How Do We Get More Black Girls in Soccer?: A Talk with World Cup Champ Briana Scurry

The US women's national team made history recently by becoming the first to win three Women&#...

The US women's national team made history recently by becoming the first to win three Women's World Cups. With the increased national attention on women's soccer, there's been little focus highlighting the racial disparity of the sport in America and what can be done to combat it.

We spoke to retired goalkeeper for the 1999 championship national team, and two-time gold medalist for the Olympic teams, Briana Scurry, about her path to soccer and getting black girls to see it as an option.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length 

For Harriet: How did you get started with playing soccer?

Briana: Well, my soccer background is a bit different than the norm. I started playing at age 12. During the last hour of class, the teachers used to pass around these little flyers, with "Come join soccer sign-up, or softball sign-up, or basketball, field hockey, full hockey," whatever it was. And I got this little flyer and I ran it home to my mom and dad and said, "Can I play soccer?" They said yes to everything basically, back then when I was playing, which is wonderful. They were very supportive.

FH: Did you encounter a lot of other black girls when you were playing?

Briana: No, actually. In the area where my parents moved, we were the only black family in that town, and probably the only black family in the town surrounding it.  Even when I started playing traveling soccer, traveling basketball, I was the only African American player on the team, and it's interesting because I remember that. But one thing that drove it home for me was recently, my mom passed away in January, and so going through her personal items, she had kept every single team photo of every sport I played, from 12 to 18. And I am the only African American in every single photo.

FH: When did you decide to focus on soccer, or how did you know that this was your sport?

Briana: I played multiple sports all the way up to and through high school. I played soccer every year without fail, I played basketball every year without fail, and then I would rotate that last season quote semester-ish of time between track and softball. So I played multiple sports, which I don't think a lot of kids do. Now there's a real intensive focus on one sport all the time, which I'm not a fan of.

I got multiple colleges interested in me, multiple scholarship offers, and I went with soccer because in part, I knew my family didn't have a lot of money. I had to get a scholarship if I was going to go to college. I was All-American soccer goalkeeper, but I was an All-State basketball player. I was a better soccer goalkeeper than I was a basketball player, even though I liked basketball more. I had more opportunity playing soccer.

FH: That touches on a really important point. There are so many opportunities in some of the smaller sports that we're missing out on. You said that one of your goals is to introduce choices for African American girls. How do we get young black girls to see soccer as an option for them?

Briana: That is a huge obstacle that I'm dealing with. It has several facets to it. In a lot of the areas where there's a high number of African American girls, predominantly in the urban areas, it's hard to get them into soccer because there's really not a lot of space to put a soccer field. It's a predominantly white suburban sport because, in part, of where you need to be in order to play it. Every school has a gym. That's where you can play basketball, anywhere. Well, not every school has enough space to have a soccer field out back. You have to have substantial amount of green space to have a soccer field, so there's that. There's a lack of space.

Also, it's a very high price point of entry to play soccer. For example, playing rec league, which is the leagues that usually those players don't aspire to play in college or beyond, it's a reasonable amount. Maybe 200 to 500 dollars a year. That's a lot. When it comes to travel—where I live [in Alexandria, Virginia], if your kid wants to play on Alexandria's soccer team on the travel side of things, no matter what age group, from my understanding, it's 1500 dollars just to play one season. My mom and dad, if they were alive today, right now, would say I was crazy. And these are the teams that produce the players around the country that end up getting seen in the showcase game, in high quality colleges, in high quality high schools, and they move throughout the Youth Soccer Association, the whole system.

I, to be honest with you, actually, was an anomaly. Because my parents didn't have any money. I played travel soccer, but my coach helped me pay for it. And that's the only way I was able to even play. So I was able to play at the higher level because he saw I had raw athletic ability. He helped me develop that. But if I had gone the way of rec, we wouldn't be having this conversation. And that's something that needs to change is the barrier to entry is income. And the economics of it.

FH: And so most of the kids who are playing soccer, they enter through rec leagues. Is that correct?

Briana: Yes. And they can get some sort of evaluation, and then I would probably say that most clubs have a split between the rec league and between the travel. And so if a kid enters in the rec league side, eventually, if the kid is really good, athletically, you can tell. So you can tell if that's someone who you might want to invest some time in and maybe bring them over to the travel side at some point. Now I know that's one of the ways that US youth soccer could help all these clubs with these players who may not be able to afford these parents to have their kid play on the traveling side.

FH: So you mentioned that the US league might be able to help tackle some of those financial concerns. Are there any other options, for people who don't have the funds to be able to pursue soccer or help get their kids in soccer?

Briana: What I do know is US Soccer Federation is the umbrella organization for all soccer in this country and they are the ones who are above the US youth soccer. So they are in charge of developing- which is what we're talking about- soccer in this country. And so somewhere in that tree of hierarchy, is somebody with the money to, if they chose or if they elected or if they legislated or however they do this, with the bylaws and whatnot, who could help basically have a program where they're actually going out there and trying to inspire and find players that might be interested in areas where there isn't a lot of access for them to play.

I don't know if there's an organization that exists like that within the hierarchy of US soccer and US Youth Soccer, but from what I'm seeing...for example, this women's national team Shannon Boxx, is mixed. So she and Sydney Leroux that are on the current team [are the only POC]. So clearly, there's an issue because there are colleges all over the country that have really good programs and have a decent amount of African-American players on those teams. So I'm not sure why they're not getting into the [top 30] pool. Our men's team, USA men's team, in term of players that play a good amount of time, there's a couple of players that are in that pool. But for women, it's very much underrepresented.

