The World Cup is currently taking place in Russia- you may have heard of it. The bigger matches will have a few hundred million viewers and the World Cup Final is estimated to have 2 billion viewers. With soccer (or as the rest of the world calls it, football) being the most popular sport in the world by far,  black Americans are noticeably absent.

Some may ask, why use the term “black Americans” and not African Americans? In this case, there should be a clear distinction because Africans who have immigrated play soccer. Similarly, those from the Caribbean, also play soccer. However,  to a large degree black Americans who are essentially indigenous to the American experience and history, do not play global football.

If we’re to look at what athletic options we’d like to see our children pursue, soccer should be at the top of the list. Let’s all agree basketball is the most popular sport among black Americans, which is then followed by football (gridiron). Baseball’s popularity has fallen in recent years but it’s still viewed by some as interesting and if the local team is doing well, we’ll support them.

Next, I will definitively say that a career as a professional athlete should never be a priority for the youth. The areas of science, technology, engineering, medicine, and finance are key areas of growth and if younger people are to spend most of their free time pursuing life’s goal, those fields would be preferable. With this being said, we do recognize that sports has provided a positive outlet for youth all over the world and for a select few, they’ve been blessed with athletic abilities that allow them to attain tremendous wealth, benefiting themselves and their families.

Within this framework, if we’re looking at sports, soccer is a great option to consider. Basketball will be in the number spot for the foreseeable future because it’s ingrained in the culture and NBA players have influenced generations of youth on the court; from Dr. J jumping from the free throw line, Michael Jordan dunking over opponents at will, LeBron James controlling all facets of the game and Steph Curry knocking down 3’s just past the half court line. Off the court, we’ve been inspired by Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s stances on civil rights, Jordan’s impact on sneakers, Allen Iverson bringing urban style to a larger audience, to today’s athletes speaking out on a number of social issues.

Yet, if we’re to consider option two………should we really be so beholden to football? Before looking at the current issue surrounding athletes kneeling during the national anthem, let’s look at the physical impact the sport has on the human body. It’s been conclusively explained how the years of playing football has a seriously detrimental impact on the players. CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), is a well-recognized and documented brain disease which is a result of multiple concussions over a number of years and significant blows to the head. A study of 96 former NFL players showed 90 of the players had been diagnosed with this disease. Symptoms range from dizziness, amnesia, dementia, memory problems, aggression and suicidal thoughts.

Well known, including Hall of Fame players such as Junior Seau, Terry Long, Andre Waters and Dave Duerson among others have committed suicide, with the post-mortem reported showing significant signs of CTE. In the cases of Dave Duerson and Junior Seau, they purposely killed themselves in a manner to preserve their brain tissue and asked their families to send samples to doctors to confirm their suspicions. NFL Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas tells a story of how after he retired, he went to visit a doctor, whom upon examination, told him, his brain looked as if  "similar to someone who has fallen off the top of a house, on to the front of his head, or [someone who went] through a windshield of a car several times.”.

Besides the documented brain injuries, the sheer physicality of the sport means most former professional athletes and even those who played college, will have lifelong ailments from the numerous hits on their body. In a sense, if your child is exceptionally athletic and really good at football, this is their potential future. Former NFL quarterback, Don Majkowski noted how, he has tremendous problems simply standing up and sitting down, which causes him physical pain. Since retiring from the NFL, he’s had 20 injury-related surgeries between his ankle, back, and shoulder.

What’s worse is, the culture among both NFL players and the coaching staff is to simply play through the pain. Current and former athletes have noted how, the league appeared less concerned with the athletes' health and more focused on their continuing to play, week in and week out. Many pointed out how painkillers are essential for game day and trainers routinely hand them out to players. Calvin Johnson (aka Megatron) was one of the greatest receivers of his era and widely considered one of the best players in his franchise's history. Yet, he retired at the age of 30 and when asked how many concussions he’d suffered in the NFL, he responded, possibly a dozen but he wasn’t sure. Coincidentally, he was never listed as being injured with a concussion.

Respectfully, this isn’t an attack on football. I’m certainly not one to judge how people spend their free time, their recreation or potential form of employment. This is about options and presumably, identifying possible better options. Yet, parents will ask; what other sports can their child play?

I would say, soccer. First, let’s dismiss the notion of how soccer isn’t “fun” or it’s boring. It’s the most popular sport in the world which means it’s obviously fun to some people. However, because many Americans and to be more specific, most black Americans almost never play soccer, we haven’t seen enough of the sport to understand it or to become accustomed to it.

