What goes through your brain when you hear the phrase “the beautiful game?” You obviously think of soccer, but go a little deeper than that — what does that phrase represent in your mind? Is it the crisp, intricate passing of Spain’s national team during its heyday? Is it Lionel Messi getting the ball at his feet and, within fractions of a second, figuring out every way he could break down a defender before putting them all through some sort of internal algorithm and determining the optimal way to make that happen? Is it a tournament like the World Cup, which for all of its flaws is a unique, legitimate celebration of the sport played at the absolute highest level?
For me, “the beautiful game” is a phrase that alludes to soccer’s ability to transcend any and all barriers. No special equipment is needed to play the game, just some space, a ball that can be kicked, and some sort of makeshift goal that said ball can be kicked through. It is a sport that transcends class, race, gender, and any other burden that groups in power can impose on others.
This hasn’t always been the case with soccer in the United States. Despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of children play the sport, soccer has long had a reputation for being a fairly exclusive sport as you go up the ladder. Following the United States men’s national team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, this “pay to play” system — one that, essentially, meant that money served as a barrier to entry for many youngsters to pursue this game with any level of seriousness — was excoriated by just about everyone who cares about the sport in America. It doesn’t take someone with Messi’s celestial grasp of the sport to understand what this means: Like most hyper-capitalistic entities, if you do not come from a background of privilege, the odds of you being recognized for the talent you possess are slashed exponentially.
Two seconds of thought about this entire system makes you realize it is wholly insane, particularly in a sport where the United States — and to be clear, this is exclusively on the men’s side — is behind the 8-ball. But even taking a step back, what this says to young people from marginalized backgrounds is that their pursuit of some sort of dream does not deserve to happen because of circumstances outside of their control. And because of just the nature of how class works in this country, those circumstances are oftentimes outside of the control of their parents or guardians, too.
All of that comes back to the original point: While the beautiful game’s low barrier for entry exists worldwide, that’s not necessarily the case in our corner of the world. This year, the newly-formed Black Players for Change took on the challenge of facing this head-on. The organization, launched on Juneteenth, released a statement indicating that its goal is to combat racism in the sport and society more broadly. A snippet:
This is a new organization that will address the racial inequalities in our league, stand with all those fighting racism in the world of soccer, and positively impact black communities across the United States and Canada.
We pledge to help bridge the racial equality gap that exists in our league by lobbying for initiatives like implicit bias training, cultural education courses, and diversification hiring practices. Beyond addressing these overlooked systemic issues around soccer in this country, the BPC is committed to tackling the racial injustices that have prevented black people from having an equitable stake in society. Among the many goals we will strive to achieve in our black communities, some will include targeted spending, educational advancement initiatives, and mentorship programs.
“We also want to make soccer a sport for Black kids to feel comfortable in,” Portland Timbers standout and BPC board member Jeremy Ebobisse said in an interview. “We feel like that’s an avenue for success. I know growing up for me, personally, there was a lot of talk all over that my place was as a basketball player, as a football player. And I think that that’s due to the lack of engagement that our professional sports world has with the Black community. And so we’re looking to target investment in education and in other mechanisms, but also, specifically, in developing the game, whether that’s building courts, showing up on a consistent basis in these communities to show that the sports teams that a lot of our teams are built around actually care about them. There’s a fluid conversation on how to specifically target and get the most out of it, but we’re focused on the development of the game within the Black community and hoping that we can continue those efforts with some of those elder players, some of those guys that have come through and helping them get established in these organizations.”
In all, the BPC consists of more than 170 MLS players, coaches, and staff members, all of whom are driven to create the sport and society as a whole more equitable.
According to its website, “BPC is committed to tackling the racial injustices that have limited Black people from having an equitable stake in the game of soccer and society.” It is not limited to individual who were born within our country’s borders, because battling the forces that oppress is not a uniquely American fight. The “more than an athlete” phrase gets thrown around a ton thanks to LeBron James, but everyone involved in this organization sees that many of the overarching, impossible to ignore societal issues that need remedied cannot help but impact sports — the BPC launched less than a month after George Floyd became the latest Black man to be killed by a police officer who took an oath to serve and protect.
This is not to say that racism is unique to football in America — earlier this month, for example, a Champions League tie between Paris Saint-Germain and Istanbul Basaksehir stopped mid-match and was postponed due to an official referring to a coach as, per a translation from Romanian, “the Black guy.” What BPC is looking to do, however, is take on the institution of racism at home, both in the game and beyond. The structural inequities upon which the United States and soccer are built upon are abhorrent, and calling it commendable that athletes are using their platforms to challenge them head-on is an understatement.
Through actions like installing 12 mini-pitches to give children of color a safe place to play the game, BPC is making accessibility to a game that has long suffered from an accessibility problem a top priority.
And who knows? Perhaps the work that will begin with BPC in the United States and Canada will eventually spread across the Atlantic as the seeds they plant begin to blossom. Think, for example, of Weston McKennie — who came up in the FC Dallas system before jumping to German side Schalke and is now a member of Italian giant Juventus — using his platform following Floyd’s killing to wear a “Justice for George Floyd” armband, or RB Leipzig’s Tyler Adams writing the same sentiment on a pair of cleats. They were, of course, joined by a number of non-American athletes, many of whom have forcefully denounced racism in football and pledged to do whatever it takes to get it out.
Barriers, whether they be a broad concept like racism or a specific barrier to entry a la pay to play, are man-made. Toppling them is an incomprehensibly difficult task, as entire institutions are built upon them. In soccer as a sport and society as a whole, though, Black Players for Change are willing to do whatever it takes to make sure both become more equitable. The myriad of reasons why it decided to form in 2020 could not be more tragic, but the work they will do will one day make sure the beautiful game comes closer and closer to living up to its name.