Social Capital and D.C. Soccer Leagues

My research examines adult soccer leagues in the Washington D.C. area and determines the level of social capital that exists in the social networks that form around regular soccer games.

Broadly, this study has three major sections:

1.      An assessment of the levels of reciprocity and trust that exist on soccer fields in D.C

2.      An analysis of the effect that soccer playing communities have on the migrant experience

3.      A discussion of the complex politics of field space within a city, and a parsing of opposing claims of legitimacy

This research is quite personal to me, without a doubt my background affected the feasibility of the field work. My background may also have left me predisposed to view soccer through rose-tinted glasses. I made every effort to maintain objectivity throughout the analysis section of the study.  As a lifelong soccer player growing up in various parts of the world, I was able to join diverse communities of players across the globe. After injuries ended a high-level competitive career I sought to reintegrate the sport into my life by playing in more casual settings; this study grew out of that effort.

The study helped me to understand the value of soccer. Divorced from any romanticized notion of the beautiful game, this study demonstrates that soccer’s true value lies in its ability to bring people together, sharing time and place with one another. Bringing people together and instigating social engagement, that’s beautiful.  As reflected in my own personal experiences, the process of joining multiple soccer playing communities provides valuable personal reinforcement and social connections.

Nick Hornby, in a memoir of his experience as an Arsenal fan Fever Pitch (1992), describes the Hillsborough disaster as “not just another football accident, the sort that happens once every few years, kills one or two unlucky people, and is generally and casually regarded by all the relevant as authorities as one of the hazards of our chosen diversion.” (Hornby 1992) As a 16 year old ensconced in soccer, I clung to the way that soccer was described as a ‘chosen diversion’; what did he mean by it, a diversion from what? As the end of my own soccer career became clearer, so did my understanding of what Hornby was implying; like reality becoming apparent at the end of a good dream. Soccer is something that humans use to pass the time, a distraction from the inevitable. When considering the human condition, it is a struggle find meaning in anything let alone something as seemingly trivial as soccer. I suffered from something that Milan Kundera (1984) would probably articulate as vertigo, “What is vertigo? Fear of falling? No, Vertigo is something other than fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.”

In the midst of these musings, I sought a familiar outlet and searched for a pick-up soccer game. DC Soccer Meet-Up, a website organizing pick-up games in the city offered a community where, “everyone was welcome” and a game in Jesup Blair Park in Silver Spring, just outside of DC. The game took place on floodlit tennis courts. Most of the players were sub-Saharan African, assumedly Ethiopian based on the language they spoke. There was one Hispanic man, one Asian man, and no women; I was the only non-Hispanic white man present. I asked if I could join, and was promptly put on a team that was waiting for its turn to play. I worried about my wallet and keys and was careful to put them deep within my jacket which I shed before playing. At first, I was uncomfortable, but as the games continued, and I learned other players names, and established rapport on the soccer field. I began to think less about my wallet hidden in my jacket. By the time the game had finished, I gave one of my fellow players a ride home- clearly, he was no longer a stranger.

The whole evening struck me as profound, in ways that went beyond the feeling of stress relief that playing and exercise engendered. I was struck by the shift of trust I had experienced throughout the evening. From feeling uneasy leaving my wallet unaccompanied at the beginning, to offering a ride home at the end, an incredible growth of trust had occurred. There was something about the soccer field, and the shared activity that had facilitated a remarkable growth in localized trust among the players. By the end of the night, I had a new friend, a contact in my phone, and a place that I could go on a weekly basis and experience community and belonging.

Within it, this community of soccer players had considerable levels of trust, such that an outsider became an insider in the span of two hours.