The unlabeled white envelope was placed inside a plastic bag, wedged between the wiper and the windshield of Jeromy Tarkon’s Jeep.
Tarkon, 37, noticed the note on a Sunday morning in January. He’d arrived home late the previous night from a game coaching Idaho Juniors FC, a competitive boys soccer team for 7-11 year olds in Boise made up of 75 percent minority children and families, who draw substantially from Boise’s refugee community.
Tarkon, who is white, remembers feeling a little down that morning, after a dispiriting encounter the previous evening—another moment added to the litany of racial and sectarian aggressions the team has experienced over the past couple of years. As he approached his vehicle though, Tarkon was doing his best to shrug that off and push forward with his planned day coaching a local girls team, the Indie Chicas.
When he saw the envelope, Tarkon’s first, optimistic, thought was that it might be a donation for the team. As a free-to-play competitive side, unique in Idaho, the Juniors are dependent on occasional donations and fundraisers to pay for equipment, travel, and competition fees, and on the goodwill and free labor of coaches and families to staff the club. An anonymous check would be unusual but not unwelcome.
Returning inside the house, Tarkon opened the envelope and read the first line:
“It’s because of liberals like you that our state is full of nigers [sic] and wetbacks…”
The note went on to make racial slurs against Tarkon’s players making the field “unclean” by stepping on it and warning him to “quit before the whole state hates you.”
What unfolded from there is a story that touches on racial tensions and suspicions in Boise—a city of apparent contradictions that is overwhelmingly white (89 percent in the 2010 census) and yet renowned nationally as a welcoming leader in refugee resettlement. In August 2016, the New York Times estimated that Boise had welcomed in more Syrian refugees since 2012, for example, than New York and Los Angeles combined.
But it is also a story about soccer as a unique cultural lightning rod for those forces. Despite being in many ways an unlikely candidate, Tarkon is a person whose life experience, refracted by soccer, had perhaps inevitably put him on the cultural collision course that now found him shaking with adrenaline in the front room of his house.
Over the past 25 years it’s been easy to forget soccer’s fading stigma as an “immigrant sport.” The game has become increasingly popular on television, and on fields around America. Soccer, it is assumed, is here to stay. Even in places like Boise. Even at a time when, politically, immigration is a contentious issue.
Tarkon grew up in Madera, CA, not far from Fresno. After injury ended his career in the military, he and his wife briefly considered settling back in the area, but eventually decided that rather than moving back to California, they would feel more “comfortable politically” in Idaho.
“I am much more conservative than I am liberal. Always have been,” says Tarkon. “If we’re talking about politics I’d definitely consider myself a constitutionalist before anything else—former military and all that…”
But if red state Idaho seemed like a natural cultural progression for Tarkon and his growing family, a key part of his California roots had stayed with him:
“There’s a big Hispanic population in Madera, and as much as I loved baseball and football we were really good at soccer. Was introduced to it at a young age and grew up in a community that was very passionate about it. And I just loved the game.”
Tarkon would play the sport at high school then collegiate level, before joining the army, where he had further opportunities to coach military teams. He also coached short stints with Mexican club team academies in California before the move to Boise. In Idaho, Tarkon’s oldest son Landon (as a measure of his commitment to the sport, Tarkon also has a son called Donovan) starting to develop a recreational interest in the game.
At first, Tarkon didn’t particular pay attention to the demographic makeup of the friends Landon played alongside. “I was as ignorant as anyone of the immigrant and refugee experience within our community,” he says. “Idaho’s a mainly white state and that’s who I noticed all around me.” But when competitive teams began to show an interest in Landon, the pay-to-play model on offer sat uneasily with both father and son, as it became clear that many of Landon’s talented teammates and friends would not have the financial means to join him.
Pay-to-play is one of the more divisive conventions in American youth soccer—the ability of some families to spend thousands of dollars a year on elite youth soccer clubs tends to make that elite a self-selecting, self-perpetuating group. A striking 2013 survey correlated the backgrounds of every men’s national team player over the prior 20 year period with socio-economic data from their hometown zip codes, then set that against their NBA all star, and NFL Pro Bowl peers from the same period. The soccer players came from whiter, wealthier communities than the national average. The basketball and football players came from below the national average. In 2016, speaking to the Guardian, the then-chairman of of US Soccer’s Diversity task force, Doug Andreassen, addressed the issue bluntly: “The system is not working for the underserved community. It’s working for the white kids.”
It’s in that context that the Juniors were born—initially as a rec team in late 2015, and then as a competitive team since 2016. Tarkon was joined by other coaches in the community—such as Bosnian Adin Catovic, a Boise soccer fixture for some 20 years, who first noticed the impassioned Tarkon on the sidelines when their sons’ teams played against each other, before meeting with him a few days later and as he puts it, “buying in to what he wanted to do for these kids.”
The team was polarizing from the start, though not for the demographics alone. Pay-to-play is a lucrative model for many American youth soccer coaches and Tarkon freely admits he hardly endeared himself with his manner and philosophy:
“I’ll be honest. We’re not liked, and it’s not just because of the racism. There’s a demeanor to me and I know that. Most of my closest buddies hated me when they first met me and we chuckle about that. Having been in the military, having been a non-commissioned officer, there is a swagger to my demeanor.”
Tarkon felt he and his fellow coaches had reason to feel righteous though.
“We had a pretty good history and background in coaching and playing in the game. And people came to us, and loved what we were doing. And some people just liked the fact that it was affordable. Free is always affordable. And before you knew it, we had this very, very, very good soccer team…(the stats bear this out—the club’s two under-11 teams, for example, both won their respective citywide indoor championships this winter, outscoring their opponents by a combined 172-8 over ten games). There is a big deal of fear about the success we’ve had in this state, and with the program not charging a club fee or uniform fee, which alone saves over a thousand dollars. They (pay-to-play coaches) are in fear of losing their players. At the end of the day when you have some of the directors in this state that are making the amount of money that they’re making (Glassdoor estimates coaching director salaries ranging from an average of $41,000 to $62,000 per annum nationally) and I’m looking at the quality of soccer on the field—they should be ashamed. If you’re not in the top 7-10 percent in your age group, you’re put on the back burner and you’re nothing more than a paycheck.”
But if the structure of the team was a challenge to the status quo, the sight of this team full of Colombian, Guatemalan, Israeli, Ethiopian, Kenyan, Mexican, Bosnian kids and their families also represented a different sort of provocation in Idaho. Tarkon matter-of-factly reels off the list of incidents from adults affiliated with other teams. As he and Catovic characterize it, the name-calling, telling Juniors parents to speak English, hecklers yelling “Here come the future criminals” as the kids took the field, all added up to something depressing but something he and fellow coaches tried to navigate through—not least because they had little expectation that the local soccer authorities had any will to deal with the issue.
"Quit now before the whole state hates you."
The letter though, arriving at his family home, seemed like another level of purposeful intimidation, and for Tarkon and his coaches, a provocation that could not be ignored. When the first wave of discomfort and fear for his family subsided, Tarkon reported the letter to the police and the Idaho Youth Soccer Association (IYSA), before he and his fellow coaches made the decision to go public and put the letter on their Facebook page.
The intention, says Tarkon, was to rally people and raise awareness locally, but the response briefly flared through a social media cycle, to become national and then international news. Prominent athletes and organizations ranging from MLS side Portland Timbers to the American owned English Premier League team Swansea City expressed their support. A GoFundMe for the team’s travel costs quickly surpassed its initial goal. Even the man his sons are named for chimed in.
“It’s unfortunate that we now live in a time where people have been empowered and encouraged to belittle and disgrace other human beings,”Landon Donovan told VICE Sports. “Coach Tarkon and his players have been subjected to disgusting behavior by an ignorant coward and the entire soccer community has their backs. We cannot allow this behavior to become the norm in our country and I give Coach Tarkon and his players infinite credit for standing up to this bully.”
Tarkon said he received a couple of offensive emails in the aftermath, but the general response was overwhelmingly positive. The police investigation is still ongoing, but the coaches are happy with some local progress—for instance, the IYSA has acknowledged that they actively need to do more and are moving ahead with anti-racism initiatives.
After the initial furor, the Juniors know they have to continue to navigate a charged environment. When Tarkon spoke to VICE Sports, he was struggling with his speech for their annual fundraiser—torn between a desire to celebrate what the kids and their families have achieved on and off the field, and the need to acknowledge a fraught moment in their shared experience.
“Something as unexpected as the letter definitely makes you decide at that point, who you are as a club,” said Catovic. “As coaches it brought us closer together and even as parents it made us want to work harder to make these kids succeed.”
It’s been a learning experience that’s also come with a hefty dose of perspective.
“Five years ago I would never have imagined that one of my closest buddies (Catovic)—I call him brother—would be a Muslim,” Tarkon says. “I think the team’s definitely made me more aware. Being a white guy who’s Irish with a big old red beard, and a shaved head, I haven’t had to deal with a lot of crap in my life. As a white person who’s now involved with an organization that’s 75 percent made up of minority kids, I see their families and what’s happening in their lives. Kibram, one of my dads, whose two sons play in my program…this man has had his restaurant burned down, he had his car window kicked in not too long ago, and the n-word written all over it. His son has been called the n-word on the soccer field twice, by adults from opposing teams.”
“I think I’ve been guilty of what so many Americans have done, which is to think, ‘Oh, if I don’t see racism, it doesn’t exist,’ and I think we as a community and certainly as a larger country in America, have swept racism under the rug for a long long time. I just want to see change.”
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.