Here’s an odd and utterly shocking (to me) bit of media trivia: according to media blogs the highest ever fee paid for movie rights to the New York Times is for a story about youth soccer in suburban Atlanta. After a fierce bidding war between Hollywood studios spurred by Warren St. John’s Times cover article on “Outcasts United” – a team of refugee youth in the small town of Clarkston, Georgia called the Fugees – Universal ultimately paid $3 million to the Times, to St. John, to the team’s coach Luma Mufleh, and to the organization built up around the team. Two years after the original article, and before the movie (for which I could find no production schedule), St. John has come out with a book version of “Outcasts United” which I recently read with both great curiosity and some trepidation.
I was most curious to learn what makes youth soccer so appealing to Hollywood, and interested to think through the issues of soccer in the lives of immigrants. But I was also worried that the real appeal here was the kind of “heartwarming” pabulum so often associated with the popular sports media—look, world peace really is possible if we just learn the life lessons soccer has to teach us! Reading “Outcasts United” both satisfied my curiosity and, probably to a lesser extent, validated my fears.
I am always fascinated by the humanistic claim that soccer is a force that inevitably brings people together despite so much evidence to the contrary. No less authority than Nelson Mandela has proclaimed that “sport has the power to change the world, the power to inspire, the power to unite people in a way that little else can,” and although his masterful use of the 1995 Rugby World Cup to unite precarious divides in South Africa is truly inspiring, much more common in my experience is the power of sport to create an enmity between groups that has little basis beyond the colors on a jersey. Games such as the recent US v Mexico clash in Azteca Stadium may bring together fans on each side, but those games also tend to drop a cleaver between Mexicans and Americans—an enmity that has no more visceral expression than the vomit, urine, bottles, refuse and hatred spewed at Landon Donovan when trying to simply take a corner.
“Outcasts United” ultimately offers stories of both unity and enmity, and its lessons about soccer and immigration are well worth considering seriously. I can’t help but wonder whether Hollywood will do the same.
“Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Town”
The book version of “Outcasts United,” despite a cover and a title hinting at a superficial sports chronicle, is in many parts a work of fairly serious journalism. It is Warren St. John’s second book, and having read his previous book about fan cultures and American college football, “Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer: A Road Trip into the Heart of Fan Mania,” I expected a more lighthearted tone. “Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer” was a funny and memoirish take on a season in the odd world of otherwise rational people who devote much of their lives to driving RV’s around the American south to watch the University of Alabama Crimson Tide every Fall Saturday (if you think European ultras are fanatical, try the couple who skips the wedding of their only daughter because she had the gall to schedule it at the same time as a regular season college football game). But while “Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer” was more humorous than “Outcasts United” it was not without some serious points about fan culture and American society. In describing his two books, St. John notes:
I think what the books have in common is that they’re both essentially about sociology, not sports. They’re about how people get along, how they organize themselves socially, how they – we – search for meaning in our lives and a sense of safety amid the unpredictability of the world. And while I don’t actually think of myself as a particularly obsessive sports fan or certainly not as a sports writer, sports does provide an interesting lens through which to view social phenomena. Sports makes people vocal – it provokes people to take sides and to temporarily suspend their inhibitions. People get out to see sports – they go to stadiums or to soccer complexes. They interact with strangers. The game distracts people just enough that they are willing to reveal things about their inner lives and thoughts that they might not reveal over a cup of coffee. Sports can act as a kind of truth serum.
In “Outcasts United” the balance between writing about soccer and writing about broader social issues is central to whether the book works. For me, the writing about soccer was well-meaning but lacking. The basic story focuses on coach Luma (as she is referred to in the book), a thirty-something Jordanian woman who came to the US for school and ended up settling in Atlanta with a passion for soccer but no clear career path. After bouncing around teams and jobs, coach Luma stumbles upon Clarkston and finds a small town full of refugee families and boys that share her passion but have no opportunities to connect with organized teams. Luma finds her niche, the boys get to be part of a team, and “heartwarming” soccer stories ensue.
Truth be told, the teams do not seem to be exceptionally good at soccer (there are several age-group teams described in the book, though the most focus is on a U15 and U13 team), and it is sort of a relief to not have to worry about them overcoming all odds to win a championship (though I will be curious to know whether Hollywood will allow that detail to slip). They win some games and they lose some games, and the descriptions of actual play are much less interesting than the contexts in which the play takes place. Though the end of the book tips its balance more towards writing about soccer, the bulk of the book is really about soccer as a window to the town of Clarkston and to broader social issues around immigration in global society.
Clarkston is an old Southern town run by a mayor who insists, to the dismay of a rapidly growing immigrant community sent by resettlement agencies drawn to Clarkston’s cheap rent and easy access to services, that Americans play baseball and baseball alone. The immigrants in the soccer program are mostly from Africa (Liberia, the Sudan, Congo, etc.) along with a few from Iraq, Kosovo, and other war-torn outposts, and central among the many confusions of their new American life is the fact that their town has an almost totally unused park—perfect for soccer—that the local police, on orders from the Mayor, protect with undue diligence. I suspect most any urban (and many suburban) resident in the Western world has seen a version of this situation: the quiet local park suddenly commandeered by boys or men in shorts and accents whose enjoyment seems only to be matched by their audacity in claiming unfamiliar space. “Outcasts United” points out that our reaction to that scene is a sort of Rorschach test for our attitudes towards the imagined other—regardless of how we feel about soccer, those twinges of fear or those impulses to join in say something about how we define “our” community.
