2014 FIFA World Cup, Featured, June 2014

Joga Bonito E Feio: Racism and the Battle For Soccer’s Soul: One Writer’s Journey

The World Cup will end here, at the Maracana. It begins in the favelas.

The World Cup will end here, at the Maracana. It begins in the favelas.

Joga Bonito E Feio: Racism and the Battle for Soccer’s Soul: One Writer’s Journey

In April 2006, FIFA announced the beginning of its “Say No to Racism” campaign, designed, according to FIFA President Sepp Blatter, to use the unifying power of football to combat discrimination of all kinds, and “eradicate the blight of racism forcefully and resolutely.” Two World Cups later, the fight continues. And soccer is losing. The vignettes that follow are an account of one soccer writer’s four year journey to deal with both racism in the game he loves, and his own personal relationship with race.

Neil W. Blackmon                                                                                                                                                                  


Travel to the Estádio do Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro, which will host the 2014 World Cup Final, and you’ll be exposed to one of the world’s only buildings that truly seems to live and breathe. It isn’t just the samba drums, though there’s that. It’s the sense and feel of the place, from the odd moat surrounding the pitch to the cavernous corner called the curva where the samba cadence originates to the polished granite sidewalks honoring Brazil’s greatest soccer players. It was at the Maracanã in 1969 where Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pelé, scored his 1,000th goal in competition, and it was here, in 1961, where Pelé scored what a plaque at the Maracanã memorializes as “the most beautiful goal ever,” dancing around six defenders while faking pass after pass until finally, mercifully, putting the ball past a hapless goalkeeper from Senegal. It is quite the place to end the world’s grandest sporting event, which begins Thursday in São Paulo. From the sky, or even from the middle class neighborhood in which it is situated, the stadium’s stature doesn’t do justice to its splendor. As sporting cathedrals go, the Estádio do Maracanã is Yankee Stadium, Notre Dame Stadium, Rupp Arena, Soldier Field, Phog Allen Fieldhouse and Madison Square Garden rolled into one.

Rio de Janeiro itself, however, is truly two cities. The rich and small middle class live along the beachfronts. The poor live in the hills. Most major cities have slums. Rio’s are unique. The city is home to around 600 favelas, wondrous in both their static location and omnipresence. Long controlled by gangs and drug lords- and often both- the favelas peer down from the mountaintops surrounding Rio as the most tempting form of “forbidden fruit,” to dangerous to enter even for government officials despite the beauty of the views and the intrigue of the history. They are the perversion of the “city on a hill” narrative, an almost lawless, anarchic geographical space whose day-to-day happenings, to those who dwell outside them, are akin to the woods in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, ever seen, never entered.

The Christ the Redeemer Statute, above Providencia.

The Christ the Redeemer Statute, above Providencia.


Providencia is Rio’s oldest favela– settled in 1897 by returning war veterans and freed slaves, only eight years after Brazil abolished slavery, and in so doing, became one of the last nations to do so. From the highest hills in Providencia, with the art deco Christ the Redeemer statute just behind, one can see most the city, from the football stadiums to the city’s beloved port area to the resorts that litter the beaches below. Undoubtedly, the Christ the Redeemer statute, “Cristo Redentor”, will be one of the favored images of Rio and this World Cup projected on millions upon millions of television screens across the world in the weeks to come. The story of the neighborhoods in those same hills and mountains, however, is a far more complicated, but accurate visage of this World Cup.


Most cities hosting large events have, at the least, cleared or gentrified their “slums” in the build-up to hosting global events. Beijing did this before its Olympics; Johannesburg tried (though South Africa failed in so many other ways to deal with its shantytowns) before the 2010 World Cup; London gentrified; Atlanta the same. In Rio, which will also host the next Olympic Games, most efforts were centered on the Johannesburg model of “mass clearance”- more fairly read- “displacement”, and massive protests were successful, by and large, in short-circuiting those efforts. The Autódromo favela, for example, sits just behind the fence of the new Olympic park. Consistently turned down in its request for funding (despite promises) and very basic infrastructure improvements (consistently operating electricity, modernized sewage systems, clean water), the Autódromo favela and its residents see their continued existence as a means of protest, and yes, of pride.

So the favelas live on- trapped by the “right of occupation” which is met by government inaction and the attendant sadness that portends—staring down at this World Cup that begins Thursday. And there isn’t enough tragedy in Shakespeare to begin to explain the ugly madness of that fact, that the favelas, home to over a quarter of Rio’s residents, will watch this World Cup from the hillsides both always affected and ever unaffected by the tournament’s presence beneath him. For it is in the favela that the soul of Brazilian soccer was born.

The people of the Rio favelas are largely black. In the early years after the British brought soccer to Brazil- the spread of soccer was a largely evangelical mission by the British Empire- a way of pacifying the conquered with games and leisure at the expense of blood and treasure—the sport was to be played by only whites. It was not until blacks began to play and mulattos could stop painting their faces whiter that Brazil began to become a global soccer power. The first of these players was Leonidas, who led the 1938 World Cup in goals. Brazil didn’t win that championship, but did win three in the generations that followed led by Pelé, Garrincha, Didi, Jairzinho- all black men—and all skilled in a cunning way of play that is historically linked to the favelas. The favelas were (and are) home to the malandro, which, for lack of a succinct definition, is an outlaw and trickster who survives by his wits and savvy, often fooling those richer or more powerful than himself, evading the law. He is a bohemian, a joker and a smartass. When you ask a Brazilian why (historically) they play soccer so beautifully, they’ll likely bring up the malandro first.

In Soccer Against the Enemy, Simon Kuper’s masterful account of the interrelation between soccer, political power, politics, culture and revolution, Kuper asks a Brazilian professor, Muniz Sodre, to explain the malandro of the favela.

