of what we experienced was just bizarre - like that guy screaming at us about how we were dirty.

"You don't belong here" could have been a way of disavowing the awareness "we don't belong here," or, it was just a command: "Get out." Which is what I did, eventually, for a hundred reasons - at the top of those reasons, though, was that I was tired of trying to get a good league going on a field from which the league would be regularly ejected, locked out, and undermined. By the end, we were playing in the outfield of a turf baseball field in an entirely different location. Even though we had as much right to the field at 7th & Union as anyone.

Organizations of all sorts are hollowed out from within by well-meaning people seduced by a sense of entitlement, by those attracted by the desire to control space and people (as if this were a form of "community service"), by the quick high of the power trip, and also, of course, by people who give in to the urge to make a quick buck from their own access to resources. A collective passivity allows this to go on, more or less in the open. In a way, such things are often mistaken for "professionalization" of the game.

One could say this about a youth league, or FIFA. Hell, these words could describe the administration at my university.

The above is a big statement, out of proportion with the incident I describe here - it was just a guy losing his temper at me. But hearing "you don't belong here" shouted at me for the umpteenth time in a setting in which such moments had become completely routine reconciled me to the likelihood that these guys were right, and that whatever "service" this league was providing to the neighborhood, it wasn't one I could be a part of. I'd definitely become a problem, in and of myself.

Next Up: The Runaway Ref

1 comment:

  1. I like the Seinfeld analogy - for some reason, the more informal and recreational the game (the less at stake), the more an open invitation to be total assholeness by some people. For all the complaints about whining players and coaches in the pro level, the worst fights, tackles, and arguments I've ever seen have been in bush adult leagues where never-been no-talents with an ax to grind in life do dubious battle.

    I'm sure your lawyer friend, in addition to subtle and not so subtle sexism, harbors resentment for having defended big tobacco or wiping old rich white peoples' asses for the last decade or so. Keep laughing and ignoring!


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