Let’s Grow This Game Together

Mark Davis for The Players' Tribune
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I love the game of soccer with all my heart. It’s been a huge part of my life for as long as I can remember. I don’t know what I’d do without it.

But our game, as beautiful as it may be, is not perfect.

Our sport is not immune to the issues that plague society as a whole. And I feel like maybe I understand that better than most.

Not many people know this, but ... the first time I was ever called the n-word was out on the pitch.  

I remember that experience like it was yesterday. I was 11 at the time, playing at the Disney Showcase in Orlando. You see, Disney Showcase was one of those larger-than-life tournaments, which you only heard about when the older players you looked up to came back to tell you of its glory. It was one of our first times leaving the Washington, D.C., region so, needless to say, I couldn’t wait to show what I could do on the big stage. Then, during the second half of a game we were playing against a team from out of state ... there it was, out of nowhere, hurled in my direction.

At first it was just ... shock. Then it was hurt and anger and about a dozen other emotions. But mainly I was just hoping it would be a one-off that would pass and allow me to get back to focusing on the game.

It wasn’t. It didn’t pass.

In fact, it opened the floodgates. Before I knew it there was an onslaught of slurs coming at me from another player on the other team. It was incessant all throughout the second half, following me everywhere I went. The message was clear: As long as we were sharing the field, there would be no space in which I could feel free. I could turn around and escalate the situation, but we all know how that ends for young Black boys. 

Thinking back on it, the thing that I remember more than anything — even more than the word being shouted in my direction — was the absolute loneliness that I felt. As it was happening, and then afterward, I just felt so alone. I didn’t know who to turn to, or how to process what had happened. I mean ... I was 11. So young. All I wanted to do was play, yet there I was, all of the sudden, wishing the game would just end.

I basically just tried to put it out of my mind and move on. And it’d be that way for me when it happened other times on the pitch in years following. But it’s not always that simple, if you know what I mean. 

There were so many things swirling around in my head. And it hurt coming to grips with the fact that something I loved so much could cause me to feel so bad. That the sport giving me such unending joy and freedom could also be the one to shut me down … well, it hurt. There were sports I knew to avoid, but soccer was supposed to be safe … different.

Courtesy Ebobisse family

Now, I should be clear: That may have been the first time I had that particular slur used against me, but racism wasn’t new to me back then — on or off the pitch.

By the time of that incident down in Orlando, I’d already been screamed at by parents in our mostly white neighborhood YMCA league in suburban D.C.

“This kid needs to slow it down. He’s kicking the ball too hard.” 

“Should he even be in this league?”

“How old is this kid?”

It happened multiple times, and I remember crying every single time. It was like....

What did I do wrong? What did I do to deserve this?

I was essentially a preschooler, just trying to play the game I loved. And, to be honest with you, at first soccer was just mainly about following in my big brother’s footsteps and a way to bond with my family. The fact that I was even out there running around on a pitch in the U.S. at all was actually pretty improbable.

I realized it’s not about whether I should speak up as an athlete, it’s about the fact that I need to speak up as a human being. It’s just part of who I am, who I’ve been.

Jeremy Ebobisse

My mom is from Madagascar and my dad is from Cameroon. I was born in France, where my parents had come to study, and then we moved to D.C. when I was two.

I spoke mostly French growing up, and in a lot of ways I was seen by the kids at school as an outsider. In elementary and middle school, there would be kids constantly calling out certain aspects of my facial features — making fun of my lips or touching my hair, stuff like that. They were just kids of course, but it was definitely the case that Blackness wasn’t seen as something to be celebrated or appreciated. I’d be told I was smart “for a Black person” or well-spoken “for a Black person.” Normal, children’s behavior was seen as a disciplinary issue by teachers. The field and my teammates outside of school would become a home away from home.

Then, as I got older, I definitely started noticing how security would look at me when I walked into stores at the mall, or how people sometimes would cross the street to avoid walking past me when they saw me coming, among other scenarios. The phrase “twice as good” and respectability politics come to mind as I look back. My safety depended on being on the right side of the onlookers’ threat calculation. (Even as a professional, years later, one night I would be inspiring a vibrant Providence Park … the next morning, I would be getting kicked out of a store for trying to shop.)

Mark Davis for The Players' Tribune

By the time I got to college at Duke, I had found a way to process “individual acts” of prejudice, while continuing to pursue my goals. At one point, a noose was found on campus. It was one thing for individuals to act out of ignorance or hate, but for a governing body to fail to defend the safety of the diverse campus it claims to be proud of felt different. I felt like I’d been here a million times, a portion of the student body at odds with an administration, classmates on opposing sides of the discourse, people claiming it wasn’t about race, etc. I saw how charged that situation was at the time, and how some factions on campus were dismissive of what happened, or just wanted to sweep it under the rug. Though it would be during my last semester on campus, it was a final reminder, a catalyst, for me as I would inherit my platform as a professional. It was as clear as ever: My career needed to be about much more than me.

When I turned pro and began playing in the MLS, I’d sometimes speak out on important sociopolitical issues, mostly on Twitter. My activism predated my entry into the league, which naturally led to the standard murmurs about any outspoken athlete. “Maybe don’t be as loud about these things. Maybe just focus on soccer.” It wasn’t always said in a rude way, but at times as a protective mechanism. They were people who really cared about the longevity of my career. They’d seen what happened to Colin Kaepernick, and they didn’t want me to follow some smaller version of that trajectory. So, in some cases, that was holding me back from expressing myself fully.

