Prost Amerika has never shied away from politics because we believe that the world’s most popular sport cannot exist in isolation from the society around it. In an article earlier this week, Prost Editor Sean Maslin urged the soccer authorities to speak up.
“The groundswell of opposition to Mr. Trump was a fascinating turn in this story one of which included many different celebrities, activists, and athletes. Yet what was rather sad was the lack of response from the American soccer community. A group that perhaps fields perhaps the most diverse group of players, coaches, management, organizers, supporters, and mascots largely stayed silent on the issue.
“Soccer perhaps more than any other sport in the United States and in the world has served as a place where people can voice their opinions about social and political issues that are near and dear to them.”
He is right but there is another reason why soccer especially needs to speak up.
Unlike most popular sports in the USA, soccer is global. Yes, the MLB imports many of its finest talents from the Spanish speaking Caribbean. In fact, in 2013 more than a quarter of its current players were born outside the United States with the Dominican Republic leading the way.
The NBA has had a slew of Serbs, Italians and Croatians over the years but notably drawn players from mainly or partly Muslim nations like Senegal and Nigeria.
MLS however plays a sport that truly spans the globe and the league’s PR men realize this. Not only do they realize it, but they see it as a thing to draw to our attention.
Every year, they produce an article and in case the media misses it, sends out a press release to accompany it. This year, Sam Stejskal, who ironically worked for Real Salt Lake’s PR department in the years before that department’s war on journalism began, wrote:
“Major League Soccer has once again clocked in as the most diverse major North American sports league.
“MLS announced on Tuesday that it has the most diverse group of players among the top five major sports leagues in the US and Canada as determined by birthplace. As of last Friday, a total of 59 countries were represented by the league’s pool of 536 players, with 246 players born outside of the US and Canada.”
You can see the full list of MLS imports here, which includes 15 African nations and one Arab nation, the UAE through Mo Babouli who has also represented Canada at U-23 level. He is not alone. The Indy Eleven of the NASL currently employs Eamon Zayed, who represents Libya internationally.
The league is right to draw attention to it and look for media coverage. But with that tendency to draw attention to one’s own diversity, comes a responsibility to speak up when those players you use for your PR are under threat.
Immigrants of many hues are now under that threat. Muslims and Mexicans have received the worst of Trump’s abrasive tongue-lashings, but other Latinos are sure to get caught in the cross fire.
But MLS has observed a curious and embarrassing silence, where even the normally reserved Sunil Gulati spoke up in June before embarrassingly changing his view to the opposite within days of Trump’s election.
In June he said:
“I think the world’s perception of the United States is affected by who’s in the White House, yes, and so it has some bearing, sure. We’re going to bid for a World Cup if we think we’re going to be successful. I think whether we can be successful in a World Cup bid, or LA in an Olympic bid, is affected by the world’s view of our leaders. And not just the leaders of the soccer federation.”
By November 11, Mr Gulati had changed his tune.
“… we look forward to working with the President-elect. He’s an avid sports fans and we’ll wait and see if we bid, and what the rules of engagement are.”
Whereas Gulati has little incentive to stand up for the rights of foreigners to come and ply their trade in our local league, MLS Commissioner Don Garber has. If there are hardships and limitations on entry to the US based on nationality and religion, that diminishes the recruiting power of his league, which in turn diminishes its global standing.
To further complicate matters, three of our clubs are Canadian and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has shown no inclination towards a stricter and more parochial immigration policy. Are we to have a situation where only Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto can attract certain players – and even worse, they can only play in the home games?
That is only one of three awful scenarios.
What if a prominent Muslim player, Yaya Toure, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sami Khedira or Edin Dzeko, for example, makes a public statement that they won’t come to the USA because of its perceived anti-Islamic Government. Worse still, what if the Immigration Authorities deny a visa to one who will come? Or even if permitted, their relatives are denied entry to watch them play? MLS and American soccer will be dealing with a PR nightmare. Perhaps its greatest PR nightmare ever.
According to current press reports, President Trump’s current policy is not to ban all Muslim immigration but only those from seven countries; Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, and Iran. But something far more comprehensive was his policy as late as December 2015 when his campaign released this statement:
“Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”
Despite an immigration threat looming over “America’s most diverse league”, we are hearing nothing from MLS, an organisation always ready to trumpet its own diversity, as well as a rejection of bigotry through the “Don’t Cross the Line” campaign.
Gulati’s turnaround seems to have happened merely to keep the USA in with a chance of hosting the 2026 World Cup. Those of us who have been consistent in saying Qatar is an unfit place to host the jamboree cannot then say that no matter how ugly and racist America becomes, we’re still a fit place.
Yes, US Soccer should still bid but include a proviso that it will drop that bid nearer the time if US Immigration threatens the rights of any players or fans to participate. Iran and Iraq are always possible qualifiers, with Iran being in Brazil in 2014.
Moreover, beyond just practicality, sometimes you just have to speak out against things that are wrong as Arthur Blank did against a proposed homophobic state law in Georgia. The US soccer community needs someone to represent the concerns that most of us have. If that doesn’t happen at the top, you can expect to see some of the more progressive and attached Supporters Groups filling that gap.
In case some are worried about teeing off Middle America, it’s worth remembering that to many soccer will never be accepted anyway. Legendary former Notre Dame American football coach and ESPN commentator Lou Holtz spoke at the Republican National Coalition for Life in July.
Although his speech to the Republican faithful was ostensibly an anti-immigrant rant, he reserved a special acrimony for soccer.
“I don’t want to become you. I don’t want to speak your language, I don’t want to celebrate your holidays, I sure as hell don’t want to cheer for your soccer team!”
Per the article’s author Betsy Woodruff, the GOP faithful cheered this sentiment. We will never please Lou Holtz and there is no doubt some will take the stance that soccer should not be political.
But if you have a country that intends to deny entry from people, not on the basis of their fitness to enter, but purely on the grounds of their nationality or religion, then there is no avoiding the issue.
Soccer as a global sport will definitely be affected if Trump adheres to some of his more extreme promises, and probably affected if he keeps them as they are now.
We cannot stay silent.