Thursday, June 23, 2011

Field Insecurity (Soccer in the City of Angles, Part VI)

Yrsa Roca Fannberg, from the male bonding series (2009)
[Note: this is the 6th installment in a memoir regarding my adventures in AYSO - read from the start if you are new to this blog - articles can be found in the sidebar on the right.]

David Lynch might have scripted some of the scenes in our experiment with the American Youth Soccer Organization. Some days, things would be that baroque, that strange. This was especially true when it came to the security guard hired by AYSO to monitor the field. (I refer to him here as "C.")
In the beginning, we got along well enough. But as our season progressed, he became a bigger and bigger problem. He was so volatile, paranoid and irrational that a lot of players assumed he was on meth, or perhaps in recovery.
The artificial turf field has a few rules. One can’t bring pets onto the field or onto school grounds. No food or drink (except water), no gum and no smoking. Pretty basic stuff. Aside from enforcing these rules, there really wasn’t much at all for C. to do.
Perhaps because of this, when someone did break the rules and C happened to catch it, he got excited.
He would swagger over to the offending parties and bellow a rapid-fire series of blustery commands, embedded in a rant about how people didn’t take him seriously, were disrespecting him, and breaking the rules on purpose. More often than not, kids were the target of his diatribes.
C was a big, heavy guy in a uniform. He made many kids nervous. If I saw him give a child direction in a positive, non-confrontational way, I also saw him bully kids and pick fights with adults. He was very unpredictable. You couldn’t tell what would draw his ire. Seeing people sitting on top of the picnic tables would send him into a weird rage, for example, though there was no clear reason as to why. Most of the days I was there, however, something would send him into outer orbit.
He was exactly the wrong kind of person to be working security. He made people feel more nervous than "safe." He made people feel like they were doing something wrong, just by virtue of their presence on the grounds. And when people challenged him on his generally hysterical manner, he got even more crazy. He was generally looking for an argument, and although he was not likely to throw a punch, he was very likely to draw one out.
So, when I pulled up to the field one afternoon and saw him in a full-on argument with a woman, I wasn’t surprised.
This argument was extremely heated. As I approached, it seemed to escalate. Her boyfriend appeared and jumped in to defend her. He had just finished playing and was a real hothead who’d been ejected from at least one of our matches. They started to square off.
I put myself between them, turned to the player and herded him out of the fight, explaining that he was making things worse, that C was not going to back down. If the player didn’t, there was no telling where this would go.  “Please,” I remember saying to him – guessing he was the more reasonable of the two men, and the most likely to disengage. These situations require a Cesar Milano-style zen, in which one radiates a calm authority, a total confidence that the situation will not convert into violence. Most of the time, this works.
The player knew this ritual. He continued to gripe about the security guard, but he backed away from the situation and left with his girlfriend.
What was this fight about?
A puppy.
His girlfriend had come to the game with a new, barely weaned puppy. This tiny thing was barely bigger than her hand.
The conflict had been brewing for nearly two hours. When she and her boyfriend showed up, she brought the puppy with her on the field. C yelled at her, and said that not only could she not have the puppy on the field, she couldn’t have it at the school at all.
She took offense at the way he was talking to her, and at the idea that this puppy posed such a problem that it, and she, would have to leave.
One of the league organizers suggested a compromise – she could sit in the picnic area, still on school grounds but at least off the field. She could watch the match there, in peace. Next week, she would leave the puppy at home. This seemed perfectly reasonable – we weren’t talking about an adult animal. This thing couldn’t even walk, really. It was a wiggly little ball of cuteness. It could fit in a pocket.
C felt “disrespected” by the compromise – for him, the insult was manifold.  He took offense towards the woman’s attitude (she quite rightly was offended by the way he spoke to her, and - less rightly - she mirrored his attitude right back to him), and he took offense to the compromise, which he experienced as undermining his authority. 
Rather than leave her alone where she sat watching the game, C would drift over and re-engage her in a fight not about the puppy, now, but her attitude.
I should add, the entire time he was arguing with this woman, he was on the phone with his wife, via a Bluetooth permanently attached to his head. Thus the scene's David Lynch-like weirdness.
So, this is what I saw, as I approached the field:
C and this woman making chicken-head like moves at each other, yelling at the top of their lungs about who was disrespecting who. As this shouting match unfolded, C would make running commentary about what was going on to his wife, via the Bluetooth tucked into his ear. ("This bitch is disrespecting me!") Then he would yell at the young woman about how she was disrespecting him “in front of” his wife. It was really a crazy scene. 
But not quite the craziest thing going on at that moment.
Looking around, I was struck by how most of the people on the field were ignoring the puppy controversy. I now understand that this was because the argument had been going on for so long that it’d become part of the day’s routine.
Something else leaped out at me – something far stranger than C fighting with one of our spectators over the threat posed by a puppy.
An elderly Asian woman was wandering around the edge of the pitch. It was late in the afternoon, very sunny and hot. On a hot day, the field was far from pleasant. It made no sense that an elderly person would be out there, circling the football field over and over again.
She occasionally wandered into the field of play. Players or bystanders would correct her trajectory, and she’d resume her strange walk under the sun.  Again, everyone was acting like this was totally normal.
So, the whole time I was trying to figure out the nature of the confrontation between C and this woman (and diffuse it), I had my eye on a different problem.
The woman with the puppy interrupted her argument with C to explain what was going on:
