As Black History Month comes to a close and ahead of the Portland Timbers 2018 MLS regular season, Timbers players Jeremy Ebobisse and Eryk Williamson sat down to discuss black history, African Americans in soccer culture, and the place of the black athlete in today’s society.
Ebobisse, the Timbers 2017 MLS SuperDraft first round selection, scored one goal and contributed three assists in 14 appearances during his rookie campaign. He was also a key member of the U.S. U-20 Men’s National Team at last summer’s 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup.
His teammate on that national team squad, Eryk Williamson, joined the Timbers in a January preseason trade for his Homegrown Rights from D.C. United following a glittering collegiate career at the University of Maryland that saw him score 14 goals and 13 assists in 58 career games.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length and is posted in two parts.
Richard Farley: You both alluded to my next question, and it’s about the intersection between soccer culture and black culture. You go through the other major sports in the country, and to varying degrees, you can see where black culture is represented in those sports.
How do you feel black culture is represented in soccer, and how do you feel about black culture’s view of soccer?
Eryk Williamson: I grew up in an all African American family, but my immediate family all grew up playing soccer. Everyone else, maybe one or two went out and kicked the ball, but none of them really knew when I’d score or goal, or I’d make a pass. It was “oh, you scored a point,” or something.
I feel like African Americans don’t really pay that much attention to it, and it’s just “you’re totally an outcast. We have no clue what soccer’s about. We’re just not interested.” Meanwhile, you have soccer players who can watch basketball and say, “I shot a three.” We know what the common terms are.
I feel like we’re such outcasts. They just think, “oh you’re playing on the field, and you get pushed over, and you fall. That’s just a soft sport. You need to go play a real sport, put on some pads and hit someone hard.” It’s not respected, as much, but they also push us out of everything.
Even guys in our area talk about how D.C. sports haven’t won a championship in this or that. They totally count out soccer. It’s like “soccer’s not a part of any big-time sport.” They slowly cut that out of everything.
In this country, it’s obviously not a huge sport, but I feel like in African American culture, it’s probably one of the lowest. They’ll go play baseball before they play soccer.
Jeremy Ebobisse: Off that, I have two separate perspectives.
One, my heritage being from Cameroon and Madagascar, my parents watched soccer growing up. That’s the only sport they knew. My mom watched basketball a little but, but my dad played soccer up until college, and then they went to France. They were in France during the World Cup. Our whole family’s about soccer, so it was a given that I was going to start playing, and I ended up where I ended up.
In that regard, I see the African culture really embracing soccer. It’s such a source of joy and passion and unity.
On the flip side, with my upbringing in American school systems, I was definitely kind of an outcast amongst the African American athletes. Eryk talked about it. A lot of the basketball and football players looked at me differently because I played soccer.
I didn’t really mind. If someone was going to make a judgment off their very basic knowledge of the game, that’s their prerogative. I don’t need to entertain that. But it definitely put a little break between us. I noticed soccer was really embraced mostly among my Latino friends and my white friends, and even my Asian friends.
When I look down at younger kids, now, a lot them are playing soccer, and it’s kind of becoming the cool thing to do, in my neighborhood, which is awesome. I’m really happy for them.
I was never ashamed of playing soccer. I love it, and I always have. But there are definitely some people that were insecure about what they were doing and how it would be perceived in the social-climbing world of middle school and high school life.
EW: We had three sections: one was football; one was basketball; one was soccer. All the soccer players tried playing basketball, and you could see they’re not that good. The Latino side, when they would shoot the ball, they would hit just the backboard. But they’re out there trying.
But then, at the end of the year, when you’re playing soccer outside, you just see all the African American kids not showing up anymore. They just didn’t give it a chance. But you still had some of the athletes who could play all three sports: Oh, he’s good at football, let’s bring him on our team, they’d say. But if it’s basketball and instead of dribbling the ball I started juggling it, they’d probably be like “We don’t want him on our team. If he plays soccer, he’s not going to be any good.”
We had to earn our respect by showing we could play other sports. I think that was one of the biggest things. With athletes it’s, “oh, he’s a good soccer player, but soccer’s not huge, here,” but with other sports, it’s “he’s the best basketball player, let’s go hang out with him. Let’s see what he’s doing.” If he just got a new jacket, “Let’s get that jacket.” I show up to school with nice cleats that my mom got me, and nobody knows what they are, but you have basketball players show up with the latest Lebrons, and everybody was “Oh, you just got those?” Everything was just respected if you played the other sports.
