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Pay-to-Play Damages USWNT Diversity

America's current pay-to-play youth soccer system is one of the reasons racial diversity is lacking in the U.S. Women's National Team.

Tom Dulat/Getty Images

In the summer of 1999, I was on the cusp of high school. The United States Women's National Soccer Team was making its historic run to win the ‘99 Women's World Cup. I had been watching soccer as much as I could since 1996, the first year women's soccer was an event at the Olympics. A young woman named Lorrie Fair was a member of that now-legendary 1999 roster. I watched her in fascination, partly because I liked her as a player, and partly because she was the only woman in high-level soccer I had ever seen who looked like me.

The United States is an immigrant nation. There are a variety of reasons that immigrants flock to the U.S., both legally and illegally. My own parents immigrated in the 1970s in order to attend American graduate schools, where they met and got married. When I was old enough, they enrolled me in what was becoming an increasingly typical American activity: youth soccer. It's been more than 20 years since those first fumbling attempts at five-a-side, when we followed the ball around in a flock, and in the two decades-plus since there has been depressingly little progress in diversity in high level women's soccer.

This is not to suggest that U.S. Soccer is consciously racist. But it is suggesting that, based on a variety of factors, women of color are systematically excluded from soccer as they increase in competition level.

I watched her in fascination....partly because she was the only woman in high-level soccer I had ever seen who looked like me

Consider the sources of players for the national team. Many national teamers competed for the United States through multiple levels of their youth program. Many are scouted in college or as early as high school. Players in top college and high school programs usually play for elite youth soccer teams, hoping to be noticed by scouts. The rare player comes to the team's attention despite having avoided the youth national teams almost entirely, such as Abby Wambach, who earned a spot through excellent play in WUSA. But Wambach also went to women's soccer powerhouse University of Florida under head coach Becky Burleigh, and was a member of the U-20 player pool.

Elite youth soccer is an expensive undertaking, sometimes demanding several thousand dollars a year or more at the high end. Costs can run high even at very young ages. The Boston Breakers Junior Academy costs $900 for the year for U-9s and younger, but the U-10 Elite team cost $1,670 including tournament fees and other expenses for the year.[1] McLean Youth Soccer asks $1,136 per season for its U-13 to U-18 ECNL girls' travel teams.[2] FC Dallas charges $2,500 if paid up front, but charges more if payments are made in installments.[3] FC Portland charges $2,000 in club dues alone for its U-14 ECNL program, with added costs of uniforms and tournaments elevating total costs above $3600.[4] At FC Portland's U-16 level , final estimated costs are $7,216.

Players looking to advance out of youth soccer must be scouted, which means finding teams, clubs, and coaches with the right network and the right name recognition. Sometimes it means club-hopping to a better prospect, which naturally means paying dues all over again at the new club. Higher-income families can also afford private coaching and tend to have at least one parent who can afford the time investment of transporting their child to practices and games, as well as networking with coaches and scouts. Those clubs with more connections are able to charge higher fees, not just for the increased opportunity, but for better training equipment, access to better fields, and full-time support staff.

Most teams offer scholarships based on their yearly budget, which is affected not just by dues but by fundraising and any sponsorships the club is able to attract. Sometimes the scholarship takes the form of waived base fees, leaving the player still responsible for their own gear - including home and away kits, warm-up gear, cleats, and shinguards - and often travel costs. It is rare for clubs to simply allow low-income children to play for free because costs have to go somewhere, whether it be other parents or other teams in the club.

The underlying foundation of youth player development in the United States is money. At its most basic level, soccer is a game that can be played anywhere, anytime, for nothing, as long as players have access to a vaguely round object. But on an organized level, with players and parents anxious to ascend to professional or national ranks, the cost is prohibitive to families in the lower tax brackets. Even assuming "only" $1,000/year in fees and equipment, this extra cost knocks out a huge percentage of households based on the median household income in 2013 of $51,939. Broken down further, median household income among Hispanics was $40,963 and among blacks was $34,598.

Median Income 2013

Fees almost certainly eliminate many of these households, not least of all the 11.2% of American families living below the poverty threshold in 2013.[5] 9.6% of non-Hispanic whites were living below the poverty threshold in 2013, compared to 27.2% of blacks and 23.5% of Hispanics. The poverty threshold in 2013 for a family of three with one child under 18 was $18,751. Even fees in the hundreds of dollars are prohibitive for a family living on under $20k/year, and depending where in the country you play, fees can run up to $3,500/year or more. High level soccer is a sport for the solidly middle class and above, notwithstanding the self-sacrificing parents who work multiple jobs to make travel costs, tournament fees, and equipment purchases.