His response is illuminating: Let me draw you a picture,” he said. “If you go to a favela,” and I would have been mad to do so, “you will see a woman—there is no man in the house—who takes care of her five or six boys. The smartest of these boys, who can flee from police if he needs to, who can put up a fight, is a good soccer player. He can dribble past life’s difficulties. He can provide food for his mother. There is a deep connection between tricking defenders on the soccer field and being a smart boy in real life. This boy is a Malandro.” Brazilians play soccer admiring, and aspiring, to the malandro’s grand sense of grace and trickery. Their greatest players, like Garrincha, Pelé, and even of late, Ronaldinho, are great movers of the ball and dribblers, and are capable of inventing their own movements. “Brazilian soccer is not only a sport,” Sodre tells Kuper, “it’s a kind of stage play, a theatrical movement.”

Garrincha, "joy of the people", who returned to the favelas from where he came.

Garrincha, “joy of the people”, who returned to the favelas from where he came.

Pelé will be everywhere at this World Cup (He’s so often everywhere anyway), talking about joga bonito and Brazil’s unique style, but in many ways, it will be hard to watch this World Cup without thinking of Garrincha, who died before his fiftieth birthday and upon his retirement, retired to the favelas from whence he came (Many Brazilian soccer players, to this day, are broke when they quit, a product of the cartola driven, corrupt Brazilian soccer culture and the unfortunate cultural habit of Brazilian players surrounding themselves with friends who aren’t truly that. Pelé only became a rich capitalist after he became broke as well, forcing a late career move to the United States). Garrincha left football having played in three World Cups and winning two, but the rugged, diluted capitalism that drove Pelé out of Brazil and ultimately brought him back may, despite our best efforts, leave that story in the slums too.

As Brian Phillips wrote in this wonderful piece at Grantland,  Brazil never lost a match when Pelé and Garrincha played together. Garrincha, known in Brazil as “joy of the people”, was born with deformed legs. Doctors wondered if he would ever walk but he became the greatest dribbler in history. He was malandro to the corps, essentially tricking a physical defect (his legs weren’t the same size) with a mesmerizing, artistic skill on the ball. Off the pitch, he was a train wreck, an alcoholic who wrecked cars, fathered several children with multiple mothers and whose “friends” stole his fortune. But on the pitch, he and Pelé were magic. Garrincha was Ruth to Pelé’s Gerhig. And they won and won and won.  But Brazilian soccer has changed since. While remnants of the free-flowing, artistic joga bonito of the Brazilian game remain, both in reality and in the popular cultural perception, Brazil have played differently since losing shockingly to Italy in the 1982 World Cup, a game Jonathan Wilson called in Inverting the Pyramid “the day a certain naivety in soccer died” and “system won.” Italy won by setting up ruggedly in defense- something Brazil considered shameful. Ever since, however, with the possible exception of 2002, Brazil have played afraid, with coaches deploying defensive formations and choosing more rugged personnel to avoid losing, despite the fact that many at home would rather lose gracefully and beautifully than win ugly. Brazil don’t lack in attacking talent; the boys of the favelas still have their impact on Brazilian soccer, in the form of Ronaldinho’s and Ronaldo’s (the Brazilian one) and so forth. But the dream of team of Garrincha’s, who stared defeat down with a dance, lives on. And the fact that Garrincha left life early, and Pelé has angered many of the residents of the favelas who stare down from the hills at this World Cup in contempt, seems a fitting way of describing that conflict.

Brazil could win this World Cup, and be derided at home for not playing beautifully enough. Such was the fact of the Dunga captained Brazil in 1994. Protest of circumstance. Protest of established order, rules, of tactical rigidity. Protests of corruption. The fact this World Cup has been met with such vicious political resistance, from the subway strikes in Sao Paulo to the failure of the government to give aid to the favelas to the colossal deficit and loss of lives building the stadiums- some of haven’t really been finished and others which haven’t passed US or UK safety measures, but have been approved by FIFA anyway, further illustrates the point that in every respect, Brazilian soccer is about protest. The soul of Brazil’s soccer is firmly rooted in the favelas. The battle for the country’s soul, however, rages on.  

Bloody Sunday in Selma, a seminal moment in the Civil Rights Movement, occurred only a mile from where I was sitting.

Bloody Sunday in Selma, a seminal moment in the Civil Rights Movement, occurred only a mile from where I was sitting.



The evidence that my family owned slaves is in a basement records archive in Selma, Alabama. It was a cold day in mid-December 2010, with gray skies and swirling wind and people are starting to turn their Christmas lights on when I found this out. I was sitting less than a mile from where John Lewis was beaten savagely after marching across the Edmund Pettus on “Bloody Sunday” in March 1965. I needed a beer.

An hour later, at a bar with a drink in hand, I wondered why I’d made the three hour drive from my apartment in Atlanta. I had a day off and a head full of curiosity. I didn’t want to finish my Christmas shopping. I still don’t know.

There were 37 of them by 1860, just before the Civil War. Thirty-seven. What happened to them next I don’t know. Maybe one day I’ll wake up curious.

This all happened on my father’s side of the family. My mother’s side immigrated last century, and lived in the north. But as an Atlantan and old Floridian all at once, with a sister who won a Daughters of the American Revolution scholarship and a grandfather whose bookshelves were lined with Civil War books that I borrowed and read word for word before I was even in high school, a fascination with southern history has lived in me since childhood. I’d gone on to study the south, and race, extensively at the University of Florida and in law school, where I worked in the south’s only law school-based center for the Study of Race and Race Relations. But I never asked questions about slavery, as it related to the family, and unless there’s an old family bible in a protective casing somewhere, southern families, in the main, avoid such discoveries or questions. A word-of-mouth account from a family matriarch or patriarch is typically good enough.

