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

Monday, May 30, 2011

Soccer in the City of Angels, Part I: Usage Agreements

One of Pico Union's many murals (intersection of 7th and Westlake)
A couple years ago, I helped establish an adult men's soccer league in a neighborhood just east of downtown Los Angeles. Our league was affiliated with the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) and only lasted two years. It has taken me a little time to gain some distance on what was both an incredible and depressing experience.

Soccer (like most sports) is a bit of a red-light district. For all its beauty, it also draws a lot of shady characters - hucksters, geniuses, crazy people. It attracts people looking to run their game and, more often than is reasonable, that game is not football.

Before getting into this story, let me just put this on the record: The American Youth Soccer Organization is a fantastic model for community-run sports. Founded in Los Angeles in 1964, its core principles are egalitarian and anti-corporate. It is close to a 100% volunteer organization. A small staff runs a huge system. According to its website, AYSO has over 600,000 registered players and a quarter of a million volunteers (yes, you read that right).  Parents volunteer their time as coaches and referees, as treasurers, registrars, and league managers. Kids can referee age groups below theirs, they get involved with coaching, and learn how the organization of the game works on the daily level: it is not only an important access point for athletes, it is often the first place Americans get experience with the work of management.

The cost of participation is very low, and it is organized to maximize exposure. "Everybody plays." Everybody also contributes to the game's infrastructure - to its housekeeping. This aspect of AYSO fights against the gravitational pull of the consumer-mentality of commercialized sports. It is an important contrast to the prohibitively expensive and overly regimented club soccer system that is, sadly, the foundation of the development system for US soccer.

If there is an organization which demonstrates that the world can support a sports culture without requiring that the sport be capitalized for economic gain, it is AYSO. Rhizomic, fluid, anti-commercial and egalitarian, AYSO is, at its best, the absolute opposite of FIFA.

A system this open can be non-elitist, welcoming of difference, and flexible. It's what makes for a good scene. But it is also open to exploitation - it can be colonized by all sorts (the ambitious, the controlling, the crazy, Herbalife).

AYSO's openness is how I found myself spending Sunday afternoons on the field at the corner of 7th Street and Union Ave.

At the end of 2008, a couple friends asked if I wanted to help them start up a men's league on a fantastic new field a few minute's walk from MacArthur Park. I had been playing pick-up in the neighborhood, and had also played in a 6 aside league. There are not many full size fields in that area, but there is a lot of game.

The neighborhood is one of the densest in the city; it is also one of the most policed - this aspect of the Ramparts district figures often in this blog as the fútbol scene here has given me some of my happiest experiences in Los Angeles, as well as direct contact with the dramatic inequity of the city's distribution of its resources.

2010 street protest following LAPD shooting of Manuel Jamines. He was killed a block from our field.
AYSO has a relatively new program designed to create play for the adults in its community. Our idea was to use that platform to give guys aging out of the youth leagues in the neighborhood a place to play 11 on 11, on this extraordinary (turf) field at Leichty Middle School.

Many (if not most) of the best fields in Los Angeles are owned by the Los Angeles Unified School District. There is no accessible, transparent system at LAUSD administering use of its fields by the city's diverse communities.

The field at this particular location was built via a partnership between LAUSD and AYSO. In the words of a 2007 memo regarding construction projects in the school district:
A joint use partnership...established the first AYSO program in the Pico-Union community. As part of their contribution, AYSO agreed to offer youth soccer programming to the students of John H. Leichty MS and the surrounding feeder schools for five years. LAUSD matched AYSO’s programmatic contribution with funding to install artificial turf on the school’s main field to facilitate year-round community programming. (See this 2007 memo from LAUSD on new construction.)
If I understand the nature of this agreement correctly (and I may not), AYSO did not contribute money to the construction of the field (it is not a rich organization), but instead promised volunteers. LAUSD built the field; AYSO members administer the field and run leagues when it is not being used by the school itself. As the above statement indicates, this resulted in the first AYSO program in that part of Los Angeles.

In learning about this usage agreement, I began to have my first questions.

The above language from the LAUSD sidesteps the following: There are leagues in that neighborhood, and they have been there for years. Thousands of people play in those leagues. Many are low-cost (if not free), some work with the LA 84 foundation (funded by the last Olympics to actually bring money into a host city), and some work through community centers and with local businesses. Some work entirely outside of grant structures; many have relationships with larger and national youth soccer organizations (like Cal South or the California Youth Soccer Association).

This is a big part of LA life - in this neighborhood, which is something like 85% Latino, fútbol is woven tightly into the fabric of its social life. It's not a forth sport here, it's not an underground scene or a subculture. It's the dominant and most visible sports scene and a defining part of the neighborhood's character.