The NCAA is currently host to some of the best crops of young players in the world, acting almost as an incubator for the women's game. Thanks to Title IX, women's programs in the United States have flourished and led to the establishment of at least one dynasty and handfuls of mainstays and serious competitors. Top schools like UNC, Stanford, UCLA, UVA, University of Portland, Michigan, Florida, Notre Dame, and more all boast of internationals who came through their ranks.

But university education in America is not cheap, and not every player on a team can count on a full or even partial scholarship. Among the winning and runner-up teams at the College Cup since 1999, average tuition using in-state figures is nearly $30k/year. Using out-of-state figures the average tuition increases sharply to $44k/year. For a family living paycheck to paycheck, their only options are to take out student loans at exorbitant interest rates with no guarantee of being able to pay back the loans after graduation, or not to attend college.

Currently the United States population is approximately 37% nonwhite.[6] According to the 2010 census, 16.3% of the total population identified as Hispanic or Latinx, 12.6% identified as black or African American, and 4.8% identified as Asian.[7] The country is projected to be home to a majority of minorities for the first time by 2043. In five years, the census bureau projects that minorities will make up over half of children under 18. But the USWNT's roster has not changed to reflect the country's shifting population dynamics.

Since the first Women's World Cup in 1991, women of color on either World Cup or Olympic rosters have been comprised of Briana Scurry, Thori Staples, Staci Wilson, Lorrie Fair, Saskia Webber, Tasha Kai , Shannon Boxx, Tina Ellertson, Angela Hucles, Danielle Slaton, and Sydney Leroux. Eleven women since 1991, a span of 24 years. Including women of color on the current roster, Crystal Dunn and Christen Press, the total becomes 13.

The 1999 USWNT roster contained 20 players. Of those 20, three were women of color: Briana Scurry, Saskia Webber, and Lorrie Fair. Fair and Scurry went on to help the USA win the silver medal in the 2000 Summer Olympics, joined by Danielle Slaton.

Of the 25 names on the current (as of March 13) USWNT roster, four are women of color: Boxx, Dunn, Leroux, and Press. Twenty-five is a very small sample size, of course, so it could be beneficial to make comparisons to other nations with significant minority populations such as Canada, who currently has five women of color on its latest roster of 24 (Kadeisha Buchanan, Robyn Gayle, Ashley Lawrence, Karina LeBlanc, and Desiree Scott). England has five women of color out of a roster of 23 (Alex Scott, Demi Stokes, Jess Clarke, Eniola Aluko, and Lianne Sanderson). France's roster of 23 has nine women of color (Sarah Bouhaddi, Emmeline Mainguy, Griedge Mbock Bathy Nka, Wendie Renard, Kenza Dali, Kheira Hamraoui, Elodie Thomis, Maria-Laure Delie, and Kadidiatou Diani).

The NWSL fares better simply by virtue of having a larger player pool. However, of all 2014 rosters, including players who were temporarily called up from the amateurs or were let go mid-season, 48 out of 217 players listed on were women of color, or 22.1%. By demographic, 13.8% of total players were black, 5% were non-white Hispanic or Latina, and 2.3% were Asian or Pacific Islander, showing proportionate representation among black women but severe under-representation especially among Hispanic and Latina women. Counting players by those who actually received minutes, 40 out of 204 listed players were women of color, or 19.6%. 12.7% of all players were black, 3.9% were Hispanic or Latina, and 2% were Asian or Pacific Islander.

NWSL Players by Race

Median income among Asian families in the U.S. in 2013 was $67,065 per year. If money were the only causal link between players and advancement through the system, then you would expect Asian players to be over-represented by percentage. But they are not, suggesting there are other factors at work which influence Asian entrance into women's soccer. There are certainly cultural factors that influence what sports Asian women play and why.

In many Asian families, soccer is not typically seen as a path to advancement or a legitimate career option; rather it is an extracurricular activity that must compete with sports such as golf, tennis, and swimming. Conversely, soccer has a much greater cultural cachet in Hispanic and Latinx communities, so by this metric many more Hispanic or Latina children should be entering youth soccer. But once again there are more factors at work than simply the cultural or financial. The difference here is that Asian families who can afford high level soccer are opting out of that route for various reasons, but low-income families have no choice in the first place.

