Going Pro: Kelsey Davis, American Soccer, and Emerging Adulthood

During the last few weeks much of the news from both Major League Soccer and Women’s Professional Soccer came from that odd American sports concoction known as “the draft.”  And while the draft itself may well be of diminishing relevance to North American versions of the global game, it still fascinates me as a marker of a transition—the draft offers that rare moment in sports where everyone can win, where everyone has new life.  For American soccer players, however, that new life is rarely as certain as it promises to be for the future millionaires drafted by the NBA or the NFL.  For American soccer players such as Kelsey Davis the draft is instead a first step into the uncertainty of adulthood.

photo by Jamie Francis/The Oregonian

Davis was recently drafted as a goalkeeper by the Chicago Red Stars, recently graduated from the University of Portland, recently completed a national team training camp (with the U-23’s), and recently was kind enough to sit down with me and talk about it all.  I actually talked with Davis before the WPS draft, and do not have any particular insight regarding her role with the Red Stars.  In other places she seems to have said the right things—“Obviously it’s been my dream since I was a little girl…I know Chicago is an awesome city… it’s a huge sports town.”

But my interest, motivated partially by my academic life studying human development, is more in Davis as a profile in what it means to be a young American player full of potential who also has this “real life” thing to figure out.  I’ve known Davis indirectly for a few years, just enough to be aware of her reputation around Portland as intense, engaged, and thoughtful—both on and off the soccer field.  And I have a long standing curiosity in thoughtful perspectives on what it means for American soccer players to go pro.

For most, it’s not about the money.  Though I have no idea exactly what Davis will earn, it won’t be much.  The average WPS salary has been quoted as $32,000, but that average includes minimum salaries of $40,000 for national team players and a few international salaries such as Marta’s reported $500,000.  So the average player actually probably makes more like $20,000.  In other words, significantly less than the typical college graduate who isn’t an elite athlete.

For many, there would be other options.  Davis has been a serious student, and holds academic ambitions beyond her undergraduate degree in theology (with minors in education and social justice)—maybe law school, maybe graduate work in ethics.  She feels called ultimately to some sort of human rights work.  But that is tough to combine with professional soccer, even in the low-paid world of WPS.  If you want to go pro, soccer kind of has to dominate your identity.

Davis, however, doesn’t seem like the type of person to let any one thing define her.  She is passionate about soccer, but she also lit up when I asked her about the signature line in her email—a quote from mid-20th century writer, monk, and social activist Thomas Merton: “We have what we seek, it is there all the time, and if we give it time, it will make itself known to us.”

“Merton is just my man” Davis explained.  “Theologically and spiritually, I just connect with his line of thought and where his heart’s at.  But also, for my own self, in life and in soccer we are constantly searching for what we are, who we are, and our identity.  But I think that literally all the answers are already there.  It’s just a matter of it being revealed in us.  And learning to trust ourselves a little bit.”

“There’s so much insecurity that comes around, especially in sports. It’s just you’re constantly being measured, and questioning yourself, and compared to this person or that person, in this constant pursuit of something.  So for me it just grounds me to remember, ok—it’s already there.  Just work with what you’ve got.  Don’t look too much around at other people…I love that quote.”

Learning

It’s been an eventful year.  In the summer of 2009 Davis got called up to the full US National Team for a training camp, and shattered her jaw in a collision while playing in an exhibition with the U-23 team.  In the fall she helped lead a good Portland Pilots team to the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament, losing at that stage after being sent on the road for the second year in a row to UCLA—the school from which Davis transferred after her freshman year.  In the winter she graduated from UP, and in January she was drafted.  But hovering around it all is the fact that in June of 2009 her father committed suicide.

Davis has been remarkably open and peaceful about losing her father, who she calls her best friend.  As she told her hometown paper in July, her Dad had been struggling with depression for many years and “he was kind of just too tired to do it again.”  And as she told me when I asked her if she thought her Dad was important for telling her story, “I think it definitely matters to the story…he still influences me every day…We primarily communicated through emails because he was a little bit deaf.  But he was a brilliant guy, a lawyer, an English major.  So we connected intellectually.  And he was always a source of comfort, and affirmation, and perspective.”

When I asked about him getting tired, she explained, “yeah, he struggled with depression and he had an addictive personality.  But he just stopped taking his medicine…something was off.  But he and I were pretty open with each other.  I knew his demons; I knew what he struggled with.  Did I ever expect that?  No.  Not really, just because he would always come back around.  He would always find a way to make sense of things.”

Finding a way to make sense of things is not always a specialty of elite American soccer players.  From a young age our players are tightly programmed, carpooled to suburban club teams, shuttled around the region with state teams, targeted for college scholarships.  Davis actually remembers being frustrated as a 12 year old when told by her coaches that she would have to either switch from field player to goalkeeper or find a new team—until her Dad confronted her in the kitchen: “You have the talent.  Use it.”  She explained “he helped me realize what was inside me, like the Merton quote.  My dad was amazing at extracting things out of me, and saying: ‘Look, you have it too.  You can do this.’”

By age 14 Davis was playing goalkeeper with her first in a series of youth national teams, soon to be travelling the world at the pinnacle of US youth development: Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Canada, Russia, and more places that opened her eyes.  But even on those trips the system is tightly programmed.  I’m regularly amused by US Soccer web features celebrating their various travelling teams finding the best Starbucks in Shanghai or the perfect hotel pool in Egypt.