JE: I remember I always gained more respect among all my classmates when I showed I could do something on the basketball court. When I could touch rim in sixth grade, everyone was like, “Oh, this guy’s amazing,” but when I was making national team camps for soccer, it was, “Oh, good job.” They didn’t want to relate to it. When I was able to dunk in ninth or tenth grade, it was the same thing. “Oh, my God!”
The same thing with the shoes. If I ever came to school wearing indoor soccer shoes, they would have been like “Loser.” Then somebody comes in wearing basketball shoes, and it’s like, “yeah, those are nice.”
For the record, I never came to school in indoor shoes.
RF: Looking at the issue from the other end of the tunnel, it seems like, in soccer culture, we have space for certain identities. Do you think the current soccer culture in this country is allowing enough space for black culture, black identity to fit into its landscape?
EW: I think, for the most part.
If you look at now, with the youth, you have a lot of African American kids playing. Before, you had your white group – your sign them up for any sport, kind of thing – or you had Latinos, whose dads played soccer. I feel now it’s more inclusive. Parents might not know the game as much, but within the kids, as they grow up, it’s just more accepting. There’s room for them.
It’s stereotypical for African Americans to be a forward, or an outside back, but it’s not typical to see a midfielder or someone very creative being African American. We kind of think African Americans are athletes, so let’s put him somewhere we can let him run. Maybe put him at goalkeeper, because he can catch.
I feel like, now, it’s OK. You have an African American center mid, and he’s pretty creative. We’re going to accept it. Back then, it would have been, “an African American center mid? He’s not Hispanic. He doesn’t have an art to him,” where you have
jogo bonito. Brazilians are known to be creative.
Now, everything is changing.
JE: I would agree with that. Soccer, as a sport, is very inclusive at the youth level. The barriers to entry are slowly starting to fade away, in certain areas, which is making it inclusive to not just black people but everyone. And that’s just great, because you never want to not be able to play because you can’t afford it, or training’s too far and you can’t get there.
We have a great community, and helping people either pay, or get to places, or carpool, or just train together if you’re not going to be able to get to training. And coaches are really inclusive, trying to make trainings in certain areas, where it’s a centralized area where a lot of people can go to.
I think there’s a lot of progress to be made on that front, and obviously, everyone has an opinion about what’s going on in the federation right now. That will be interesting to see what direction they go in in the future, whether it’s the same direction, a completely different one, a mix of the two. I think every argument has merit, there.
Where I think soccer as a sport can continue to grow in inclusivity, not only for black people but for other minority groups, is a willingness expose the audience to the political aspects of the players.
When I say that, I know that FIFA has programs like Say No to Racism, but I heard – I don’t know if this is true – that there were talks of maybe getting rid of it. My immediate question would be why would we get rid of it now? Do we feel like we’ve reached a post-racial part of society? In which case, I would just say it’s naïve to think that way.
I know people go to games to see the entertainment, and we love that, but sometimes there’s more to the player than what he puts out on the field. In Portland, that’s something we’re really good about. We want to know people outside of what they do. I think that we can continue to be more inclusive as a nation, as a world within the game.
I know in England, there have been several players who have had issues with racial charges. In Italy, players get bananas thrown at them. This is something we need to tackle head on.
I saw that other day in the news, and I didn’t have the time to corroborate, but somebody got a card for complaining about a racial incident in the stands. That’s the kind of stuff that we can’t stand for, and we have to do better. I don’t know how that would come about, but I know that if more people decided they want to speak out like I do, they should be welcome to do it. They shouldn’t be scared of the backlash. As long as they’re respectful of others’ opinions, their opinion should also be welcome.
I know, personally, if somebody honestly came to me in my DMs and wasn’t just trying to troll me, and they said that, “hey, I understand your views on this, but I want you to look at this and tell me what you think, because I think that we can find some common ground,” or “I think that you’re misled,” or something like that, I will take the time to watch it, or read it. I genuinely will.
I think it’s important that we all listen to each other, besides, obviously, the very extremes, where you just can’t compromise, there. Soccer has such a broad platform that we have the opportunity to do good things in the world, outside of the sport, as well.