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.

A Feb 1 Times correction acknowledges the Journal-Constitution as the source—making the slight correction in syntax—but does not clarify that the statement refers to another team. Swaney’s quote, in full, referring to the “Lost Boys” of legend, reads: “There will be nothing but baseball down there as long as I am mayor. I don’t have no beef with nobody. But I do have a problem with these big guys playing soccer because those fields weren’t made for soccer.”

Ashby said that adult use of city facilities brings a different range of problems—evidence exists of alcohol and drug use at the park sites.

Clarkston has been less able or willing to accommodate older players, perhaps tarring with too broad a brush the new residents for whom playing soccer on weekends exists almost as a cultural imperative. Yet the community, in contrast to the “small town” image painted in the Times article, is woven into the Atlanta conurbation and, thus, is heavily urbanized; there is little green space.

The city with its limited resources has focused on youth, on well-established programs such as Little League Baseball and Pee Wee Football, at the risk of seeming inhospitable to adults in the refugee population. These programs, which necessitate heavy parental involvement, also do not fit well with the realities in refugee families, often one-parent households struggling to adjust to the demands of new work, new language and new culture. The challenge is accommodating rapidly shifting demographics without ignoring existing residents.

The New York Times article, however, fails to acknowledge the widespread nature of this dilemma in relation to soccer. We have referred in the past to other communities dealing with a similar refugee influx (see 23 Aug 06). Also recently we received a telling picture from Calhoun, Georgia (see photo above), located in Gordon County in a northwestern, less-developed part of the state.

At first the stern message, NO SOCCER ALLOWED, posted at area playing fields seems damning. Given the manifold increase in the Hispanic population in the 20 years leading up to the 2000 census (Susan Kirkland, “Now Is Time to Meet Hispanic Challenges,” Calhoun Times, 31 Oct 06), one assumes that such messages and their block-capital, monolingual foreboding must be targeted at these newcomers. Hispanic populations have mushroomed in this part of Georgia, attracted in part by the nearby carpet-manufacturing and warehousing businesses in Dalton, the so-called carpet capital of the world. The industry employs more than 30,000.

Again, area recreation officials emphasize youth and organized play and demand reservations to use soccer fields. Gates have been locked and players asked to leave to enforce Calhoun regulations. In reference to such incidents, recreation director Ronnie Reeves told the Calhoun Times last September, “The gates were locked for a reason. We came there and the goals were moved around and the fields were tore up.”

Officials such as Reeves and others across the South and nationwide should not be blamed, however, for what is a widespread shortage of soccer space. The villains in the Fugees’ story remain those in the boys’ homelands who could not resist a turn to ethnic and sectarian violence, and who were the initiators of these refugees’ struggles.

Nevertheless, the New York Times account may have some positive, if limited, effect. If a report this week in Variety proves accurate, $500,000 will be earmarked for a new field as part of a Fugee-inspired movie-and-book deal (Michael Fleming and Dave McNary, “Universal Buys Soccer Story,” Jan 24). Thus, the Fugees might be spared further practice-time anguish, as long as a spot for said field can be found.

But Universal will need someone snarly to play Swaney’s role, given the demands of the story. Mel Gibson, anyone?

Updates

  • As of Sept 07, the Fugees had earned a $100,000 Nike sponsorship, including an annual summer sports and academic camp at Mufleh’s alma mater, Smith College in Massachusetts (Helena Oliviero, “Team Gets Fame-Spun Foothold in DeKalb,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Sept 15; “Refugees Learn to Tell Their Stories at Smith College,” Smith College, Jul 27).
  • In mid-May, ESPN SportsCenter provided a retrospective in soft focus and with tinkling piano.
  • National Public Radio airs its own feature on the Fugees, including interviews with some of the players, Mufleh and Swaney (Kathy Lohr, “Refugees Find Hope, Film Deal on Soccer Field,” Mar 9). The website offers an interactive map with additional interviews.
  • The Atlanta Journal-Constitution steps to the defense of Clarkston in Mar 1 editions (Anna Varela, “Clarkston Begs to Differ with Portrayal”). Among other demographic nuggets, the article mentions that voter rolls include 75 residents with the last name “Nguyen.” Clarkston natives and others sound off in a related weblog posting (“Was Clarkston Misjudged?”).
  • The Fugees’ case has made its way across the Atlantic, at least as far as the Guardian Unlimited sport blog. Steven Wells places the Fugees within the wider context of immigration, observing that “[t]owns all over America have been revitalised by immigrants and refugees who’ve brought soccer with them” (“A Soccer Saint, Yes, but Where Are the Sinners?” Feb 14).
  • The Clarkston City Council voted 4–1 on Feb 6 to extend the Fugees’ use of Armistead Field through Dec 07. “There’s willingness for everyone to work together,” Mufleh told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I hope that doesn’t change between now and December.”
  • The Jan 30 Wall Street Journal account of the behind-the-scenes bidding war for the Fugees’ story shows that the Times‘s misconstrual has taken hold, at least among dreamweavers out West. “Because the mayor of Clarkston restricted the team’s use of a local field, the team was left without a permanent place to play,” writes Journal reporter Kate Kelly in describing how the Jan 21 story became the “rare tale that managed to transfix a wide swath of filmmakers the moment they read it” (“Heartwarming Soccer Story Kicks Off Hollywood Fight,” p. B1; not available online).

    Scott Rudin Productions president Mark Roybal, whose $1.25 million offer was ultimately spurned, felt he had to grovel a bit:

    Today’s article is probably one of the best pieces of journalism we have read in years. It deserves all the inevitable acclaim and accolades it will certainly accrue.

    One hopes that the sudden cash influx will not disrupt the Fugees’ operation.

  • The New York Times on Jan 28 published eight letters related to the Fugee article. One letter, from a Clarkston resident, Susan Garrett, defends the city’s efforts: “Rather than examining the tremendous fiscal and social challenges heaped upon Clarkston by the refugee influx, you take the easy way out by falling back on the tired old Southern cracker stereotype” (“They Are Refugees. Who Are We?”).
  • Mayor Swaney and the city of Clarkston released a statement on Jan 26 (with two bracketed emendations for clarity):

    January 26, 2007

    Statement to the Citizens of Clarkston and the Media
    from Mayor Lee Swaney

    The City of Clarkston has received several emails expressing concern for the Fugees soccer team stemming from a recent New York Times article. There is a misconception that the Fugees team and soccer in general is banned in the City of Clarkston parks. Please be assured that this is not the case and the Fugees have been practicing on Armistead Field since October 2006.

    The New York Times reporter repeatedly confuses Milam Park Field—which is dedicated to little league baseball and unsuitable for soccer—with Armistead Field which is where the Fugees continue to play. The only limitations we have ever placed on either Armistead Field or Milam Park field are to restrict the usage to children only.

    We are deeply disappointed in the tone of Mr. St. John’s article. The report is factually inaccurate and several statements are taken out of context—apparently to present a more dramatic story and arrive at his own conclusions.

    We are very proud of the Fugees’ success which is a positive outcome from Clarkston being among the most culturally diverse cities in Georgia. Our population is 55.7% African American, 19.4% Caucasian, 12.6% Asian and 12.3% representing over 52 nationalities. Our diversity is also reflected in Clarkston’s City Council of six members with two African Americans and a Vietnamese refugee. I am delighted to see the recognition that Coach Mufleh and her team are receiving for their impressive success story. The Fugees represent the best of what the human spirit can accomplish by overcoming oppressive conditions in their native countries and coming together in their new community to achieve success through the power of sports and teamwork.

    In October 2006, I encouraged Coach Luma Mufleh to attend a City Council meeting to request the use of Armistead Field for her soccer program. At that meeting, the Clarkston City Council unanimously approved her request to use Armistead Field for the remainder of this soccer season, which [finishes in] March 2007. Because of her program’s tremendous success and positive contribution to Clarkston, I see no reason [use of the field] will not continue. In fact, Coach Mufleh will return to the February Council meeting to renew her agreement to use Armistead Field for another year.

    In December, we did receive several complaints that groups of adult men were playing soccer on Armistead Field. This is a violation of the allowed use of the field. We tried to contact Coach Luma several times to determine if the men were affiliated with the Fugees. When she could not be reached, a letter was sent to the YMCA to put the program on hold until a newly hired sports coordinator was on board. I was then contacted by Coach Luma and she assured me the men were not affiliated with the Fugees soccer program. I immediately reinstated the use of Armistead Field for their practices.

    Sincerely,

    Mayor Lee Swaney
    City of Clarkston

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

Comments (14)

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  1. Peg says:

    “The risk is discouraging casual play and thereby seeming intolerant of Hispanic newcomers.”

    What? That’s like saying enforcing our immigration (or employment or housing) laws is “intolerant” of Hispanic newcomers. Are there rules about the maintenance and use of public playing fields, or not? If there are, then the “newcomers” should abide by them, just as the long-timers are required to. If they don’t like the rules, they should vote in officials who will change them. (And if they’re here illegally and cannot vote, they should leave.)

    By the way, if the NO SOCCER ALLOWED sign were in fact targeted to Hispanic newcomers, it would likely have been posted in Spanish.

  2. Peg says:

    Our local authorities have NO SKATEBOARDING signs posted at local recreation areas. Is that “intolerant” of skaters?

  3. Paul Cuadros says:

    Check out A Home on the Field: How One Championship Team Inspires Hope for the Revival of Small Town America, published by HarperCollins in Sept 06. It tells the story of my high-school team, the Jets, in Siler City, North Carolina, a predominantly Latino immigrant team and the slings and arrows we had to go through to get the program formed at the high school and the prejudice we endured on and off the field only to win the state championship after three seasons. It also tells the tale of a town coming to grips with immigration and finding a way.

  4. Luis O. Garcia, M.D. says:

    This is a just another example of how xenophobic Americans (not just white) treat immigrants. Most people have forgotten that at some point in their past someone from their family came to the US in search of a better life, and in some instances just to be able to feed [the family]. It is very easy to vilify another human being because they are different, but I would like to see if these same Americans could survive or adjust to life in the … conditions [under] which many immigrants [live] in our country.

    I mourn the loss of basic human values and caring for your fellow man, bleeding heart some say … I guess worrying about others is not in vogue right now, but killing others in a foreign land while we enjoy our SUVs and overdeveloped appetite for food is OK.

    I will stay a bleeding heart. I find I sleep better that way and will ultimately settle my account with the ultimate judge. How many people are ready for that?

    Lastly, shame on Swaney. I find his behavior un-American.

  5. James Clark says:

    I read Paul Cuadros‘s book and see it as little more than a left-wing immigration stance disguised as a soccer book. It is filled with grammatical mistakes, essays about politics and assumptions that expecting immigrants to learn English is racism. Aren’t all those Poles in Illinois white? Aren’t Italians in New York white? Aren’t the Czechs in central Texas white? Wouldn’t their economic and educational opportunities be greater by learning English? I suspect Cuadros’s book was rushed to market to take advantage of the immigration debate being waged in the U.S.

    Don’t get me wrong. I think we will soon be looking upon today as the civil rights movement for Hispanics. However, languages are not skin colors.

    As for this New York Times piece on this community in Georgia, let’s keep in mind all the troubles that the newspaper had with concocted facts and embellished stories a couple of years back. Blasting off an e-mail to this city’s mayor may relieve stress, but it’s not helping the situation. Send these folks some money to buy two acres of land and play soccer independent of politics, or write a recommendation to the U.S. Soccer Foundation to fund this project.

  6. David Keyes says:

    Fantastic post. The NY Times did feel a bit too much like a Disney movie, with convenient sides of good and evil easily compartmentalized. I’m glad to hear that the true story is a bit more messy than that. The reality may not make as good a movie, but it does bring me hope for the future of soccer in this country.

  7. DG says:

    Publications like the New York Times will always use the stereotypes of Southern culture as a way to prop up its own inflated self-image of progressive, empathetic thinking.

    Ironically, the reality is that if you go a couple of miles away from where the New York Times is published, into the outer boroughs or New Jersey, for example, you’ll find a throng of working-class, “Joey-bag-o’-donuts” types, who use expilicit racial epithets (or any Italian variant) at a clip that would make most Southerners wince in pain.

    I guess the real problem is that the racists that most certainly exist near where the Times is published are so boorish and plain as to not make good copy. Southern racists, even made-up ones, just sell papers better than their Northern counterparts.

  8. Clarkston Resident says:

    It’s not just soccer that the mayor doesn’t like. Prominently posted at the entrances to Milam Park are signs warning of a $500 violation for having dogs [at the park]. Throughout its history Clarkston has been led by people with an astonishing lack of vision. Clarkston leaders have always treated the immigrant community as a problem to be dealt with rather than embracing the cultural diversity they bring.

  9. patrick says:

    Let’s make sure we’re actually reading the post. I’m also a Clarkston resident, and I saw the New York Times article and it did not smell right to me. This weekend I had dinner with friends of mine, father and son, immigrants who live near the police station in Clarkston and who are always plugged into town news. My friend is a journalist and educator and had firsthand knowledge of the story’s details and characters from the beginning. He assured me that the NYT story was a complete fabrication, and this post confirms in some detail much of what he told me about it.

    Here is a summary of relevant facts:

    • Clarkston has a baseball-only park. The same is true of Decatur, Atlanta and I daresay the rest of the country. This has nothing to do with bigotry; it has everything to do with the expense of maintaining Little League Baseball fields.
    • Clarkston has another park with soccer fields. The Fugees practice there now, have been allowed to practice there for some time and will continue to practice there for the foreseeable future.
    • The fields in both parks are for youth-league use only, not for adults. There is a very large soccer-only park not five miles north of Clarkston (Henderson Park) where adults can play soccer to their hearts’ content.

    The NYT reporter substituted a run-in with adults using the soccer fields without permission for a showdown with immigrant children which, coincidentally, is a much better sell to Hollywood. I hear the final price for the story was around three million dollars. So who’s exploiting whom here?

  10. Callie says:

    I totally understand the need and expense of maintaining baseball-only fields. The real problem is that there are not enough places for people in general (not just kids) to get out and be active. Instead we pour concrete and put up more high rises and shopping malls. Really, it’s no wonder that kids today rely on video games and television for entertainment. There’s hardly anywhere for them to go and have fun and be kids without some sign telling them they can’t run, or some fence telling them they can’t go on the only grassy area for five miles.

    And I hope karma catches up to the NYT article writer for falsifying the info. Ugh.

  11. elizabeth chavez says:

    I read the NYT article, and I think it is not possible that in this century we can find bans on soccer. The United States is a land formed by immigrants; their history comes from Europe. In England football was invented, so why you do not like this sport and why you do not let the boys practice it? God left the land for everyone, not just for a group that thinks that it is the owner of everything on Earth. I think Mayor Swaney should buy a piece of land and give it to the Fugees to play on it.

  12. [...] Long-form Sports Illustrated writer Gary Smith again has applied his odd epistemology to soccer (“Alive and Kicking,” Jun 23). In 8,000 words, he writes passionately in his familiar mode of author-vacated all-knowing about the Fugees of Clarkston, Georgia—ground already well plowed by Warren St. John of the New York Times (see 25 Jan 07). [...]

  13. Bob Patton says:

    I just watched Luma and her group on CBS-TV here in LA.

    What a wonderful and inspirational story.

    I am a retired teacher here in LA and was thrilled to see these young men with manners, motivation and the fact that they were fluent in English.

    Maybe those in LA who circumvent the language may want to stand up and take notice.

    Kudos to coach Mufleh and her mission!

  14. Jack Jones says:

    I am just catching wind of this for the first time, but it’s always interesting to see just what kind of convoluted picture can be painted by some journalists.

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