But Davis tells me it depends some on the team.  She admits the players often joke about travelling to amazing destinations only to hole up in the hotel for weeks, but she also remembers fondly a trip to Brazil with the U-20’s where head coach Tim Schulz encouraged the team to soak in the culture—to go to the beach, hike in the rainforest, visit the market, and see true passion for the game: “Soccer can be just absolutely beautiful as a game itself.  If you break it down technically it is almost like a dance or an art.  Having the ability to participate in that is like being able to make music, in a way.  When I think about soccer like that I think about Brazil.”

Promoting the Ronald McDonald House (photo by Will Crew, on espn.com)

And when I think about soccer at its best I think about a game that can open minds—which is one reason I’m amongst the odd group of serious American fans who like college soccer.  When it is done well I like the idea of sports being combined with education, and I like how a player such as Davis seems to have used her college experience to genuinely explore ideas and identities.  She started at UCLA, attracted by the prestige of the place.  But it wasn’t for her—“I made the decision to commit to UCLA when I was like 16 years old.  I mean how much do you really know about yourself when you are 16?”  So when she transferred to Portland she immersed herself in soccer, in school, and in the community.  She’s particularly proud of taking the lead on a successful initiative for the team to adopt a room at the local Ronald McDonald house—where they had an ongoing tradition of student-led volunteer work.

It’s all led her to feel a commitment to something beyond soccer, maybe in combination with soccer.  But that path is less clear and seems more challenging to make sense of.  Beyond college, it is hard to think of soccer players who genuinely combine the game with serious intellectual engagement—though they may be out there?  But for Davis, perhaps thanks partially to the hard-won perspective garnered from an eventful year:  “It’s pretty simple when it comes down to it.  I honestly believe I have a talent for soccer.  A gift for soccer.  I’m in a place right now that’s pretty special.  I have opportunity before me.  My capacity to continue to get better is still there.  I’m not at my peak yet.  And in the same right, I think that I have a gift for the academic world too.  I have a desire in my heart to continue my education, to continue learning.  I think that I have tools necessary for that.  Have I arrived?  No.  Have I arrived athletically?  No.  Who knows if I ever will arrive either.  It’s more the capacity for the pursuit is there.”

Pursuing

Davis looks like she was made to be a goalkeeper.  She has square shoulders that frame a tall athletic build at once compact and lithe.  In her goal box she conveys an air of being simultaneously commanding and fraught, as if she cannot let the ball cross the line because she realizes the stakes.  As if she sometimes wonders what life would be like if she was not made to be a goalkeeper.

There are many perks that come with being a great soccer player, but opportunities for identity exploration are generally not among them.  In fact, in the study of lifespan development there is a term for what happens to adolescents who commit very young to a particular identity—such as that of an elite athlete.  We call it foreclosure, and it is generally considered a bad thing.

There is also an idea that in contemporary Western society the identity exploration of adolescence no longer leads directly to a relatively settled identity in adulthood.  Instead, there is a whole other stage of emerging adulthood—a period of continued exploration necessitated by greater educational expectations, increasingly eclectic career paths, delays in the age at which people start a family.  This “new” stage is full of exciting opportunities, but it can also be full of anxiety and uncertainty.  And I have an untested theory that it can be particularly challenging for elite athletes whose success and focus through their youth offers little help in exploring other domains of their potential.

Davis recognizes the challenge, but is more optimistic than me: “Soccer is amazing, and I have an extreme amount of goals in that.  But there’s this whole other side [of academics and intellectual engagement].  Can I do both?   I’ve had coaches in my life that have told me no, absolutely not.  There is no way to be an Olympian and try to get a masters or a doctorate.  And for me that’s heartbreaking.  I feel like they are so much both a part of who I am that I want to do both.  And I know that in the past people told women’s soccer players, you can’t be a mom and have a family on the full national team.  And then people like Joy Fawcett, they totally just shattered that.  They were like, yes we can.”

So when I ask Davis about who of her US Soccer predecessors she particularly admires it is not necessarily the goal scorers or the goal stoppers—it’s players such as Christie Rampone.  Davis explains, “Being into camp last year and seeing the way that she functions as a mother, and as an elite athlete, and just the integrity that she has is amazing.  It’s absolutely amazing.”

But it is also interesting that it is hard to think of examples of players—male or female—who’ve balanced anything other than soccer and family, no matter how amazing that particular balance may be.  There are, in fact, ways in which excelling at soccer requires a single-minded focus that precludes the types of intellectual engagement towards which Davis could be inclined: “It’s ironic because part of what I’ve learned to be successful in soccer is to just not think.  But it’s such a part of who I am, it’s been a challenge for me to keep things simple and turn it off.  Because I can analyze and over-analyze anything in the world.”

So for a player such as Davis is “the draft” an opening, or is it just another step in “turning it off?”  Will she get a chance to genuine explore the possibilities of emerging adulthood, or is she destined to struggle with the necessity of identity foreclosure?  By going pro Davis is living the dream of many young players—but is it her dream?

She thinks so.  “I love it.  And I think that when you love something you stay with it.  Regardless of what it gives or takes.  Just like a relationship.  And I think that it’s good for me to remember that I do love the game.  Regardless of what’s going to happen.”


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