Many of the neighborhood's leagues are, like AYSO, volunteer operations - one such league offers a women's division that fields more teams (at the youth and adult level) than does the Los Angeles Municipal Soccer League. These are "Latin" or "independent" leagues - the two terms are used almost interchangeably in California to describe the loose, disconnected network of leagues across the region where Spanish is the lengua franca, and the majority of players and spectators come from the city's immigrant communities. The soccer scene in this location is strong enough that El Salvador is sending its association's scouts there on June 2, 3 and 6th for a series of open try-outs for the women's U17, U19 and U23 squads.

Having played in a league affiliated with a community center in the same neighborhood (which also offered tutoring, arts classes and academic counseling), I was surprised to see LAUSD hand administration of the field to an organization that had little to no existing relationship to the location. Why would the LAUSD do this?

On the surface, this agreement seems to serve AYSO more than the neighborhood. Their interests are not necessarily opposed, of course. But the five-year usage agreement prevents existing leagues in the neighborhood from using one of the best fields in the city. Those leagues do play on other fields - but those fields are smaller, and at least one organizer can't get enough field time to offer its program's women 90 minute games. In order to meet demand, their matches are compressed to 60 minutes. This problem has only grown more complex, as the city strikes more and more such deals with AYSO. So, at the very least, when it comes to field access, the interests of AYSO are opposed to those of the existing non-profit leagues in the neighborhood. [Youth soccer organizations in LA's under-served communities include HOLA; Anahuak; Y.E.S.S. (Youth Empowerment through Sports and Scholastics); Compton United Soccer Club.]

AYSO provides a great point of entry into the game, and kids in that neighborhood need support. So do adults. (See this LA Times profile of the neighborhood's socioeconomic profile.) But, again, there are existing local collectives with much more articulated relationships to the community - why not work with them?

The "independent" leagues are mostly Spanish-speaking (bear in mind the vast majority of kids are fully bilingual); AYSO is not - it is not totally white, but it is a lot whiter and more middle-class than are the leagues which were already there. The median household income for residents in Pico Union is just over $26,000.  The median household income for my neighborhood is just over $54,000 - about average for the city. My neighborhood has no single ethnic majority, but the largest group is Latino, at nearly 42%. AYSO has a stronger presence in Los Angeles in neighborhoods like mine, if not neighborhoods that are even better off.  But they are working hard to change that - with programs like that in Pico Union, and in Watts (South Central is also home to some amazing leagues and talented youth players).

If you have the energy and drive, you can do a lot through AYSO. Although the AYSO adult program was not imagined as a host for the kind competitive play we wanted to promote, there was nothing in the institution's structure that said it couldn't be used for this purpose. And so we decided to try and get something going at this location. I couldn't shake the feeling that this was a colonial project, that my whiteness & class privilege were facilitating my access, but I also wanted access to this field.

A day in the brief life of the Union Football League

The field at 7th and Union is dreamy. The school offers benches and tables off the field where players often gathered for their pre-game meeting. Bathrooms, floodlights, covered parking - the facilities are perfect for a recreational league. That stretch of 7th Street is lined with 'Mom and Pop' stores - a panaderia, a café, a gym, a Pentecostal church, and Nikys Sports - an excellent soccer shop which fielded the strongest team in our first season. 

It's nice to play right in the heart of things. In the evenings, music radiates out of the church. Pedestrians stop to watch matches from the sidewalk and often fetch wayward balls. People bring their families to games. Street vendors sell tacos, make passes with ice cream. Kids are everywhere. A fairly typical LA fútbol scene.

Union Football League played its first matches in February 2009 . We were immediately beset with problems. Some normal, as far as soccer goes, others less so.

Next in Soccer in the City of Angels: "You Don't Belong Here."

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Hangover: Soccer in the City of Angels, an Introduction

On Saturday, we indulge in the pleasures of the beautiful game. On Sunday, we wake up with a global headache.

A collective romance with fair play grounds the entertainment value of sporting events. We love the idea of a level playing field, stories in which the best competitor wins, or in which the well-played match is its own reward. We love our team even when they don't bring home a trophy. But, oh, when they do! Messi is a gift from the heavens. His team is a family. Més que un club. Ferguson says "No one has given United a hiding like Barcelona did." Guardiola declares "This is the way we want to play." The world wraps itself in a cozy blanket, the story of the perfect game.

But even casual participation in sports forces a break with this illusion - racism, sexism and homophobia; economic manipulation of a team's "brand" and "value" at the expense of the team and its fans; the hyper-leveraging of club assets; doping, mismanagement, cronyism and bribery. What name is now on Barcelona's shirt?