The thing is, I had come of age during the Obama presidency as an immigrant kid in D.C., so I was quickly acquainted with both the promise and peril of Black ambition and ascendancy at a young age. My understanding of racial dynamics was built through lived experiences, my studies and my Black friends whose family trees were woven into the fabric of this nation; I didn’t have the stories passed down from grandparents and beyond. In a way, it shielded me from some of the harsher realities and allowed me to focus on the promise. But … the more I absorbed, the more I felt a need to maximize my platform.

With the backlash of the Obama years as the backdrop for my career, I realized it’s not about whether I should speak up as an athlete, it’s about the fact that I need to speak up as a human being. It’s just part of who I am, who I’ve been. And I am truly thankful to current and past athletes who have blazed that trail and shown the way. Kap, LeBron, Kareem, guys like that ... I have the utmost respect for what they’ve done.

And I want to do my part.

Mark Davis for The Players' Tribune

Understanding that change starts within one’s niche and at a local level, I’m trying to make a difference on issues where I can help bring about tangible improvements. One of the biggest ones for me goes back to the title of this article. It involves working toward more access, inclusion and opportunity for all people within our game.

Simply put, you can’t have a successful soccer culture here if you don’t include the various cultures that make up this melting pot of the U.S. — from a youth and grassroots level, up to the professional level, all the way up to a governing and management level. If you fail to do that, you’re going to create a sport that’s only serving a specific category of kids. That’s no way to grow a sport. We have to do better. Our ability to compete on a domestic and global stage is contingent on our willingness to break down the barriers limiting pathways into the sport.

It’s important to me that I’m a consistent presence, not someone who just shows up once a year or something.

Jeremy Ebobisse

Right now, I’m working alongside a number of organizations to help make our game more open and accessible to people from all walks of life, especially those from urban areas. And one of the groups that I feel most connected to is called Oakland Genesis. They provide children from underserved communities in the Bay Area with free academic support and soccer instruction, with a focus on personal development and empowerment. When kids sign up, they get a holistic network of support — rides, snacks, equipment, college counseling, and mentorship, etc. — as they come into a community with a commitment to better themselves not just as players, but as students and as people.

Their eagerness to learn is so infectious. It makes me smile every time I’m there. I see that energy inside the classroom. The kids are excited to talk me through how they’re going to achieve their life goals, how they can challenge themselves to maybe go beyond what they think is possible. And then I see them go out onto the field and express themselves with joy. It’s so wonderful to see and be a part of. And the relationship I’m building with those kids is extremely meaningful to me. I don’t take it lightly. It’s important to me that I’m a consistent presence, not someone who just shows up once a year or something.

And if there’s one thing I want you to know about Oakland Genesis, it’s that these are high-character kids. They’re smart, they’re determined, they’re motivated. They’re growing in so many ways each and every day. And I can’t help but wonder how much impact we could have if we created these sorts of programs in every city in the U.S., starting at U6 and going all the way to U18. That impact, I’m here to tell you, wouldn’t just be about soccer.

Mark Davis for The Players' Tribune

It’s no secret that investment in a kid’s future is what facilitates success. And when that kid becomes successful, they will want to give back to their communities. So with the generous support Oakland Genesis is receiving from the Audi Goals Drive Progress fund, you’re really talking about impact that can span generations.

At Oakland Genesis, this $20,000 contribution will go a long way in terms of financing kids being able to play in leagues, registration fees, ride support, logistical support, building out the classroom curriculum, and so much more. And then, let’s say it helps a bunch of kids get to college, or it takes them down a less traditional but equally impactful route ... those kids, they’re going to come back. They’re going to come back at some point and they’re going to provide the basis for the next generation to have this supportive network of adults who are invested in their future. So there is a multiplier effect. We’re investing in these kids because these kids are investing in themselves, and down the line they’re going to be mentoring the next generation of kids.

As someone who joined MLS in 2017 and saw the evolution of the league and its partners in terms of taking stances on important issues, to now see companies like Audi back that up with serious dollars ... it’s tremendous. They’re putting their money where their mouth is, and it’s a path I hope that other sponsors follow. It’s real leadership. And, importantly, it’s at a grassroots level.

I truly believe this investment is going to pay off several times over in years to come. This support ... it will make our game better, and more inclusive. It’ll help us make sure this sport not only survives, but thrives in the coming years. And when this sport thrives, it can make all the difference in the world.

Courtesy Jeremy Ebobisse

Case in point, one last story for you. Remember how I said one of my worst experiences on the pitch came in Orlando during that Showcase when I was a kid? Well, there’s actually another chapter there.

Almost exactly a decade later, I found myself on that exact same pitch as an MLS player during the Black Players for Change demonstration ahead of the MLSisBack Tournament. And ... it could not have felt more different for me.

Instead of loneliness, I felt more supported than ever before. We had come together from across the league and diaspora, yet our shared humanity captured in that moment needed no further explanation. I felt seen … as I know my brothers did. The location that had momentarily overshadowed my love for the game had now provided the springboard for positive change in our ecosystem. 

I remember looking around at the guys on the field, thinking about what the world was witnessing, and just feeling like I was where I was meant to be. It was a full-circle moment for sure. This game ... it has lifted me up.

Together, let’s make sure it does that for more and more kids down the line.

The Audi Goals Drive Progress initiative supports MLS athletes making an impact off the pitch through financial contributions to nonprofit organizations that create sustainable communities, foster equity and inclusion, and enrich the lives of those in need. Through the Audi Goals Drive Progress fund, Audi will be providing $20,000 to Oakland Genesis in celebration of the work that both the organization and Jeremy do for their community. For more stories on Audi’s commitment to supporting MLS athletes and their community initiatives, please check out additional content from the “Celebrating Impact” series.