 Our family names: Reasonover, Blackmon, Rhodes—are common enough, without being too prominent. There wasn’t ever much of a reason to doubt the old family account. That account hadn’t denied slave ownership, necessarily, but it hadn’t ever affirmed it either. Plus, because of my late grandfather’s political activism, the answer always seemed certain to be negative. After he fought in the Second World War, my grandfather came home and was deeply involved in Florida politics, serving as Chief-of-Staff to Florida’s first pro-integration governor before becoming a prominent Miami businessman. He’d met Jackie Robinson when the Dodgers moved to Vero and adored him and built athletic fields for the new Colombian immigrants in the 1950’s when they weren’t able to play on the white fields and helped pressure the school board on integration. Equality and each man’s right to dignity had been his life’s work. For his services on this front and other issues, he won the Eisenhower Medal, which is the precursor to the modern day Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest non-military honor a US citizen can receive. Sure, he’d called the Civil War “the War Between the States” but that was how it was taught when I went to school in Georgia, and beyond these little eccentricities, I never believed the family had a past linked to chattel slavery.

Finding it did was somewhat life altering. Not in the sense that it ruined that Christmas- though the December air felt colder that night, and the wind was more biting. But in the sense that it made me wonder a bit what else I didn’t know. Real as my angst was, it also struck me as petty. John Lewis went to Selma to register voters and make his marches and political protests more effective. He’d taken a physical beating, his skull fractured, and kept fighting. In the end, I’d only found out about a piece of family history. And finding out the painful truth didn’t change the fact that equality had been my grandfather’s life work. I went home to Atlanta the next morning determined to understand my history, so as to better ensure equality was a life’s work of mine as well. That would start by taking inventory of the things I loved. This included soccer.

Jozy Altidore's glorious time at AZ was nearly spoiled by hate.

Jozy Altidore’s glorious time at AZ was nearly spoiled by hate.

                                                                                                                                                                       Jozy Altidore            


“Dutch life is about the negotiation and, in truth, the manipulation, of space.” Peter Wilmots, a Dutch friend I made in Atlanta, tells me one glorious spring afternoon sitting outside a popular Atlanta soccer pub called The Brewhouse. The dogwood trees are in full bloom, the azaleas are popping and when the wind blows through the Georgia pines, you can see the pollen falling like rain. “It’s the product of living in such a small country that is abundant with water and largely under sea level. There isn’t enough space. You live your life understanding space will be restricted and finding ways to manipulate what isn’t there. It permeates every aspect of our culture, from our art to our building and infrastructure design to our politics to our football,” he continues. I ask him if he’s read David Winner’s outstanding book on Dutch soccer, Brilliant Orange, and he says no, takes a sip of beer, and continues. “I became an architect because Dutch life is about negotiating space, and I could never generate any on a football pitch.”

Wilmots and his wife Nina are enormous fans of the Dutch soccer club AZ Alkmaar, home currently to US forward Aron Johannsson and before that, Jozy Altidore. Former US star Earnie Stewart serves as AZ’s technical director. Wilmots and Nina are enormous Altidore fans.  

The day we meet, Altidore is in the midst of a record-breaking campaign at AZ. He’s scoring goals at a staggering rate and AZ are competing for league honors at every level. We ought to be talking about that, but instead we’re meeting to discuss an incident that happened a couple months earlier in a KNVB Cup match at a lower division club, Den Bosch. Den Bosch fans began chanting and screaming at the young Haitian-American, making monkey noises and hurling racial slurs. The abuse became so bad that referee Reinold Wiedermeijer wanted to stop the match, but Altidore persuaded him to let the teams finish. Bravely playing through it all, Altidore finishes with a goal and an assist, and AZ win 5-0. After the match, Altidore says he’ll “pray” for those who taunt them. Den Bosch’s director apologized to Altidore, expressing shame and regret for the behavior of the club’s fans. It isn’t the first time in a professional soccer career that began before Altidore was eighteen that he’s been subjected to racial abuse—but because of the season he’s having, and because of the exposure of professional soccer in the Dutch top tier, it is the highest profile incident.

I asked Nina, who has attended games at AZ and other Dutch clubs since she was a little girl, whether this type of overt racism in the stands was commonplace in Holland, a country that at least stateside has fair or unfair been labeled a progressive, avant garde society. I wanted to know why overt racism at a sporting event, something we so rarely see in the United States, seemed so commonplace in Europe? And furthermore, why did it happen in a place like Holland, with a progressive reputation, particularly on sociopolitical issues?

“Some of the reputation of the Dutch is a product of great Dutch PR work,” Nina told me. “The Dutch helped the Jews in the war, we’re all taught in school. Teachers tell us about Anne Frank or the famed Dutch resistance and those are the stories that shape who we are,” she says. “But it’s more complicated than that. So much more complicated.” Indeed, the story is far more complicated. In Ajax: The Dutch, The War: The Strange Tale of Soccer During Europe’s Darkest Hour, Simon Kuper notes the Anne Frank narrative and echoes what Nina says about the way that the “Dutch as good and tolerant” narrative functions in Holland. Obfuscated in the narrative is the fact that 28,000 Jews went into hiding in Holland during World War II, and 11,000 of those, including Anne Frank, did not survive. Many were betrayed, and this, Kuper writes, was in large part because the Dutch Nazi movement was the second-largest in Europe, behind Germany. There were and are great people in Holland, but there are bad people too. And standing up to evil and hate is so often about which force is willing to stop resisting quietly and openly fight.

A "Jewish" club, even during the Shoah?

A “Jewish” club, even during the Shoah?

Dutch soccer more or less follows the larger Dutch narrative. The idea remains, even among soccer scholars, that Ajax, the most famous club in Holland, was aggressively anti-German during the war and hospitable and helpful to the Jews.

