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

  • 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

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14 comments on this post.
  1. Peg:

    “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:

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

  3. Paul Cuadros:

    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.:

    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:

    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:

    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:

    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:

    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:

    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:

    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:

    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. The Global Game | Media | What’s that echo? Gary Smith, on the Fugees:

    [...] 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:

    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:

    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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