FH: Do you think that the lack of representation affects whether or not young black girls want to get involved in soccer?

Briana: Yes, to a degree. And here's why I say that: my inspiration to even getting into soccer was I wanted to be an Olympian. So at the time, when I was inspired to even maybe be an athlete at some point in my life, it wasn't necessarily any sport in particular. It ended up being soccer, as I went. That's where I had the most opportunity, and that's one of the sports I was passionate about. And so in that sense, it didn't affect me that I didn't see my sport being represented and inspiring me. But now I do feel when I was playing, and we won the World Cup in '99, I think seeing someone like them, young African American girls watching, did say to them, "Hey, she's like me."
That's the case for girls, period, in this country and in the world. If they see other women out there doing their thing, they want that, too. And that's indicative- And I know that to be true because this 2015 team, several of those girls were in the stands when we won our World Cup championship in 1999. Several of them were watching on TV. They themselves have said that in interviews, over and over again. That they were inspired by what we did. And now they are doing it. So yeah, absolutely, that matters.

FH: How do parents sell soccer, if they want to encourage their children to play, as opposed to the other huge flashy sports?

Briana: I think the way to sell it is it's a fantastic opportunity, it's just another choice that the girls have. I think if parents sell it as another choice, an option, to be active, to play as a team, to make friends, to be able to express yourself, to learn fun things about other people. Sell it that way. And I think it'll be effective. Because it's a wonderful sport. It is the ultimate teamwork sport because once you're out there on the soccer field with your teammates, you're going to have to figure it out on your own because there's no time out, there's no stop for a commercial break, there's none of that. So during a half, you have to figure it out together. And there's a very big closeness when it comes to soccer teams. And that's the other thing that's available, is the community.

And I know from my different endeavors over the years in helping organizations get more kids involved and especially young girls, is that it's a positive choice that they can make among all the so many negative things that happen in their lives.

FH: Remembering back to 1999, the media storm that surrounded the US women's national team after you guys won the World Cup, what do you think has changed in the 16 years that have passed since you guys won to the moment that we're in now with this team winning?

Briana: We as women showed, especially with '96 [Olympic team] and '99 in particular, that a woman's sporting event, standalone, by itself can bring in attention, can bring in media interest, can bring in fans, can bring in inspiration, can bring in money, can be held in the big venues and be exciting for people to watch, can bring ratings. And that was no small feat to prove to people in 1999. We as a team got out there and we sold our game to different clubs and different organizations for years before we actually ended up playing that tournament, because that tournament was originally not supposed to be in a giant stadium in Soldier Field and RFK. We had to push for that. That wouldn't have happened.

We fought for a lot of things back then. And we said, "We can do this. We can fill these stadiums full of people." And sure enough, we did. And now, with this current team, and a lot of them may or may not know how hard it was for us to do that, and how many doors and how many "No's" we got and how many people we had to literally convince that a woman's sporting event, soccer in America, can be something that's appealing to the masses. Those girls that saw and people that saw what we were able to do, that made the sport explode. Not only soccer in America, but women's athletics.

We showed that you can be strong and be beautiful, that you can be powerful and you can be intelligent, that you can be whatever you want to be, even if someone's telling you that's not something that's normal, that's not something that has happened, that's not your culture. It is your culture. Whatever your dream is, you can run it down. Look what we're doing. Nobody thought we could do this. And we're doing it. Not only did we pull it off, but we won it, also.

Let's not be people who forget. This is a sisterhood. This is a legacy. It is our responsibility to grow the game as well as play it. And so that is what the girls are doing right now, just like what we did in '99.

FH: Despite the fact that this was an incredibly high-rated game, that this team is getting paid substantially less than the men's team. But there also seems to be a differential in the amount of respect given to women's soccer and men's soccer. And I'm interested in how do we change that? How do we make sure that women are not only paid equally in soccer, but that their due respect is given to the work that they're put into the sport.

Briana: Well, a fantastic model for that is tennis. Billy Jean King, Venus Williams, and several other women tennis players fought for a very long time and 2009 was the first year that they got the final fourth grand slam to pay the men and women the same. Why not with women's soccer?

Now people make the argument that, "Well, it doesn't bring in the revenue.” Well, guess what? FIFA is our governing body for the sport in this world. FIFA's responsibility is to grow the game. Not grow the game for men only. They infuse a ton of money, and I mean a ton, into men's soccer. They do not infuse anywhere near the amount into women's soccer. However, this World Cup garnered $400 million is the price that FOX Sports paid to get the rights to view this World Cup. $400 million. Now who can tell me that $400 million isn't valuable to someone? Somebody got paid that money. Now, it's FIFA that got paid the money, so you can't make the argument to me that the women don't make money on one hand, if on the other hand you can garner $400 million price tag on the women's World Cup viewing rights.

Somewhere in those two arguments, there's a disconnect. Because if you're able to charge that much money, there is money being made. And so therefore the money needs to trickle into the hands of the teams that are participating, like they do with the men, and in the Champion pan.

FH: What is the most important lesson that you've learned in your time on the field?

Briana: Soccer has been a blessing to me. It's taught me that if you've got passion, you can chase down any dream you can imagine. And even dreams that may not have a way just yet, as to how you're going to get there, there's always eventually a way to get there.

No dream is too big, no dream is too broad, no dream is too lofty. If you want it, you can get it. You're going to have to work. There's work. You're going to have to allow it time. There's time, and you're going to have to be able to make adjustments, because the route you originally plan may not be the one that's supposed to be taken.

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