Yet when Kuper investigated this claims for his book on the issue, he found very few at Ajax willing to discuss what the club did during the war.

Ajax were, based on the membership rolls of the club, the most “Jewish” club in Holland. This is indisputable. Why then will no one at the club talk about how the club helped and supported the Jews during the war?

Especially because what evidence Kuper did find, supports the claim: (And yet), despite everything, what distinguishes Ajax from most other Dutch clubs is the support and help it gave its Jews in the war. Is annual report for 1941-42 contains these remarkable lines:

We are in the fearful expectation that many more of our members will be taken away, among them those who have stood loyally by our side for 35 years or longer and of whom we have yet to hear anything. Many among us have already left, and we regard the coming times with anxious fear, because we will live in an age in which no one can say for sure whom we will see again.”

Kuper’s conclusion, that this “is unmistakenly a reference to Jews,” seems beyond debate. But why won’t Ajax talk about this support now? Is it because they could have done more? Everyone, most scholars of the Shoah readily concede, could have done more. And, in a city (Amsterdam) that lost about 80 percent of its Jews, those who supported Ajax did unusually well. Kuper suggests one reason Ajax’s resistance is less well-publicized is because Ajax had its share of collaborators too. Or perhaps because on a grander scale, Holland did little to resist the German occupation and wholesale slaughter of Jews.

And without resistance, the Germans were able to conduct their slaughter mechanically and methodically. Kuper writes: “The Holocaust in the Netherlands had been a fairly bloodless affair, free of the spontaneous slaughter of Jews by local people seen in places like Ukraine or Lithuania. In Holland, it was a mechanical sorting operation: ringing doorbells, escorting people to trains, impounding their belongings afterwards. Adolf Eichmann fondly recalled at his Jerusalem trial in 1961 that ‘The trains from Holland—it was a delight.’ Among the people he had to thank for that were several Ajax men.”

I asked Nina about this and she was hardly surprised. She likened it to my Selma discovery. “There were so many collaborators that families stopped talking and truth-seeking and started accepting. So the stories we were told as school children became our lived reality,” she said. “Our most popular stories that aren’t about soccer are about Dutch resistance,” her husband adds. “People retell them and they don’t feel like they need to address or investigate their personal histories. They must have been part of the resistance. It’s easier that way.” Thinking about my discovery in Selma, I decide this is a terribly regrettable fact but it makes sense.

But what about at soccer matches? Why, in a country that sells and packages its resistance narrative about the war, do we see such vitriol? And had either of them ever seen it in person at AZ?

“I don’t think I remember hearing chants or noises,” Nina says. “But I do remember my father and some friends suggesting a black player who made a poor run didn’t have the “bottle power” to make the right run,” she adds. “I didn’t ask what he meant by that. I didn’t remember it until Den Bosch insulted Jozy.”

Peter’s personal account is less about the coded racism innate to the “bottle power” comments. He’s been on hand to see opposing fans chant “Jews! Jews!” at the Ajax side during matches, and remembers Feyenoord fans making hissing noises, mimicking the gas chambers, at Ajax supporters. “It isn’t just the Feyenoord fans who do this,” Peter tells me. “This happens throughout Holland. This is why, regrettable as what happened with Altidore was, wrong as it was, I couldn’t truthfully say I was surprised.”

I probe further, and Nina tells me that so much changed in Holland after September 11, 2001. “The attacks on American created deep-seated distrust of immigrants in the Netherlands,” she tells me. “Dutch life is about the negotiation of space, and in this case, it was political and physical space. When Moroccans and Arabic people came, the politics became protectionist, wary. This spilled over to the soccer fields, of course. The Jews no longer were the primary target. It was people of color- something “other” than native Dutch, who became the object of hatred.”

Not long after the incident, Altidore, along with Kevin Prince-Boateng, who experienced his own well-publicized racist moment in Italy, causing him and his teammates to walk off the field in protest, became the only two players in FIFA’s latest task force designed to combat racism in soccer. Altidore told Sam Borden at The New York Times that he felt he could make a difference. He just wasn’t sure how big. “I’m not a civil rights leader; it’s not like I’m leading marches,” he told The New York Times.

He also addressed whether he felt the reputation of Holland, and Europe generally, as socially progressive and more immune to racism, was warranted and justified. “Unfortunately, no,” Altidore said. “It’s something that’s too big, too ingrained in too many places. Hopefully we can leave it in a better place than it was before,” he said. “But it’s very deep-seated. It’s more alive than people think.”

I ask whether Altidore’s comments, laced with both cynicism and optimism, resonate as we debate whether to pay the check or order another round. Nina speaks up. “He seems like a wonderful person,” she says. I nod approvingly. “But he’s right to wonder how much good can be done.” She purses her lip, and reaches for her beer. “It’s cultural (the racism), and club-specific,” she says. “Every club has its own culture, many of which are parochial. The big global clubs: Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, even Ajax- these clubs have cultures that are the exception, not the rule.” I ask what she means. “These things happen because these people are always looking for reasons, beyond the field, to explain what connects them with their club. If their club is historically Protestant or working-class, then it might be Catholics, or the rich that is the object of their venom. If they are long-standing and typically white, then the black players face more scrutiny at the least, hatred at the worst.”

“Nothing will occur until FIFA and the various governing bodies make the punishments even-handed and harsh,” Nina adds. “John Terry gets a four game ban (for racial abuse on Anton Ferdinand) but Luis Suarez gets eight for his months earlier (racial abuse against Patrice Evra of France). Where’s the fairness in that? Why is one form of racism more biting than the other? The fans and players have to be accountable.”  