I’ll use myself as an example. I NEVER played soccer growing up. In Philly, it was basketball, football and then baseball. In elementary school, we may have seen a soccer ball, but we only used it to play kickball if the other ball was flat or missing. Thus it’s not as if I’m talking from the perspective of being a lifetime fan of the sport. However, the first time I ever played a full game of soccer, on a field, with other people, I was in my mid-30s. By this time, I’d lived abroad in East Africa and the Gulf for a number of years and I’d established a healthy respect for soccer. I recognized it as a “legitimate” sport and began to follow some of the best teams in Europe. In prior years, I’d watch some of the big matches of the World Cup, but generally with other people because I enjoyed it as an event.

Thus my decision to play had been building up over time. On the field, I could run and keep up as a defender but was totally lost on the movement of play and a lost cause when it came to dribbling the ball. But, I was having fun and enjoying myself. Then, one of my teammates suggested I play goalie (which is considered to be the least skilled position, albeit important), so I accepted. Guess what? I was actually pretty good as a goalie. It turns out, my basketball skills as a point guard, translated into being a decent goalie because fast hands, meant you could block shots more easily.

As I began to play a bit more, my footwork got a bit better and I realized, while the movements weren’t the same as basketball, they were similar enough to maneuver around. After some time, I never consider myself good or even decent but guys know, I won’t overly hurt the team and can somehow contribute. What’s strange is, I remember thinking to myself, I should have started playing this 25 years ago.

For myself, I’m 5’8, which is about average height for most American men. While I always enjoyed playing basketball, the reality is, unless you’re at least 6’4 to 6’6, you really have little to no chance of reaching the professional level of the sport. In fact, everyone knows someone who was a really good 6’4 center in high school and even in neighborhood basketball. However at the college level, 6’4 is a shooting guard and in the NBA, it’s become the average size for many point guards. Yes, the NBA has had smaller players excel such as Allen Iverson, Isaiah Thomas, Nate Robinson, Mugsy Bogues and a few others. But those guys are extremely exceptional and even Iverson was listed as 6’0.

In soccer, it’s all about your level of skill because average height is generally the rule. Here’s a look at the height of some of the more well known players in soccer history:

  • Pele – 5’8
  • Maradona – 5’5
  • Lionel Messi – 5’7
  • Cristiano Ronaldo – 6’2
  • Ronaldhino – 5’11
  • Neymar 5’9

Those heights are average, which means the ability to excel was based on their level of skill and not discounted or hindered because they weren’t winners of the genetic lottery.

From a financial perspective, soccer pays and it pays big time. Some of the richest sports leagues in the world are in soccer and for locations, there at numerous leagues in Europe and the growing popularity of the MLS in America which offer great options for star athletes. There’s the Premier League in England, the La Liga in Spain, Ligue 1 in France, Bundesliga in Germany, Serie A in Italy, not to mention the second tiers of these leagues which are all professional and provide a high level of skill, potential, and opportunity. As it relates to wealth, here’s a list of the highest paid athletes in the world based on 2017:

  • Floyd Mayweather – $285 million
  • Lionel Messi – $111 million
  • Cristiano Ronaldo – $108 million
  • Connor McGregor – $99 million
  • Neymar – $90 million
  • LeBron James – $85 million

As you see, 3 of those athletes are soccer players. With all of this being said, there is a great opportunity for a new generation of Americans and once again, to black Americans to pursue soccer. The United States did not qualify for this year’s World Cup, which means we aren’t producing enough talent at the youth level. Second, the US, along with Mexico and Canada, was recently rewarded as the host of the World Cup in 2026. This means an increased focus will be placed on the sport with very real opportunities for athletically gifted youth to find a place as a star on the global stage. From a demographic position, inner cities have more people and coincidentally, generally produce more professional athletes. This is due to the number of schools, programs and equally as important, level of competition. Without being too critical of the US soccer programs/academies, some have noted their lack of focus on urban areas has weakened the talent pool of players, hence the reason why very few American athletes ever reach the highest levels of global football.

With the World Cup coming to America in 8 years, this is our time. Of course, our focus should be on academics but there is nothing wrong with sports. If you as a parent have a young child, and you’d like to see them become involved in organized sports, my suggestion is to put the football helmet away and find a soccer league. If there aren’t any close, get together with community leaders and centers to establish a league. At this stage, while we recognize football is fun, the dangers are obvious and it’s upon the parents to start recognizing the situation. The current issue involving protests, only makes the decision easier.

So while it may not be something parents are entirely intrigued by, I guarantee if your child plays it from a young age, they will be excited by the sport and enjoy it. The global era of soccer is upon us and we should never be the last ones to catch on. The sport offers another outlet to the global stage, which as a people, we need more experience and understanding about the opportunities which exist. My final suggestion is this. Consider soccer as a sport which your child can enjoy, become good at and more importantly, have fun. As parents, we know this is important and ten to fifteen years down the road, you’ll be happy with your decision.