Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Celebrate the Diversity of American Soccer

- Gilbert "Gillie" Heron

In the world of the Beautiful Game April 15th is most known for Hillsborough, but in the United States, April 15th is best know for one of the most significant sporting and cultural moments of the 20th Century. It was on April 15, 1947 that Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, forever breaking the color barrier that kept Americans of African descent from playing in the MLB. It should be noted that in addition to breaking the baseball color line, Jackie Robinson was among the earliest African-American soldiers to become commissioned officers during World War II.

During those 60 some odd years that the MLB kept black players out of its league (and occasionally taking the time to bash soccer as a foreign sport), the various professional and semi-professional soccer leagues scattered across the United States had, for the most part, more to worry about then the skin tone or pigmentation of the players. Maybe it was the path that Jackie Robinson forged in the three years since his debut, maybe it was the fact that soccer languished in a world with little press attention, or maybe it was a combination of those two factors (and other factors), that when the U.S. returned to the international stage at Brazil ’50, that the presence of Joe Gaetjens, who played for Brookhattan in the American Soccer League, on the U.S. National Team apparently caused little, if any, raised eyebrows in the press or the powers that be in U.S. Soccer. After all, Jamaica born Gilbert “Gillie” Heron had spent the 1940s playing for the Detroit Corinthians and Detroit Wolverines, and was labeled the “Babe Ruth of Soccer” by Ebony magazine in 1947. Heron, the father of musician Gil-Scott Heron, moved on to become the first black person to play football in Scotland, where he scored a goal for Celtic in 1951.

In the years since Joe Gaetjens scored the winning goal against England at Belo Horizonte, numerous players of African descent have played for the U.S. National Team, including Cobi Jones, Tim Howard, DeMarcus Beasley, Jozy Altidore, Eddie Pope, Tony Sanneh, Jimmy Banks, Desmond Armstrong, Oguchi Onyewu, Robin Fraser, Roy Lassiter, etc. While incidents of racism occur, for the most part, black soccer players in the United States have been spared the types of vicious comments made by fans that were not happy to see color barriers in baseball or in European football busted, many of these players, like other serious soccer players in the U.S., have had to endure the anti-soccer comments made by their peers who to understand the game.

While soccer may not be the most popular sport among African-Americans, a segment in which even the great American game, baseball, has lost traction, African-Americans have played an integral role in the development and evolution of soccer in the U.S.  So, on this day when we remember the victims of Hillsborough and the historical watershed that occurred when Jackie Robinson took the field in a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform, let us also remember and respect the diversity that has made and will continue to make soccer in the U.S. the Beautiful Game.

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