Peter agrees with his wife. “It’s overt because there is an element of safety and belonging that club supporters feel among other club supporters. It is easier to hate in numbers. It’s why Feyenoord can make the gas-chamber hisses and say ‘It’s just part of the game and there’s no intent,” he says. “Take your college football, here in the south, for example. How long was it until they even allowed blacks to play? It took ages. Change was slow. And after a long fight, the racism mostly left the stands. Why? Because the universities and the fans cared more about winning than they did skin tone. The skin tone didn’t go away. What they say at tailgates didn’t go away,” he adds. “But wining became the most important thing. It’s not always that way at the soccer clubs in Europe.”

That evening, reviewing my notes, I knew where I needed to go next.

The University of Florida's beautiful campus is filled with vestigial reminders of a segregationist past.

The University of Florida’s beautiful campus is filled with vestigial reminders of a segregationist past.

                                                                                                                                                            The University of Florida            

At the University of Florida’s idyllic Gainesville, Florida campus, the Stephen C. O’Connell Center is a fixture, home to the Gators’ basketball teams (among others) and the site of many commencement ceremonies, and it’s a place where I spent a great deal of free time attending sporting events while I was a student at UF. It’s also one of several buildings on my alma mater’s campus named after either a staunch or once-staunch segregationist. Among the other buildings are Buckman Hall, and a road named Buckman Drive. Buckman Drive is a narrow road canopied with spawning live oak trees and their hanging moss, tall loblolly pines and, in the springtime, blossoming flowers. It looks like something out of a Faulkner novel.

It is on such a postcard spring afternoon that I arrive in Gainesville, driving past the O’Connell Center and parking near Buckman Drive. The latter street is named for Henry Holland Buckman, who in 1905 passed through the Florida Legislature the Buckman Act, which specified that UF “shall admit no person other than white male students.”  But back to O’Connell.

In 1949, forty-four years after passage of the Buckman Act, a young man named William Lewis and a civil rights activist named Virgil Hawkins apply to the University of Florida’s law school- also my alma mater. They are denied admission, on account of their race and the Buckman Act. They appeal the Law School’s decision to the Florida Supreme Court and, after eight years of litigation and following the Supreme Court of the United States’ decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the Florida Supreme Court upholds the denial of Hawkins’ admission. The Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court at the time is…you guessed it, Stephen C. O’Connell. Hawkins begins the process of appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, but ultimately withdraws his lawsuit and his application to the University of Florida Law School in exchange for the desegregation of UF’s professional and graduate schools.

In September of 1958, the first black student enrolled in UF’s Law School, George Starke. Starke required police protection for the first few weeks of classes, but overall the step toward integration went rather peacefully. Unfortunately, the strain of being the only black student at the university and a feeling of isolation convinced Starke to leave UF after only three trimesters. Starke returned to UF to speak at the 50th anniversary of integration in 2008  In an interview with the Independent Florida Alligator- a paper for which I used to write while in school, Starke said, “If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t. I would come to the University of Florida, but I would not have been the first one to do so.”

It wasn’t until four years later, in 1962, that the University of Florida admitted its first black undergraduates. There was no military standoff when Stephan Mickle entered classes as UF’s first black student (Mickle is now a federal judge, and in 1999(!!!) became the first alumnus of the University of Florida to receive distinguished alumni recognition), but the idealism and hope for a peaceful integration process quickly disintegrated.

In 1971, Stephen C. O’Connell is retired from the bench, instead serving as the 6th President of the University of Florida, a post he was approved for by flipping his stance from pro-segregation to “peaceful integration.” How much this was lip service and how much this was reality becomes more than a thought experiment when a group of mostly African-American students stage a peaceful-sit at O’Connell’s office to protest the administration’s policies toward minorities. Specifically, they are asking for the establishment of a Department of Minority Affairs, and more African-American students and faculty. At the time of the sit-in, there are 343 black students at UF, and the student population is 20,000.

The University’s official response to the event is well-documented at both its archives library and at the Lawton Chiles Legal Information Center, the library that serves the law school. The late Lawton Chiles was a progressive Florida governor who my late grandfather called a friend, and vice versa, and sitting in the library that bears his name, I can’t help but think of my grandfather, who spoke so highly of Chiles and so fondly of the University of Florida. Chiles became famous for walking the State of Florida from Pensacola to Key West in 1970, when he ran for Senate. Among the issues on that walk, which my grandfather joined, a year prior to the sit-in at O’Connell’s office, was the future of race relations and civil rights in the State of Florida. Chiles promised to aggressively help pass enforcement measures to give the still new federal Civil Rights laws teeth if he was sent to Washington. A year later, in 1971, he was trying to do just that in the Senate, when Stephen C. O’Connell, president of Florida’s flagship university, was presented with his own chance to make life better for blacks in his home state.

 Chiles walked an entire state to hear people’s views, keeping race central to the discussion. O’Connell couldn’t be troubled to walk out of his office. Instead, he ordered the protestors arrested and their student status suspended. The move was catastrophic. Immediately, the remaining minority students, in coalition with progressive whites, staged a massive protest, demanding the students be reinstated and the charges dismissed. When neither occurred, over one-third of enrolled African-American students withdrew from UF. After an investigation, the AAUP (American Association of University Professors) suspended UF’s status and membership for “violations of academic freedom” and “censoring the right to peaceful protest.” With UF under suspension, many of the students who withdrew find it hard to transfer, as other universities are leery of accepting their transcripts from a school without AAUP status.

Florida's elite basketball program, led by the likes of Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Udonis Haslem and more- plays in a building named after an old segregationist.

Florida’s elite basketball program, led by the likes of Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Udonis Haslem and more- plays in a building named after an old segregationist.