The elderly woman was Korean and spoke not a word of English or Spanish. She’d been on the field since the start of our day’s games, apparently alone. At one point, she picked up someone’s sunblock and tried to drink it.
On hearing this, my priorities shifted dramatically. The puppy controversy was nothing compared with the possibility that a disoriented elderly woman might actually, you know, die or something.
I assumed she was grossly dehydrated. Why else would someone try to drink a bottle of sunblock?  She was certainly senile or an Alzheimer’s patient. She must have wandered from her home and was lost. There were probably people looking for her – and I guessed that whoever they were, they’d been spending the day in a real panic. The neighborhood is not the best, and this woman was the picture of vulnerability. (When I tried to talk to her, she smiled, complimented my purse in Korean, and continued her laps.)
I called the police, they sent out a patrol car. When they arrived, C was pacing up and down the sidewalk, shouting at his wife (via the Bluetooth in his ear) about how I’d “disrespected” him: "Who does this bitch think she is? This is MY field! I'm in charge!" He sustained this rant for the rest of the day.
Meanwhile, I explained the situation regarding the woman on the field to the police officers.
He overheard me talking to the cops, and leaned into his car, pulled out a bottle of sunblock, and handed it to them. He’d seen the woman drinking it, and somehow wound up taking it from her. But he didn’t think to do anything else – like call for help. He had too busy arguing with the puppy-lady, and ranting to his wife about his bruised ego.
The cops talked to the woman, called her family (using her medi-alert bracelet), and soon her son was there, looking mightily stressed out but relieved to see his mother in one piece. By this point, it was 5:00pm. She’d gone missing around 10:00am, and was seen on the field somewhere around 11:00am.
From then on, C hated me with a white-hot passion, and took every chance he got to let me know this. Whenever I was around, he’d rant to the heavens about how I “didn’t own this field,” about how I “didn’t belong,” how he was the “boss,” etc. He’d issue these rants sometimes as song, sung as I walked past him (as I often had to do). His antagonism of our players and their friends escalated, his bullying of kids accelerated.
This got worse when I saw him try to keep a man and his eight year old son off the grounds (there was a large practice space, perfect for kicking a ball around with kids). They lived in one of the large apartment blocks across the street and had no access to green space, it was totally normal for our neighbors to use the field when it was open. 
I intervened whenever I saw C try to keep people out: I couldn’t watch someone cut people off from their own backyard. Of course, he didn’t appreciate this at all – there was little he could do, however, because usually he couldn’t make himself understood to the people he was trying to police.
You see, this security guard hired by AYSO to work in a neighborhood of recent immigrants hated immigrants. He would say so, loudly and proudly. He didn’t speak Spanish and felt no obligation to learn it. A friend of his would sometimes work in his stead was similarly open about his dislike for Latinos. (e.g. “I don’t like Hispanics.” “Don’t you think they should speak English?”) C. was only slightly less explicit. I should add - just so you can picture the DEEP complexity of this scene, C was African American - and the guy helping him out with security was, I think, Armenian. I'm white, and most of the people involved in our league were Latino. The first thing I'd look for in a security guard, beyond a calm demeanor, would be the ability to speak Spanish and show respect for the community within which he was working.
I guess I'd also be looking to weed out the creeps. 
That same summer, I volunteered at an AYSO-sponsored youth camp in Watts and encountered another security guard hired by the same AYSO crew. He was far scarier than C, as he was constantly soliciting attention from the 12-15 year old girls at the camp. I saw him ask one girl to sit in his lap.
Heart in my throat, I casually motioned her over to me and promptly started up some drills for the girls who kept drifting out of the activities being organized by the all-male coaching staff (who seemed completely and utterly puzzled by teen girl dynamics). Other girls and staff noticed this guy was throwing off creepy vibes, and we discretely engineered things to keep him away from us all.
At one point, he showed one of the other volunteers the guns he kept in the trunk of his car. Like this was cool. To remind you of the context - this was at a middle school, and he was there at the behest of the American Youth Soccer Organization. 
To return to C and our league: it took me a while to wake up to how bad things were for, personally.
One evening, C. made some young kids cry. They’d bought ice cream from a street vendor, and had run onto the field, forgetting about the no-food policy. He screamed at them. The parents were really upset by C’s behavior towards their kids – the father of one child teared up when he talked about seeing his daughter bullied by a grown-up like that. It had hit a deep parental nerve, seeing is child so intimidated and scared. They went over to talk to C., and soon they were shouting at each other.
Feeling that his authority was being challenged (again), C. ran onto the field and demanded that the game be stopped. It was bizarre.
The players and the referee all looked at me, because I was the league representative – I took their money, coordinated with the ref’s, helped with the rosters, etc. I calmly explained that C. had no authority to stop the match like that, that this decision was up to the referee.
C responded to this by shouting at me. He all said the things he often said to me – at the top of his lungs, though, in front of two teams, the referees and all the spectators. I walked away from the field, knowing that the referee might be able to diffuse the situation whereas my presence was going to make things worse.
The referee got him off the field. The game started up again. C. left the school – shouting, muttering, ranting about how he was the boss. He did so without turning on the lights – he took the keys to everything with him, and then told the AYSO people who hired him that he wasn’t going to give the keys back.
It was a nightmare. I can’t remember how that was resolved – someone tracked him down and got the keys off him. They had to – otherwise the school would have lost tens of thousands of dollars changing all the locks.
This was the first time a large swath of the league saw first hand what I’d been dealing with since day one.