What sport is "clean," really? Being a sports fan is a lesson in bi-polarity. Manic highs, paranoid frenzy, and then you throw out your television and hide from the game ruining your life.

Over the next couple weeks, I'll publish a series of articles describing my involvement with a local league here in Los Angeles. These articles are inspired by FIFA's shocking (and yet not surprising) decision to proceed with its election of a single candidate whom everyone knows is a corrupt, sexist and homophobic bastard. (At the moment, he is accused of condoning heavy bribery in the bidding process for future World Cups.) At today's press conference FIFA's Secretary General and Official Cynic (Jerome Valcke) said that this decision was made in the interest of the organization's stability. Of course it is.

We are all wondering how long this can go on - how long the international stewardship of the game will rest in the hands of liars and thieves.

FIFA's corruption unfolds alongside complaint and ethics charges. Our collective relationship to it looks a lot like what Slavoj Žižek calls "interpassivity," in which "we are active all the time in order to make sure nothing will happen, that nothing will really change." ("A Plea for Aggressive Passivity") We tweet, update our statuses, we sign petitions and complain - but we turn on the TV, we buy our tickets, we go to sports bars and cheer.

How long can FIFA sell itself to the world using a language of social good, of unity and community? When will the world wake up to the fact that it's been playing a shell game? Maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe the shell game is what we want, after all.

As we ask for the king's head on a stick, we must also look closer to home and consider the game we say want, versus the game we actually play - the game we buy into, and sell out. That's the charge I've issued to myself....

Next: Usage Agreement

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Depression of a Super Falcons Fan

Cary Leibowitz, Misery Pennants (1989)
By the end of the summer, I was in a dark place in relation to the men's game: unable to care about who wins what international tournament or league's season, because who cares what a bunch of spoiled brats do in the service of hyper-leveraged clubs that look more and more like individuated versions of the real estate bubble. You know what I did after the World Cup? I gave away my television.

I thought following the women's game would reconnect me with the pleasures of fandom, but I am afraid it's having the opposite effect. At the moment I am demoralized by the media's apathy regarding the fact that the Nigerian national team coach conducted an anti-lesbian purge. (She gave a talk about this at a Nigerian conference on women's football, this was reported in Nigerian media, but has yet to raise interest from the football community at large.)

FIFA recently featured the team on the front page for its website for the 2011 Women's World Cup. In that article the coach made statements regarding the "fitness" of notable players absent from her squad. Who can believe such statements? Isn't it wrong for FIFA to feature that kind of discourse from someone who has so obviously discriminated against her athletes? What does "fitness" mean in that context? This kind of "press" is not just irresponsible, it actually collaborates with the original discrimination. (Latest from Nigera: The team just failed to qualify for the All-Africa tournament. This does not bode well for the summer.)

Why isn't overt discrimination news when it's practiced in the women's game? Why aren't we talking about the impact of homophobia on the women's game? Perhaps because it would require sports media to confront its own homophobia.

Anti-homophobia activists in football seem primarily concerned with the men's game. One could argue, however, that homophobia has a much more global impact on the women's game. I mean "global" here in every sense - internationally, and holistically - from the lowest levels of the game to its highest, as the media and FIFA maintain a scrupulously polite silence about the fact that some of the most gifted athletes in the game identify as lesbian - some have girlfriends, some resist gender normativity in body and attitude (muscled, boyish, mannish, aggro, full of bravado), and these women have huge impacts on fans through what they achieve and represent.

For every story we encounter about a female athlete's marriage, or a baby born within a straight couple, there are more stories regarding momentous events in the lives of gay players that are not represented, because the mainstream media considers such stories unrepresentable. This is old news in women's sports - fans are fluent in reading the silence, the biographical editing which mediates their relationships to the players they cheer from the stands. NEVER seen a reference to a player's life beyond, say, her experiences playing as a kid with the boys? Well...  A gay man in the sports world lives with a powerful, awful pressure demanding that he stay in the closet. A lesbian can live freely and relatively openly and we can trust the media do the closeting for her, on "our" behalf.

This leaves the marketing of women's soccer in the US particularly ineffective - claustrophobic and "old" or childish (and so "old" in its conceptualization of the consumer's relationship to childhood). It has yet to rise about the closeted mentality of another age. I just don't get it.

My mood is perhaps lifted by recent excellent coverage of homophobia in men's sports - most recently via the coming out of Rick Welts, owner of the Phoenix Suns. This is such a good story, a real chance to educate people.

The sexism of the world of sports is related to its homophobia; the feminism of women's sports spaces is related to the queerness of those space - which, given the sexism and homophopia of mainstream sports spaces, leaves little room for representing the specificity of the athletes in women's sports at all.

High time for change all around.

Cary Leibowitz,  Homo State (1989)
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