Historically black and proud | At Spelman, women’s soccer pushes beyond expectation

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.

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