Four years later, O’Connell retires. In 1980, construction on the new basketball arena was completed, and the building was named for O’Connell. He would live 21 years with a building at the University of Florida named in his honor. Governor Lawton Chiles had been dead four years when the University of Florida named the new $25 million law library in his honor. Today, thousands of Gators fans and alumni pack the O’Connell Center to see Billy Donovan’s college basketball team, now a national powerhouse, play against the best the nation has to offer.

Spending time in the archives that day, I was thinking of the countless number of Billy Donovan’s black players who had played starring roles on many of his teams: Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer, Patric Young, Udonis Haslem and Vernon Macklin, to name a few.

On the one hand, the fact these young men flourished at the University of Florida, earning degrees and launching successful professional careers, is something to treasure.

On the other hand, the fact they played in a building named after Stephen C. O’Connell reminded me of something my mentor in law school, Professor Kenneth Nunn told me about the University of Florida. “Walk around the University of Florida and you’re surrounded by vestigial reminders of the school’s segregationist and racist past. For all of the progress made, UF remains Mr. Buckman, Mr. Smathers (another segregationist whose buildings include a hall and a library) and Mr. O’Connell’s university,” Professor Nunn said.

That some of Florida’s most elite athletes play in a building whose name functions as such a vestigial reminder is bittersweet. That not enough people know the story is tragic. I wanted to ask someone why we don’t think enough of these signifiers of our racist pasts.                                                                                                                                                          

       Tailgate Racism

I’ve attended University of Florida sporting events since I was a little boy. My father went to UF and so I was a Gator. These are the types of parochial allegiances created by family and in the south, as Peter Wilmots said when we talked in Atlanta, they apply in spades to college football. I don’t remember ever hearing racial taunts or chants that were overtly racist at UF games, but I do remember what, as I grew older, I’d dub “tailgate racism,” which was slurs or racially-insensitive jokes at the expense of black athletes among the close-knit groups who tailgate together at college football games.

I’d heard them all over the south in my travels to watch the Gators. In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, when I was in college, I heard an Alabama law student say the Tide would win because “our (racial slur) was faster than their (racial slur.)” I’d heard similar, hateful and ignorant things from the mouths of the supposedly educated in Starkville and Oxford, Mississippi, Knoxville, Tennessee and yes, in Gainesville.

I wanted to know why in the United States, particularly at, in and around places we love, and I love the University of Florida—there are so many vestigial, physical and sometimes seemingly innocuous reminders of our hateful past all around us, and yet we don’t really know the stories and we certainly don’t know why.  

Fortunately, Dr. C. Keith Harrison of the University of Central Florida was willing to talk to me. Dr. Harrison is an associate professor at UCF’s well-regarded Devos School of Sport Business Management, which is directed by longtime race scholar Dr. Richard Lapchick. Dr. Harrison has a doctorate from the University of Southern California, is a former (American) football player and is an expert on race and diversity in sport. Such is the extent of his expertise that he has been the author or principal investigator of every Black Coaches Annual Hiring Report Card since 2003, a report that gauges the percentage and opportunities for black coaches in both collegiate and professional sports in the United States.

In SEC Country, I haven't heard overt racism at a game. A tailgate is a different matter.

In SEC Country, I haven’t heard overt racism at a game. A tailgate is a different matter.

It’s a hot South Florida day just before the college football season when Dr. Harrison and I talk. I ask him why the racism here seems so much more covert and systemic, while the racism in European soccer is so much more direct and overt, despite the massive progress on the systemic racism front in many European- particularly EU- nations.

“There are differences between American sporting and European soccer culture,” Dr. Harrison tells me. “One of my takes is, if you go back to Jackie Robinson integrating; let’s just go back to then. Some of the behavior that you are seeing in Europe mirrors behaviors that were overt at that (Robinson’s) time. So, as we’ve evolved- people are still racist, they just don’t vocalize it at the game, per se, outside of their intimate social circles.” Tailgate racism.

Meaning you are still shocked that a law student at Alabama says something like that at a football tailgate when he’s talking eloquently about the 14th Amendment the night before—but you’d rarely hear it at a game- and I never had.

“Now every once in a while we’ll see something pop up like we did at the NCAA tournament when we had anti-Latino remarks against a player from Puerto Rico; we could go on with other examples. But in Europe, their ability to deal with this thing, whether it be event or club management, it hasn’t evolved in certain ways,” Dr. Harrison said. “What’s normalized there is different than what’s normalized over here. By the way, it is important to point out that they have evolved and have less trouble with certain issues than we have trouble with over here.” “So—the fact that it isn’t happening in the United States, I want to be positive about it that it isn’t happening as much, but in no way shape or form am I oblivious to the fact that it’s still there,” he continued. Okay, fair.

So why aren’t the European clubs further along, I want to know. As a young man raised in Atlanta, I tell Dr. Harrison that I perceive Southeastern Conference football and its culture to be extraordinarily similar to some of club cultures in Europe, whether that be because of rivalries or parochial connections with teams or the simple geographical isolation of the schools that are SEC members. It’s undisputed that minority athletes have helped SEC teams excel. It’s undisputed that black players have helped soccer clubs, and countries win.

So if the cultures are similar, what is the difference? Is it what Nina suggested, that the emphasis on winning at some European soccer clubs doesn’t trump the emphasis on club culture? Why is it so different? Dr. Harrison thinks it’s a bit of all of that, which isn’t the easiest answer.

“What you described Neil—let’s go to Sam Cunningham going to Alabama and the game with USC, strategically organized. Bear Bryant flies into LAX and he meets with John McKay and Bryant says “Hey, we’re going to come there next year, and I know y’all are probably going to dominate the game because you have more diversity”—not race, but more diversity—which means better players because you’ve reached different markets—and that’s exactly what happens—Southern California dominates the game and what are the traveling Alabama fans yelling by the end of the game: “Get us one, Get us one!,” Dr.Harrison told me. “And that of course meant “Get an African-American running back.” He continues. “So yes, there is a different buy in. But there’s still in the SEC—most of the defensive players are African-American, most the stars are African-American—but it doesn’t mean the culture is anti-racist. It just means that the priority is we have to have someone different than the traditional white player to help us win. And it might be exactly why over in Europe—they may not be there yet—some clubs might not think a necessary path to victory involves being inclusive with multiple, different ethnic identities.”

That’s not hard to believe. After all, it took Glasgow Rangers nearly a century to sign black or Catholic players, despite the fact that competitively they were behind archrival Celtic and despite the fact that other Scottish clubs were adopting the practice.  So maybe the club cultures are more important. But I want to know more about covert racism and tailgate racism too. Because it doesn’t seem to me like you’d have too many O’Connell Center’s in European soccer. The signifier of the O’Connell Center, the whitewashing of his role as UF president in integrating the university and the decisions he made about race while in charge, that’s a pretty significant thing.

And the football stadium in Gainesville- Ben Hill Griffin Stadium—sure it’s been called “The Swamp” since Steve Spurrier was the coach, but you are still talking about a building named after a man whose original will had restrictive covenants cutting off UF funding if segregation ended. (The will was ultimately modified.) You don’t see Ajax naming their stadium after a Dutch Nazi collaborator. And yet you do see things like what happened with Jozy Altidore, where they threaten to stop the match because the racism is so bad, so out in the open.

Dr. Harrison thinks this is because FIFA’s campaign to end and eradicate racism in soccer didn’t begin until so late in the game. By the 1990’s, the United States had already seen pioneers, men like Jackie Robinson and Bill Russell, who began to reshape and reorient the way racism happened at games. “My father grew up in segregated Texas,” Dr. Harrison tells me. “I grew up in Southern California. But my Dad told me stories- people will spike Jackie, things happened (in games),” he says. “Plus with Bill Russell, we know that Marion Motley and other players were campaigning to stop it during games.”

So much of what has changed is about who came before. Soccer might be late to the game there...

So much of what has changed is about who came before. Soccer might be late to the game there…

So did men like Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby, pioneers who suffered through abuse and vitriol and hate—did they create the conditions where today overt racism like at AZ Alkmaar is just thoroughly unacceptable in the United States?

“Bill Rhoden says ‘There’s nothing like the firsts,’ Dr. Harrison tells me. “Frank Robinson- player and coach. Bill Russell- player coach,” he adds, before telling another personal story.

“It’s funny because I just bumped into Dwight Stephenson, the Hall of Fame center for the Dolphins. Graduate of Alabama. I was a center and I’m African-American. I bumped into him at a business meeting and we got into a discussion and I said ‘What was the first African-American Center that they have documented? And we said ‘Someone had to be first.’ Pioneers, whether they are black, white or brown, male or female, what I’ve learned after 21 years of being a professor: you’re going to experience resistance to change. That’s just a part of the dynamic. And unfortunately—take Curt Flood, started free agency. There are literally black athletes who don’t know who he is. I’ve talked to black quarterbacks in the NFL- and they don’t know that Joe Gilliam was 4-1-1 and was benched for Terry Bradshaw,” Dr. Harrison says.

He pauses, and then continues. “But we have to be positive about that. Now black quarterbacks do great—Robert Griffin. But the real problem is we don’t understand each other. We don’t live around each other enough. You can’t put people in a stadium, whether it’s Ben Hill Griffin, the Swamp or UCF’s stadium for three hours and hope that people just rid themselves of their baggage in the name of cultural diversity. And I think Europe is right there,” he adds.

One thing that I feel is similar- despite the stark contrasts in the styles of racism in European (and global) soccer culture and American sport: we tend to be harder on minority athletes when they fail. I ask Dr. Harrison if it is harder for fans writ-large to embrace a black star rather than a white star.

I mention Mario Balotelli, the black Italian striker who has been the victim of several racist attacks while playing in England and Italy. In one famous example, fans held up a banner saying “There are no black Italians,” despite the fact that Balotelli is a star for the Italian national team and a player who literally waited until he was eighteen to become an Italian citizen, just so he could play for the country he grew up in, not Ghana, the other (good soccer) nation for which he holds a passport.

I also again cite the University of Florida, and the constant acclaim Tim Tebow gets for winning two national titles at the University of Florida when really, Chris Leak, an African-American, was the starting quarterback for the first title. And I mention that Leak was booed at a home game his senior year, with fans demanding Tebow play. Leak was the MVP of the BCS National Championship Game two months later. I want to know if this can change too.

“And here you’re getting to the crux,” Dr. Harrison says. The treatment is less disparate when they are doing well. It starts when things go poorly, he says. “I think the discrimination comes in when black athletes or stars when they are just average or not doing as well. I think the tolerance level is absolutely different. I think there is a subset of people who think that unless the African-American athlete is perfect, they are going to feel like they don’t deserve to be there.”

This, Dr. Harrison thinks, happens at least partly because we don’t expect enough for other people. “We don’t expect excellence from all human beings enough,” he says.” And unfortunately, that’s because we still have racial or racial-fueled views of who should do well.”

This isn’t just limited to sport, he’s quick to add. “When Colombine happened—people said ‘That doesn’t normally happen’—well it broke my heart because it was an American school. But you had to wonder ‘Why do people think that doesn’t normally happen? Because it’s not in the hood?’ So we have people that operate in little boxes and they buy tickets and go to the games.”

And yet sport is where we so often see this exemplified? And the overt racism still happens stateside, even if it happens less.

