You ever heard the song “What They Do,” by The Roots?
Oh, man. That’s it. That’s the song. It’s got some jazz guitar, some funk, some smooth beats.
Here’s the link. Just open in a new tab and let it ride in the background while you read this.
When you first hear it, you’ll just feel the vibe of it right away. But it’s got layers. The lyrics bend with the beat and feel like true craftsmanship. The rhythm and tempo changes. There’s some parts that you can tell were just pure improvisation in the studio.
You know, as a soccer coach, when I think about the way I see the game, or the way I want my players to see the game, I sometimes think about that song. It’s got so much depth and strength that it feels like more than just a piece of music. I’ve been listenin’ to it for so long that it’s almost a part of who I am, you get it?
That’s what soccer is for so many of us, as well. It’s a part of who we are. It’s the rhythm of our lives, our souls.
Seeing a winger score a great goal by beating four defenders and the keeper gives me the same feeling as watching Lynyrd Skynyrd shred on their guitars. It’s just incredibly visceral. When you see stuff like that, you’re really feeling it. And soccer and music exist around the world, with different countries and people playing the game and their instruments in their own unique ways.
I’m telling you about all this because I’m the coach of Oakland Roots SC, and we are our own great band. Our game is our music, our players are our artists.
The club was formed two years ago and plays in the National Independent Soccer Association. I became head coach last December. And when I did, it was not lost on me what it meant to be a black professional soccer coach in the U.S.
In MLS, our country’s most visible league, around 25% of the current players are black. Of the 26 managers in the league, just two are black. And there’s just one black GM. To this day, there hasn’t been a single American-born black coach in the league. It’s like this all the way down the soccer pyramid here in our country. As of 2019, of the 206 NCAA Division I soccer programs, only 10 had black head coaches.
When I became manager in Oakland, my mission was no different from any other coach’s: to win championships, of course. But I wanted to do it our way — I wanted to do it the Oakland Way.
Here, we don’t play anybody else’s soundtracks. We’re creating our own vibe.
The Oakland way … let me tell you about the Town. It’s a place where people can be themselves. Where there’s a respect for humanity, and a desire to challenge the status quo. Oakland is diverse. People from all walks of life live here. Yeah, there’s a bit of grit to it, but that’s what makes it what it is. It’s different from anywhere you’ve ever been, I promise.
Man. Oakland is about speaking truth to power. That’s what it is.
Our city was the birthplace of the Black Panthers. They were all about the community and letting diversity prosper in the area. That essence — that vibe — never left the city.
Oakland is a city that prides itself on the strength and the voice of its black community. So to be one of the leaders of a sports team in the city, it only feels right to make sure that everything I do is with the city — with our people — in mind.
Now, as our country continues along the path of this movement, of this recognition of black bodies and souls, I know our team can play a part. I told my players this after we all saw the footage of George Floyd being murdered by police officers in Minnesota. I knew my first step was to really just listen to our players and staff. I know how complex this issue is and I don’t want to scare people by forcing a dialogue on them.
What I wanted to impress on my team was the importance of moving the needle and advancing this discussion. I wanted my players to realize that — no matter how they were feeling — something positive can come out of this.
I knew players weren’t going to want to speak immediately or share their stories, especially my black players. I knew there would be some silence in our meeting, and that was O.K. I wanted to create a space for my team to be vulnerable, to be open and honest. But at the same time, I didn’t want to isolate anyone.
So, eventually, on one of our calls, I shared a story with them that I want to tell you.
In 2004, when I was 18, I was driving in Stockton, California — and not a real nice area of town, either. A white friend of mine was in the passenger seat, and a Hispanic friend was in the back. We were just driving along, trying to get home, when this cop suddenly pulled us over. Without asking, he pulled me out of the driver’s seat, cuffed me, put me on the ground with his knee on my back, and then stuck a gun to my head and told me not to move. His partner pulled my Mexican friend from the back seat and cuffed him up against the car. They said we matched the description of some guys who had committed a crime earlier.
The officers were running our plates and everything and my heart was racing. And then I looked back at the car, and I saw my white friend was just sitting there in the front seat. The cops had completely ignored him.
If they thought we were criminals, why would the white guy be any less dangerous than us? And even if they did think we had done something, I had done nothing to justify being held at gunpoint. One mistake by me and who knows what could have happened out there, right? There were no body cams or cellphones with cameras back then.
It’s the stereotype of the aggressive black male. They couldn’t just run our plates and be done with it. They operated out of fear, out of hate.
I told my team this story, but I also told them that hate doesn’t get you anywhere. I have friends who are police officers, and although I suffered that experience, there is no resentment. But there is a purpose to telling stories like mine.
I knew that this could happen. Even before it became a weekly headline in the press, I knew what it meant to be black in America.
My dad used to joke that when he was a kid growing up in East Texas his middle name must have been N*****, because every single day on his walk to school, he would be called that and have rocks thrown at him by other kids.
My dad taught me how to stay alive in America.
I remember being little — I’m not exactly sure how old I was — and being in the car with my family one day when we got pulled over. I was always a bit of a jokester as a kid, so I was laughing and making a fuss in the backseat when it happened. But to this day I will never forget the look in my dad’s eyes when he turned around and told me to act properly. The sternness in his voice, too. My dad’s a loose guy. He’s fun-loving and easygoing. But when he looked at me … I just remember thinking that if he thought something bad could happen with this officer, then something bad could happen with this officer.
Luckily nothing happened. But when I started driving as a teenager, he had a big talk with me about how to act if I ever got pulled over.
He said, “Look, if you get pulled over, just do as you’re told. Drop the slang. Say ‘Yes, sir,’ when you’re spoken to. Always know where your license and registration are — move your hands real slow when you go to reach for them. Always do as you’re told. Always.”
So I was prepared that day with my friends when I was 18. But it didn’t matter much to those officers. They were going to do what they wanted to do, and that was that.
These are the experiences that play a part in the way young black people in America come to see the world.
Stories like mine are part of the dialogue my team has been having over the last few weeks. We’ve talked about fears, dreams, and everything in between of late. And we’ve also talked about ways we can do our part as a group to amplify the message being spread across the country.
As a soccer team, there is always the game. We want to play in a way that inspires the people of Oakland. And when we travel around the U.S., we want people to see us play and go, “Yeah, that’s Oakland Roots soccer right there.”
But we are more than just players. Which is why I’m incredibly proud to announce that our entire club will be joining Common Goal in pledging 1% of our salaries toward high-impact organizations that harness the power of soccer to help battle the issues of inequality and injustice. Common Goal will also use those funds to help communities and provide education to those who desperately need it.
We know our voices are powerful, but our actions should be, too.
One of the reasons I came to Oakland is because I knew this club was about more than soccer. We want to invest in people who are attacking those issues that are important to our city, our community. I want to use my platform as a black professional soccer coach in America to empower people, to help those black coaches who will follow me.
That’s why Common Goal matters to us. The 1% may not seem like much, but across a whole organization it can have a massive impact. And for us, being the first sports club in America to pledge makes me really, really proud. Our soccer may be our rhythm, our beat. But the way we carry ourselves, the way we treat others, the way we change the world — those are our lyrics.
We are Oakland, and this is our music.