The Foundation’s field-building initiative, Safe Places to Play, provides grants to organizations to help build or enhance field spaces in underserved communities. Providing a safe physical space to play is extremely important in the effort to use soccer to create social change and a healthier lifestyle for children nationwide.
Providing a safe place to play is not only confined to the physical safety created by adding lights or transforming a dangerous parking lot into a thriving soccer field. It is just as important to provide an emotionally and mentally safe place for all children to come together to meet, to play, and to feel accepted by their peers and their community.
Recently, several professional athletes have revealed personal details about themselves, in an effort to spark a change in the culture of sports. Trailblazers like Robbie Rogers, Jason Collins, Megan Rapinoe and Brittney Griner have made the brave decision to come out publicly while still pursuing their professional careers. The overwhelming support for these athletes is a testament to the tolerance we see every day on the playing field, but there is always more that can be done. With Robbie Rogers making American sports history as the first openly gay active male athlete in a major U.S. sport, it feels like the appropriate time to discuss the issues of acceptance and tolerance.
A safe space to play is an open and accepting community; one that is inclusive, supportive, and judgment-free. Right now, the U.S. Soccer Foundation supports approximately 16,000 children in its Soccer for Success afterschool program. The Foundation works to ensure that each and every participant feels a sense of belonging when he or she steps onto the pitch, and that the qualities that make children different are not used to make anyone feel excluded. We live in a time when awareness has been raised about the humiliation and harm caused through bullying. We should all strive to ensure that each child is treated with the respect that will allow him or her to thrive.
Sports present a unique environment, in that so many professional athletes serve as role models to children playing the game. That is why it was so encouraging to see strong support for tolerance and openness from professional soccer stars across the country. I keep going back to former U.S. men’s national team member Eddie Pope, who tweeted, “Brave men like [Robbie Rogers] will make it so that one day there’s no need for an announcement. That day can’t arrive soon enough.” To see the conversation surrounding these athletes focus on courage and inspiration provides hope for an optimistic future.
Soccer is a powerful tool, and we must use the game as a platform for respect and tolerance, especially for its youngest players. It is our job to make sure that every time a child musters the courage to step onto the field, he or she feels safe and accepted. Only then, will we be truly providing a safe place to play.