Dr. Harrison, ever (and rightly) skeptical of “oppression contests,” where we say one form of racism or discrimination or hate is worse than the other, tells me it does. “Bryan Cox played linebacker for the Dolphins and in the NFL and experienced savage racism at games,” Dr. Harrison says.  “And he came back and said ‘I have a degree from Western Illinois- I’m an educated black man.’ But very few wanted to think about that because it doesn’t fit the box they check when they see him playing linebacker.”

Expect excellence. Live together. Be united. Reject every instance of hatred. Seems simple enough. Seems like a job for a World Cup. 

Maybe thinking about this is overwrought. Maybe it’s a dialectic distraction from the beauty of the game itself. Or maybe thinking soccer and the unifying potential of a World Cup could help cure racism the way Bob Marley thought of music is foolish.   Either way, it is complicated. And as the World Cup is set to begin, my heart is thinking not about “The Hand of God” but about the “City of God”, and the soul of this World Cup, peering down from the hillsides in the Brazilian favelas.

Children play soccer in a Rio "favela", home of the malandro, and soccer's soul.

Children play soccer in a Rio “favela”, home of the malandro, and soccer’s soul.


Brazil, Part II            

Like in America, race is a complex and controversial issue in Brazil.

In an article on the subject for Sports Illustrated, James Young writes:

 “Back in the 1930’s, anthropologist Gilberto Freyre wrote in his masterpiece A Casa Grande e A Senzala (which translates as “The Big House and the Slave Quarters” but was renamed “The Masters and The Slaves” in its English language version) that “every Brazilian, even the most lilywhite and golden haired, carries in his soul, if not his soul and his body…the colour, or at least a hint of the colour, of the indigenous people of the country, or the negro.”

 “The idea,” Young continues, “caused quite a stir among Brazil’s social elite. “To Brazilians in the 1930s the image Freyre held up of their own society was quite startling. The Brazilians who shaped Brazilian institutions — the white Brazilians — had always lacked confidence in their racially bastard society. The blacks and the bastards were so many and the honorable white fidalgos so few” wrote Peter Robb in his excellent study of Brazilian culture and society, “A Death in Brazil.””  

The reality, of course, is that the country’s is nearly divided down the middle, with the black and brown Brazilians dominating the poorer areas and the “lilywhite” countrymen and women living among few black and brown faces in the middle and upper class areas.

Racism is still ever-present in Brazilian soccer. The same week Donald Sterling made his tape-recorded racist comments that resulted in NBA Commissioner Adam Silver booting him from the league for life and forcing him to sell the LA Clippers, longtime Brazilian soccer star Dani Alves was pelted with a banana in a Spanish league game between Villareal and Barcelona. While Sterling dominated headlines at home, Alves’ response carried a much larger audience globally. Alves reaction- to pick up the banana and eat it, was received with praise in Brazil, as was the well-intentioned, but regrettable Neymar Jr. backed “We Are All Monkeys”campaign that followed it.

Indeed, the website Globo, one of Brazil’s largest media outlets covering sport, praised the response, noting that Brazil is “incapable, or almost always incapable, of accepting intolerance.”

This seemingly willful “we believe racism in soccer is something beyond/below Brazil” story line in the wake of the Alves incident struck me as all too familiar.

Like the narrative of Dutch resistance to hate in World War II or the notion I had on a cold and windy December day in Selma that my southern family couldn’t possibly have owned slaves because my late grandfather hadn’t mentioned it and had dedicated his life to equality: our perception is always a question of framing. And when we frame things one way for so long, we often lose sight of the truth.

When Wright Thompson wrote “Ghosts of Mississippi”, the brilliant story of Ole Miss, the end of segregation and the 1962 national champions, which became a 30 for 30 film, he closed by noting how he cringed at a football game honoring that team, especially when the band played “Dixie” at the end. He cringed not because he didn’t love the song—he did, he does—but for the black students who had to hear it and for the white ones who have no idea what they’re saying. He notes that students, at least at a southern place like Ole Miss, often believe what their parents tell them to believe. Maybe they still play “Dixie” because they’ve always played Dixie. Maybe not.He asks what the cost is of not knowing, and what the cost is of knowing.

I’m not sure there’s ever an opportunity cost to “not knowing.” I think of the emptiness I felt that day in Selma, or the cost of diving deeper into the racial history of my own alma mater. I think of Jozy Altidore, of his caution and his optimism about making a grander difference, despite being subjected to the vilest hatred playing a beautiful game. I’m even thinking of this past week, when ESPN journalist Michael Wilbon exhibited on live television the type of xenophobic hate and vitriol, in telling Jurgen Klinsmann to “Get the Hell out of America,” I wasn’t used to seeing in this country, and it made me sad, ashamed, and concerned about how far we have to go.

I think it’s better to know and begin to understand. I think that better prepares me for the fight for justice to come. I’m not sure I always felt that way.

I think when I started this project; I wanted to believe what my family told me to believe too. But beyond that, I wanted to understand the ugliness of a game I love, of a family I love, of the new family I have, and of a place I love. I know I’ll file in to the Stephen C. O’Connell Center for more Gator basketball next fall. I don’t know how I’ll respond when the PA announcer says “Welcome to the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.” But I do know I’ll be able to tell my daughter one day about what the building is called, even if I can’t explain too well why it is still called that.

I think that when I attend this World Cup, I’ll have a better understanding of where I am, and even in a place so beautiful, and at an event so perfect, I’ll have a better appreciation for how far we have to go to eradicate soccer’s ugliness, and preserve the soul of the game, the one Garrincha took with him back to the favelas from whence he came, so many years ago.

Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder and Co-Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at nwblackmon@gmail.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.

Neil W. Blackmon

  • Brenda J. Baker

    This an amazing read. I will never view the O’Connell Center the same. There is so much great content here I don’t know where I’d begin to comment. Reading it was an education for me.