The most interesting parts of “Outcasts United” for me were related insights into the nature of community in a world with increasingly porous borders. The book tells some engaging individual stories about families living in and leaving from places such as the Congo and Kosovo, but the overarching story is about the collective sense of place in Clarkston. This broader story highlights ways that nationality is really a pretty arbitrary concept in modern society, making soccer at all levels all the more fascinating for its ability to define national identity when nothing else is there. The Mexican immigrant living in suburban Chicago will often have little in common with the Oaxacan indigenas other than a desperate will to beat the US in Azteca and a conflicted appreciation for the subtle art of being Cuauhtémoc Blanco. The United Nations, the Olympics, and the World Cup are the primary public settings where diverse nations act as whole entities, and among those not a whole lot of people tune in to the United Nations.
So in Clarkston, we learn, the functioning of the “Fugees” soccer program is one possible example of how to manage “superdiversity.” Referencing Oxford scholar Steven Vertovec, the argument is that diverse communities can only function well if connections are organic rather than forced and top-down. When you just try to tell people they should appreciate diversity because it is the right thing to do or because celebrities tell you so (as in some of the anti-racism campaigns of European soccer), you are unlikely to have as much success as when people come together out of their own interest or necessity—as the refugee kids in Clarkston did around soccer.
At the end of “Outcasts United,” however, the success of the kids at uniting around soccer is much more clear than the success of soccer as a tool for integrating the community. The mayor of Clarkston, along with other old-time residents, are still wary of the refugees and I suspect that local antipathy towards soccer has more often grown rather than diminished through the process. That is not a criticism of the soccer program, which clearly plays an important role for the town’s youth. But it is a reminder that as often as soccer brings us together, it tears us apart.
Lessons from Soccer and the Immigrant Experience?
Where, then, to go with those cliché about bringing people together, and about soccer more broadly? One of the things I actually appreciated about “Outcasts United” was that it did not pander excessively to many of the youth soccer clichés about instilling corporate values such as “teamwork,” “self-discipline,” “self-esteem,” or “confidence.” Instead, the book makes clear that a soccer team most matters to children such as those from refugee families in Clarkston because it provides them the chance to connect with peers, adults, and institutions that can collectively advocate for future opportunities and for their well-being. Although coach Luma’s authoritarian emphasis on discipline and determination may have some positive effects on the children, in my reading it is her advocacy for their families that makes the real difference. By connecting soccer to school, by working through and with politicians to ensure spaces to play, by translating the customs and traditions of American life (such as, in one memorable bit, Halloween amidst McMansions), and by her general attention to strategically orienting soccer experiences with tools for appropriate degrees of integration, coach Luma tacitly highlights the ways that soccer itself is embedded in much more complex social systems.
Unfortunately, such systems are often over-simplified in idealized stories about soccer as a social good. I was interested, for example, to go to the Clarkston Fugees soccer club’s current web-site and see a statement from one of the programs new sponsors framing the program by observing that “Play is not an option for millions of young people around the world. There are no safe spaces to play, no coaches, no time, no equipment, no inspiration. It’s time to change how we make an impact by using sport as a tool for social innovation and inclusion.”
Although there may be some truth to that claim, the irony for me is that “Outcasts United” demonstrates the persistence of play amidst challenging restrictions. Having spent six months working with refugee children in Angolan refugee camps, I can attest to the fact that children in some of the world’s most unjust structural conditions often find much more time to play than children in affluent Western enclaves where tightly scheduled and supervised enrichment activities are the closest approximation of play. In fact, the reason coach Luma initially took on the “Fugees” soccer program was because she observed their raw enthusiasm for play from a far and found it a refreshing contrast to the attitudes of the affluent suburban girls youth team she had been coaching. Contrary to assumptions that disenfranchised peoples passively wait to be saved, children such as the refugees of Clarkston, Georgia often play heartily and robustly—though admittedly not always by our rules.
It will, I suspect, be something of a miracle if the coming Hollywood version of “Outcasts United” manages to convey such subtleties. Ultimately, the appeal of stories such as that of soccer amongst refugee children in Clarkston is that simplified versions allow for the comforting validation of our irrational beliefs. We want to believe that the challenges posed by immigration and “super-diversity” are easily solved with a few heroic people and programs. We want to believe that if not for the benevolent intervention of sponsors poor immigrant children would suffer silent lives deprived of play. We want to believe that soccer has a special power to unite people—to bring Landon and Cuauhtémoc together for long slow walks on the beach. For the most part “Outcasts United” makes it clear that it is not that simple.
Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion