Spelman’s Rabi Jamar defends versus Agnes Scott College of Decatur, Georgia, 6 Sept 06. Spelman defeated their Atlanta-area rivals for the first time last season in a conference tournament semifinal. (Sports Information Department, Spelman College)
Atlanta | As soccer tacticians do, Spelman College coach Philmore George speaks of building a team from the back, using combination play to instill belief in the collective. It makes sense, therefore, that the co-captains in George’s fourth season, which begins Sept 1, are defenders: seniors Ashley Hamilton and Rabiah “Rabi” Jamar.
Together they not only have led the Spelman Jaguars from the back but the spread of women’s soccer into new territories in America’s fragmented demographic. The Spelman experience also shows how, even in a country in which women’s soccer stands as the cultural equal (or better) of the men’s game, women’s presence as competitors in team sport remains difficult for a male-dominated mainstream media to comprehend.
George and his co-captains, who were guests on the Aug 21 podcast, build on this metaphor of creating possibilities from the relative anonymity of service at the back of the park. Says George:
I want to teach them … how to be a team person, because I think the passion, the discipline, the communication—these are life skills. And I’m trying to develop them while they’re playing a team sport. … Scoring goals is nice, but for me—create. I believe a lot of people don’t give enough respect to the work people do who don’t score goals. A lot of times all you see is the limelight to the forwards, but the goalkeeper does a great job keeping us in games, defenders closing down key attackers, midfielders the link going back and forth. … I think it’s very important that I express the work ethic.
As a side representing America’s oldest historically black college for women, Spelman makes a potentially consciousness-altering statement as it steps onto the field against NCAA Division III opponents, primarily fellow liberal-arts institutions in the southern tier. Although National Collegiate Athletic Administration figures state that just 2.5 percent of intercollegiate soccer players are African American women, roughly a dozen historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have created women’s teams in the past decade, from Howard University in Washington, DC, to Mississippi Valley State in Itta Bena.
The low participation rate supports the belief that soccer, unlike basketball and track and field, has yet to become a popular choice for black women. Yet George addresses the larger challenge, which is increasing the numbers in higher education. “Can we get more African Americans to go to college?” he asks. “That has a big impact” in shrinking the pool of black players in soccer and other sports. Jamar also suggests a more mundane, less racially freighted reason for the lack of interest: “Whenever we ask people, ‘Do you want to come to our game?’ they’re like, ‘Well, it’s kind of boring.’ ” But, she adds, the perceived slowness of the sport may turn off African American parents seeking scholarships for their children in high-profile college basketball and athletics programs.
From left, Ashley Hamilton, coach Philmore George and Rabi Jamar, on Aug 21.
For their part, both Hamilton and Jamar say they took to the game naturally at elementary-school age. They followed the course for young players, learning at recreation level and building toward commitment to year-round traveling teams while simultaneously playing in high school. Hamilton’s talents grew in one of the most soccer-saturated areas in the United States, in Plano, Texas, outside Dallas. She competed at Plano East Senior High School, among America’s largest public high schools, with an athletic pedigree that includes graduates Lance Armstrong and Lee Nguyen of PSV Eindhoven and the U.S. national team.
Jamar attended a similarly well-regarded school in Pittsburgh, Schenley High School, which counts Andy Warhol as an alumnus. (Warhol was not a footballer, but he did execute well-known silk-screen portraits of Pelé.) Jamar felt the need to reduce her time commitment to soccer during secondary school.
“I had no idea what my interests were outside of soccer,” she says. “I didn’t know what I would major in. If I had a knee injury and I was out, what would I do with my life? It came down to the point I really wanted to find out what I was interested in and what I want to go to school for.”
The two have helped build a Spelman program that entered Division III competition in 2002. With results on the field slow to come—early multiple-goal losses, especially to regional rival Agnes Scott College in Decatur, remain fresh in memory—the side improved gradually with a growing pool of players with club-soccer experience. Practices became more competitive. Attendance at Herndon Stadium, the previous home of the WUSA’s Atlanta Beat, grew from handfuls to some 100—George confesses a need for more boosterism—within a cavernous facility constructed for the 1996 Olympic Games, then occupied by the Morris Brown gridiron team.
Then Spelman notched a breakthrough result last fall when it defeated Agnes Scott, 2–1, in a semifinal at the Great South Athletic Conference tournament. Spelman recovered from an early 0–1 deficit with goals in the 29th and 47th minutes. It lost the final, which would have gained it a place in the national Division III tournament, 0–5 to Maryville of Tennessee. Hamilton remembers:
It was really exciting. I don’t think anyone expected it. I think we gained a lot of respect that game. … I don’t think the finals were necessarily in our head. We were really just trying to beat Agnes Scott, because that’s one of our biggest rivals. They’re right up the street from us, and we had never beaten them before. … We got a little notch under our belt.
Following eight victories, two draws and five losses in 2006, George predicts additional surprises for the coming season.
Spelman College campus, 2005. Founders of the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary, the school’s original name, viewed education as a “liberating force” for blacks 20 years after emancipation.
It is unsurprising, however, that these new faces in women’s soccer should come to the fore on the fields of American higher education. Colleges have helped nurture women’s soccer in the United States since the late 19th century, when women played as part of physical-education classes at schools in the Northeast. By 1924, the women’s athletic department at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, promoted regular teams and intramural games. Intercollegiate matches, however, were banned in most schools. Not until 1975 did Brown University in Rhode Island create a varsity women’s soccer program.
Given its founding in 1881 in the basement of a church planted by a Boston mission society, Spelman College has long-standing ties to the New England tradition of women’s colleges and the classical liberal curriculum. Said benefactor Thomas Jefferson Morgan in “What Spelman Seminary Stands For” (1901):
Spelman Seminary is aiming to do, as far as practicable, for the Negro woman precisely what is being done for white women by Smith, Vassar, Wellesley, and other institutions of Christian learning, which for decades have been contributing most liberally and potently to their preparation, not only for the homely duties of life, but for the larger sphere of activity to which the age calls them, thus fitting them to add their quota to the great work of human betterment.
“[T]he responsibility to be borne by the women at Spelman was an awesome one …,” writes Johnetta Cross Brazzell. “[T]he women bore the weight of the entire race. If they failed, a whole people failed” (38). Community service and responsibility has remained an emphasis at the college. Hamilton says that, partly due to urging from her coach, she has helped bring soccer to urban neighborhoods as a volunteer with Soccer in the Streets (see Jul 7 as well as the Black Athlete Sports Network interview with SITS executive director Jill Robbins, Jul 26). Spelman students have been active in protesting misogynistic images of women in rap videos and, almost inevitably, became enveloped in the controversy surrounding talk-radio host Don Imus in April.
Imus’s racist remarks about the Rutgers women’s basketball team before the 2007 national championship again helped place Spelman in the spotlight. CNN cameras visited a “Violence against Women” seminar to record students’ comment, only to heavily edit the video such that the women appeared to be endorsing use of the degrading stereotype in their own speech. A short online documentary deconstructs the ravages of white media in reporting the Imus reaction (“CNN Misrepresents Spelman College Students on Don Imus”).
Jamar, in addressing the Imus controversy, suggests that lingering on the insult might pigeonhole black women, especially black women athletes, still further. “I soaked it in, heard it—offended—and moved on,” she says.
Preconceived ideas founder on seeing Jamar and Spelman teammates do what they do on the pitch. The expectation is that black women do not play soccer and do not play it well—an idea challenged recently at the youth level by Guardian blogger and Philadelphia Weekly writer Steven Wells in his feature on the Anderson Monarchs (“Bend It Like Janiah,” Philadelphia Weekly, Jul 4). But enough “non-standard” expressions of what it means to be a women’s footballer exist to challenge the expectation.
Johnetta Cross Brazzell, “Bricks without Straw: Missionary-Sponsored Black Higher Education in the Post-Emancipation Era,” Journal of Higher Education 63 (Jan/Feb 1992): 26–49; Andrei S. Markovits and Steven L. Hellerman, “Women’s Soccer in the United States: Yet Another American ‘Exceptionalism,’ ” in Soccer, Women, Sexual Liberation: Kicking Off a New Era, ed. Fan Hong and J. A. Mangan, Sport in the Global Society (London and Portland, Oreg.: Frank Cass, 2004), 14–29.
The 2007 season concluded in similar fashion to the previous year. That is, Spelman (11-7-1 overall, 8-3-1 GSAC) defeated Agnes Scott (12-7-1, 8-3-1), 2–1, in the conference semifinals on Nov 2. Spelman lost the final 0–3 to Maryville the following day.
We attended the first meeting of the 2007 season on Sept 21, with the two sides concluding a hotly contested 110-minute derby match at 0–0. (Spelman defeated ASC 1–0, in overtime, in a second meeting on Oct 27.) Neither side could earn a breakthrough, although Spelman striker Tyra Weaver left-footed a goal in the 27th minute that was judged offside, and twice Spelman players missed close chances in the second 10-minute overtime.
“I hope that’s a wake-up call that that went in,” an Agnes Scott player yelled after the offside goal in a match that took place at Gellerstedt Field at Agnes Scott, although Spelman was the home team. Vandalism to the water system at Herndon Stadium in southeast Atlanta, where Spelman had played its games, brought about the shift in location.
Physical challenges were the order of the day. Three Agnes Scott players were injured; two had to be substituted. Agnes Scott coach Joe Bergin earned a caution in the second half for protesting one Spelman challenge. “That’s terrible!” he yelled at the referee. “You can book me all you want!”
Division III women’s soccer affords the opportunity to hear such dissent and encouragement from the sidelines. Also in the second half, a supporter yelled to Agnes Scott junior striker Ashley Schmidt, “Ashley, your tag’s sticking out!” Schmidt checked the tag at the back of her shorts and shrugged.