Villains, for a moment | New York Times’ Fugee tale exposes soccer-challenged Southerners to public ire

The front page of the “Gray Lady” bled Fugee orange on Sunday morning, with the Clarkston, Georgia–based team featured above the fold, under the headline “Outcasts United.”

Clarkston, Georgia | In the first few lines of a 6,000-word article by Warren St. John, readers of the Jan 21 New York Times—even those glancing casually at copies at supermarket checkouts—learned Clarkston Mayor Lee Swaney‘s feelings about soccer and, by extension, about the nicely kitted team of refugees who wanted to play in his town.

Early last summer the mayor of this small town east of Atlanta issued a decree: 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 combination of the Fugees’ inspirational story—of refugee boys from Afghanistan, Bosnia, Burundi, Congo, Gambia, Iraq, Kosovo, Liberia, Somalia and Sudan working to make something from traumatic backgrounds, under the guidance of a charismatic female coach—with the seeming cluelessness of a “small-town” Southern mayor produced explosive results. Given the Times’ Sunday circulation of 1.6 million plus a vast online readership, insta-bloggers and their readers quickly coalesced along the story line that St. John set up in his lede. A Technorati search on Thursday indicated 198 weblog links to St. John’s article. This number does not represent the fusillade of comments such postings provoked, many of them vitriolic toward the “bad guys”: the Clarkston administration and what appeared to be its xenophobic recreation policy.

Swaney

Normally, we would be prone to accept the reporter’s version, given the challenges facing youth and adult soccer teams across the country, especially those lacking affiliation with elite clubs and academies and dedicated soccer-specific facilities. But, as it happens, we live just one or two municipalities away from Clarkston in DeKalb County, Georgia’s second-largest county, east of Atlanta. We also started to receive copies of some of the impassioned e-mails directed toward the Clarkston mayor’s office. The mayor’s email address was conveniently posted by several bloggers trying to fashion a grassroots protest. One such letter, from a Minnesota woman (name withheld) identifying herself as a “soccer mom,” carried the subject line, referring to Swaney and mentioning the Fugees’ coach, “You Are a Bigot … Luma Mufleh Is a Hero”:

I read the story of your banning soccer in local parks. I am sickened and outraged by this. You are a complete bigot. I am a Caucasian American and as such am born into the most privileged race and country in the world. I consider it my responsibility to reach out to refugees, the poor, and others less fortunate—not only to help them but to learn from them.

I also believe in Divine Retribution (or “karma” if that’s your thing), and I would be careful if I were you.

On Tuesday, we tried to reach Mayor Swaney, but instead spoke with city clerk Tracy Ashby. She said e-mails had been flowing in, some offering the Fugees practical assistance with obtaining U.S. Soccer Foundation and other grants toward playing space, but others taking an even harder line toward the Clarkston leadership than that favored by the Minnesota writer. Ashby commented on the stereotyped vision of Clarkston to which writers were responding (MP3 also included):

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Apparently a lot of people think that we’re a predominantly white town who are afraid of foreign nationals coming in. Our town is over 60 percent African American. It’s only 19 percent Caucasian, and the remainder is spread among 52 other nationalities. So it has been a little disappointing to have people call you “Adolf” or, “I hope you enjoy your KKK meetings,” when that’s not the makeup of the city. And it’s disappointing that people would judge that, “Oh, it’s a Georgia town,” so it’s simple to say it must be this reason.

We find it disingenuous, first, that correspondents nominally committed to equality and an egalitarian ethos would rely on disrespectful language and a reading of the facts so lacking in nuance. We cannot be sure if the outraged bloggers and flamers read all 6,000 words of St. John’s article. Later in the piece, we learn that Swaney, given the pressure of a public forum, had offered the Fugees what turned out to be a workable short-term solution: free access to the city’s Armistead Field. Clarkston officials did seem to retract use of the field at one point, but Swaney admitted the city’s error.

In Calhoun, Georgia, recreation authorities direct soccer players to soccer-specific facilities. The risk is discouraging casual play and thereby seeming intolerant of Hispanic newcomers. Calhoun, Ga.

Ashby makes clear that there has never been any ban on soccer in Clarkston or a ban on the Fugees. The reporter does not specify that Swaney’s remark in the second paragraph (“There will be nothing but baseball and football …”), quoted from “the local paper”—the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Mary Lou Pickel, “Lost Boys’ Goal: Find Soccer Field in Clarkston,” 8 Jul 06)—pertains to a team of adult men from Sudan, not to the Fugees.

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