Many women of color in the NWSL had stints in the youth national teams. Of all U-20 Women's World Cup rosters from 2008 until 2014, 15 out of 86 were women of color, or 17.4%. Eleven of those women are or at some point were rostered to an NWSL team. The 2010 U-20 roster was an anomaly, being nearly half women of color with 10 out of 21 players, including current national teamers Crystal Dunn and Sydney Leroux. But in the next U-20 World Cup, that number was down to four, and then in 2014, down again to two.

This is by no means an argument for forced corrective measures such as quotas. But, all things being equal, you would assume that simply by percentages, there should be more women of color on the squad over time. And in fact the USWNT's minority population did grow from 1995 to 2007, increasing from zero women of color on the 1995 World Cup Roster to five on the 2007 roster. But by 2012, there were only two: Shannon Boxx and Sydney Leroux. In 2011, when Leroux's ascendancy as a striker for the senior team was in its infancy, Boxx was the only woman of color on the World Cup squad that went to Germany.

The odds are simply stacked against young women and girls of color who want to push further in soccer. For all the boasting that the United States is a meritocracy where talent and hard work are the keys to advancement, the doors to national team advancement are only open to a select few who have already passed a different, but no less rigorous kind of screening that has nothing to do with individual quality but much to do with systemic inequality.

So how to remedy the problem? As stated before, quotas are not a solution, at least not at the senior level. I suspect no athlete at that level would want to be included as a quota requirement either, unless they had already earned their way in. But at the entry level, where differences in ability are ostensibly at minimum, diversity goals could be incredibly useful. By the time players are at the college or U-20 level, the system has already filtered out poor children, which disproportionately affects women of color. The solution has to start at the earliest stages of development.

U.S. Soccer could help subsidize more programs in low-income areas, providing not just equipment but coach and referee training. Clubs could set growth goals over the next five to ten years that their teams should try to better reflect their communities. USSF could demand that affiliated organizations like U.S. Youth Soccer require members to significantly lower their tournament fees.

Other associations such as U.S. Club Soccer are aware of the detrimental effects of high costs to player participation. USCS runs the id2 talent identification program, which is free to all players and allows them a chance to be observed by national staff. Every youth soccer organization, whether USYS, AYSO, or USCS should have some level of free talent identification and a commitment to lowering barriers to entry for underserved communities.

Will all this cost money? Of course. Change always comes with costs. But with U.S. Soccer asking $10,500 per person for their Patrons Program Girls Camp experience ($9,500 with an early discount) the fundraising opportunities clearly exist.[8]

Diversity has value not just in and of itself by allowing for different experiences and points of view, but also in correcting the exclusion of groups from a time when women's soccer in the United States was marketed to a very white, very suburban audience. Reaching for diversity and visibility is not about achieving perfectly proportional representation, but about ensuring that all players in all situations understand that they have the same opportunities to prove themselves.

Beyond simply being the right thing to do, diversifying the player base makes practical sense. Broadening the talent pool for the national team at every level through affordable club play and equal opportunity talent identification creates a stronger US Soccer. The next Alex Morgan could be toiling in obscurity for want of funding, training, and exposure. Not everyone can be great, but greatness can come from anywhere.

One thing is certain: the national team is looking increasingly less and less like the nation it represents. Lack of representation creates a feedback loop: certain groups don't see themselves valued or included in an activity, so they disregard it; the activity continues to lack representation, so excluded groups don't see themselves as part of it; the cycle repeats.

Some 16 years after that fateful summer day at the Rose Bowl, Sydney Leroux posted on her Facebook about meeting a young fan who, upon seeing her, began crying and told her "I look like you and I want to be just like you."[9] Hopefully, changes at the grassroots level will filter up into the national team so that young players looking for reflections of themselves won't have to search so hard to find them.

Author's note: Diversity is a complex topic. For the purposes of this article, while counting the women of color on national squads, I chose to list only those who were visibly of color or those who have publicly claimed an identity as a woman of color. This is not to deny that some people who present as white in fact do not claim white heritage and prefer not to be identified as such, but it avoids overtly labeling anyone who has not made their preference known.