So many people came up to me to ask if I was “OK.” People were genuinely concerned about me, as a person. “How could he talk to you that way?” There was so much hate for me in C’s behavior and in his speech, it must have been hard to watch. 
I was not a controversial presence for the players and their families – far from it. I always felt welcomed, and most people seemed to really appreciate all the work we put into the league. That night, I felt like I had forty brothers and sisters, people concerned about my welfare in the same way I’d been concerned about theirs. Because of that moment, I would run a league again - just not with AYSO.
Because when it came to the AYSO people associated with the field (the schedulers, the administrators, and the security guard), I did not feel this sense of community. I had instead grown used to feeling harassed, berated, ignored, yelled at, diminished.
That was the beginning of the end for me. I realized I couldn’t keep working there if C. was on duty. It was toxic. Even after he left the field - after interrupting the game, making children cry, making racist statements about the people using the field, screaming insults at me, running off with the keys - AYSO still continued to use him.
I wrote a letter to the AYSO region, explaining the problems we’d been having, so that at least it'd be on the record somewhere. But he was soon back, sitting in his car and talking to his wife via that Bluetooth.
Reading the stories about Jack Warner, Sepp Blatter, et al I have to wonder if this kind of thing isn’t the one of the bigger barriers to a more honest practice. People surrounding the game, managing the game are so often so awful, that a lot of people walk away. 
The crap I saw in one incredibly minor corner of the football world is a small instance of a larger pattern, in which petty thieves and power mongers collaborate to expand their control over a territory, with no concern whatsoever for the community inhabiting it.
C. did his job perfectly – he was never there to help us. He was doing AYSO’s version of “cleaning up” the favela. Over time I gleaned that the AYSO folks who thought we “didn’t belong” basically bent C's ear, poisoned him so that he was ready to see me and my collaborators as "the enemy." He was eager to help his friends by making my life so unpleasant I would go away. 
Which is what I did. 
Soon after all this, our league had been exiled to the outfield of a baseball diamond - maybe to facilitate the double-dealing on the school permit (this what we all feared had been going on all along), or maybe just so that a few people could enjoy the libidinal thrill of ruining a good game.  
Now that I've got that epic out of my system, I can turn my attention to the Women's World Cup.


  1. This series about your league has been great reading. Thanks for posting it.

  2. Enjoyed your 6-part series on Soccer in LA. Sorry about the experiences you had with AYSO. I've been a part of AYSO as a coach and referee for over 10 years. I like to think of AYSO as a community development organization that happens to play soccer. I live in Eagle Rock & have been a part of AYSO Region 13(Pasadena, Altadena, La Canada.) I think AYSO is the best youth sports league I've ever been associated with. Disheartened to read about your AYSO experiences in Pico Union/MacArthur Park area, but an organization is only as good as the people/volunteers who run it.

    Obviously, your AYSO experience doesn't mirror mine, but I do hope that AYSO National & Area leaders will read your story. I've already sent it to one man who was the past commissioner of our region and I'll probably send it to others within the AYSO leadership structure.

    Really enjoy your writing and appreciate your love of the beautiul game.

  3. Clarence,

    Thank you for sending in this comment. It is good to hear from other people involved in AYSO. The ideas behind AYSO couldn't be better. My experience in LA suggested the problem isn't AYSO but the way people invest in sports, as a space of control and authority.

    At times, I wondered if our regional/area leaders weren't Herbalife executives or something - it was hard to understand why AYSO would treat other community leagues as competitors. Much of the whole experience is still a mystery to me...

    Again - thanks for taking the time to comment!


Feedback? Let me know what you think. Just an FYI: all comments posted to this blog are recorded, whether I publish them or not. I do not publish generally hateful comments - whether they be directed at me or at players and teams or other readers. I appreciate reader feedback, especially from those whose contributions add nuance and complexity to the story.

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