published Sunday, March 24th, 2013

Mark Kennedy: Soccer is leading the way

My world is lily white.

Caucasian people dominate my neighborhood, my church and the newsroom where I work. Sometimes I worry about my two sons growing up in a Wonder Bread world.

The boys, ages 11 and 6, attended a mixed-race urban elementary school and pre-school when they were younger, but now, in the suburbs, their world is as white as fence paint.

My older son told me sweetly once when he was seven, "Daddy, I miss my brown friends."

I'm concerned that my children will grow up without much exposure to Latino immigrants. Like blacks and whites in America, Caucasian and Latinos live in self-segregated worlds, with the fence between the two cultures made taller by the language barrier serving as a coil of barbed wire at the top.

This standoffishness will serve no one in the America of the future.

The recent thaw in Washington, D.C., on immigration policy is as much an acknowledgment of population facts as astute politics.

Here's what the U.S. Census Bureau tells us:

• America's 52 million Latino population represents the nation's largest ethnic or race minority.

• Of all the world's nations, only Mexico has a larger Latino population today than the United States.

• By 2050, the number of Latinos in American will balloon to 132 million, and their proportion of the U.S. population will nearly double from 16 percent (now) to 30 percent (then).

At the very least, these shifting demographics will change the way everyone in America works and plays. This is already happening in a small corner of my world -- youth soccer.

My older son plays on a traveling soccer team. Several times a year, his team, which is all white, encounters another team of 10- and 11-year-olds made up of virtually all Latino players.

At a soccer tournament in Smyrna, Tenn., last weekend I watched the two cultures blend on the field and off.

For the Latino kids, soccer is like a first language. It's obvious. You can see it in the graceful way they play. They play soccer as if they were chess pieces with legs. It's a year-round passion.

Many of the boys on my son's team, on the other hand, play other sports in other seasons. My son, for example, plays (or has played) baseball, basketball, lacrosse and soccer. He has also run track and cross-country.

What his team lacks in soccer technique, they compensate for in brute effort. Sometimes hustling their way to victory works. Sometimes it doesn't. Often, my son is so spent after a game he can barely talk for 15 minutes.

If these observations sound like stereotypes to you, come watch a select soccer game and draw your own conclusions.

The sidelines at these games are an interesting show -- Latino fans on one side of the halfway-line, Caucasians on the other.

The Latino fans have noisemakers. Listening to their crowd noise during the ebb and flow of the game, it sounds like people riding a roller coaster. They anticipate the ups and downs on the field before they happen.

The Caucasian parents are more urgent, barking instructions and encouragement. Effort, effort, effort is what they want. (This describes me, by the way.) Losing is OK. But losing with unspent fuel in the tank is frowned upon.

If a Latino team makes it to the finals of a tournament, their sideline swells by a factor of two. It's as if word travels through the community and extended families turn out.

On the Caucasian sidelines during a championship game, the dads get more nervous and the mommas get louder.

Here's the thing I like the most about soccer tournaments: At the end, the two teams that have competed in the championship game get together for a trophy presentation.

By turns, each coach stands up and compliments the other squad, then the boys shake hands -- not mere "good game" hand taps, but real, grown-up handshakes with eye contact.

No matter how fierce the competition, this gentle ceremony honors the game and releases the tension.

People in Congress may think they can dictate the terms of the immigration debate. But sports is how Americas welcome immigrants. If soccer turns out to the cultural icebreaker for a generation of American youth, it puts them way ahead of the game.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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