This is an edition of The Great Game, a newsletter about the 2022 World Cup—and how soccer explains the world. Sign up here.
In a press conference yesterday, Tyler Adams, the 23-year-old captain of the U.S. men’s national soccer team, was chastised by an Iranian journalist for mispronouncing the name of his country (Adams pronounced it eye-ran as opposed to ee-rahn) before following up to ask whether, as a Black American, Adams felt uneasy representing a country that has a history of discrimination against Black people. Adams was characteristically thoughtful and measured in his response. “My apologies on the mispronunciation of your country,” he began. He continued:
That being said, there’s discrimination everywhere you go. One thing that I’ve learned—especially from living abroad in the past years and having to fit into different cultures and kind of assimilate into different cultures—is that in the U.S., we’re continuing to make progress every single day.
Growing up for me, I grew up in a white family with obviously an African American heritage and background, as well. So I had a little bit of different cultures, and I was very, very easily able to assimilate in different cultures. Not everyone has that, that ease and the ability to do that, and obviously it takes longer for some to understand. Through education, I think it’s super important—like you just educated me now on the pronunciation of your country. It’s a process. I think, as long as you see progress, that’s the most important thing.
Adams, who has a white mother and a Black biological father but was raised in a white family, has an experience that’s distinct from that of most Black Americans. As a result, his answer to the Iranian journalist’s question might have a different shape than the answer of another Black American—or even another of his Black teammates with a different upbringing—might have been. That doesn’t make his experience any less legitimate; Blackness is and always has been heterogeneous.
The Black players on this U.S. team reflect that diversity: Tim Weah was born in Brooklyn to a Jamaican mother and a father who is currently the president of Liberia; Yunus Musah was born in New York to Ghanaian parents and grew up in Italy and England; Kellyn Acosta was born and raised in Texas, and his paternal grandmother is Japanese; Sean Johnson was born in Georgia to Jamaican parents; Sergiño Dest was born in the Netherlands to a Dutch mother and a Surinamese American father; Jedi Robinson was born and raised in England but has an American father from White Plains, New York; Shaq Moore was born in Georgia and moved to Spain when he was 18; Weston McKennie was raised in Texas but had a father in the Air Force and spent some of his earliest years in Germany; Cameron Carter-Vickers grew up in England the son of a man from Louisiana who played professional basketball, and his mother is from Essex; Haji Wright was born in Los Angeles to parents of Liberian and Ghanian descent; DeAndre Yedlin was born in Seattle and raised by a Jewish mother.
There are 11 Black players on the U.S. roster for this World Cup (a number that would have seemed unfathomable to me as a Black kid growing up playing the game), and their backgrounds reflect the plurality (and growing internationalism) of Black American life. Still, the question the Iranian journalist asked of Adams could have been asked of many of his teammates. It is one that is not unfamiliar to Black Americans of all stripes, who have wrestled with what it means to represent a country that for so long has—explicitly and more subtly—treated Black Americans as second-class citizens.
In hearing Adams, I immediately thought of one of the first Black American athletes who had to publicly wrestle with the relationship between their Black identity and their American identity. In 1936, the track star Jesse Owens—the son of sharecroppers and the grandson of people born into slavery—went on to become the first American track-and-field athlete to win four gold medals in a single Olympic Games. These victories came at a moment when the Nazi Party was ascendant in Germany; Hitler had come to power in 1933 and had laid an ideological foundation on claims of Aryan superiority. Owens’s performance at the Olympic Games in Germany demolished such absurd claims and undermined the phrenological junk science that Nazis were using to ground their burgeoning political project.