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Monday, January 22, 2007

Soccer Banned In Town Park Of Clarkston, Georgia

There was an excellent feature article today in the New York Times. It was entitled, "Refugees Find Hostility and Hope on the Soccer Field" by Mr. Warren St. John. Please take the time to read this lengthy article for more details. When I first read this story, I had to look at my calendar to remind myself it is January 2007. And not January 1967 or 1977.

Clarkston, a small town of approximately 7,100 citizens, is found east of Atlanta, Georgia. The mayor, the honorable Lee Swaney, made the following declaration:

“... No more soccer in the town park. There will be nothing but baseball and football down there as long as I am mayor,” Lee Swaney, a retired owner of a heating and air-conditioning business, told the local paper. “Those fields weren’t made for soccer.”

The community has absorbed an influx of legal refugees from many corners of the globe. They want to play the world game, soccer, but unfortunately, Southern gentility and tolerance were not practiced by Mr. Swaney initially in this matter. Along with some of his constituents. He refers to the young players as "Soccer people." As if they were a completely different species than "Clarkston People."

If we look at the true message behind the quoted words, we see the following. "We don't want your foreign game here, and those fields were not made for the likes of you. Go play in the dirt." The unwanted are called the "Fugees," and comprise three teams who range from the ages of 9 to 17. One courageous woman, Ms. Luma Mufleh, the coach of these young men, had the following intriguing commentary:

"They trigger people’s reactions on class, on race. They speak with accents and don’t seem American. A lot of people get shaken up by that.”

When I read this story, it reminded me of a similar incident from my own youth. When I was in high school, I attended a Catholic institution. But one thing that wasn't practiced was complete tolerance in the Christian manner. If you played soccer, you had Judas written on the back of your shirt. If you were lucky enough to receive a shirt that matched the rest of the team.

We were not allowed to practice on our field. Or rather, as the Athletic Director stated, "Our football field. The one for the real athletes." During my first two years, we walked each day about a mile back and forth to a vacant field that had goalposts. We were allowed a few games on the "football field," but were made well aware that it was a courtesy and honor to play there. Please remember that we all paid the same amount of tuition as the gridiron football players. They practiced on that field, along with others adjacent to it, every day.

During my final two years, we were told that we were no longer welcome at our former practice field. So we had to find a new field on our own. The closest one was near Andrews Air Force Base. About 6 or 7 miles from our high school. Upperclassmen arranged transportation for the entire team. At our own cost, and without any assistance from the school or parents. We also drove our teammates home. There were no soccer moms or dads back then. Despite this, the soccer team never had a losing season in my four years. But compared to the Fugees, what we endured were mere growing pains of a sport that was still wet behind its ears in North America.

Last October, Coach Mufleh attended a City Council meeting to plead her case to use the town park field. "Mr. Swaney takes the floor. He admits concerns about 'grown soccer people' who might tear up the field. But these are kids, he says, and 'kids are our future.' He announces his support of a six-month trial for the Fugees’ use of the field in Milam Park. The proposal passes unanimously. At least for six months, the Fugees can play on grass."

But in late December, the Mayor made the following proclamation. "On Dec. 26, Ms. Mufleh receives a fax on Town of Clarkston letterhead. Effectively immediately, the fax informs her, the Fugees soccer team is no longer welcome to play at Milam Park. The city is handing the field to a youth sports coordinator who plans to run a youth baseball and football program. Questioned by this reporter (Warren St. John), Mayor Swaney says he has forgotten that in October the City Council gave the Fugees six months. A few days later, he tells Ms. Mufleh the team can stay through March." Wasn't that mighty "white" of him? ;-)

If you look closely at the picture of the team in the article, the sleeves on their orange shirts have a special emblem. That of the United States Soccer Foundation, a charitable arm of the US Soccer Federation that has donated equipment and goals. Hopefully, due to the excellent efforts of Mr. St. John to make us aware of this story, the commitment of Coach Mufleh, and the determination of the young men themselves, others will follow the generous example of the USSF.

Here is the web site of the Fugees.

Please visit to learn more about them, and to help in any way that you can. Given the locale of this story, allow me mention one other item that is important. During the Atlanta 1996 Olympic games, soccer was the most attended sport. In Alabama and Georgia, record crowds filled traditional "football" stadiums to show foreign teams genuine American hospitality. A few games were held at RFK Stadium in Washington.

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