Who are you? Such a simple question seems like it should also have a simple answer. But instead, they’re three words which reflect so many possibilities about your character, appearance, beliefs, sexuality and gender, and much more. The world as we know it hasn’t always been accepting of all people — the world of sports is no exception to this rule. We’ve all seen how people can use ideas of what makes us who we are to set us apart from others. But then there are events like FIFA World Cup matches which allow us to have a glimpse of what acceptance can look like as so many nations come together to celebrate the game of football/soccer.
In this interview, I talk with one of Edmonton’s well known players of the game, who’s the goalie for the FC Edmonton team in the North American Soccer League (NASL): Lance Parker. Through his own life experiences and ideas about the game he loves, the role of identities including sexuality and gender and even racial issues in the beautiful game, are explored. His answers let us see the core of who Lance Parker is: a person. Complex, like you. And we also get a sense of what topics need to be pushed forward in the beautiful game’s future.
Becky: You once said in an interview that your father is your hero. So what was it like growing up with your hero to guide you?
Lance: My father is an artist [and] an art teacher. Growing up my mother was at work a lot, in the office — so my dad taught from the house. He had a studio that he built at our house and he was around for most of the time. So growing up, pretty much everything I learnt was from him. He started me on work in the yard, work in the house, and I learnt a lot of common sense knowledge from him — growing up, he taught me a lot.
Becky: Did you ever do art yourself?
Lance: [Laughs] No not really. I can draw something if I’m looking at it. But if I just sort of close my eyes and imagine something there’s no chance! But as I mentioned, my family is a very artistic family. My dad’s a professional artist. He’s been doing that all his life. My mom after she quit her [accounting] job with the office, she became a professional photographer. My sister graduated from college with a degree in computer animation. So I’m kind of like the black sheep of the family.
Becky: Reading interviews about how you and your FC teammates get along, it almost seems like you’re all family. What are some of the best things for you about playing with the guys on your team?
Lance: [The relationship] usually differs from year to year. Some players get traded and some people retire. But usually, you still have the same core from year to year…and then, the new guys come in and they throw in their own personality both off field and on field. [Every] year you get a different atmosphere off the field and on it — and this year’s team, we’re a really tight knit group of people.
Becky: Do you ever play pranks on each other?
Lance: [Grins] Yeah, every now and then — nothing serious.
Becky: Can you tell me about a moment when you first realized that you wanted to be a football/soccer player?
Lance: It was when I was twelve years old. There was a team that was put together of all these guys from Oklahoma [where Lance grew up] to go over to England to play a tournament. It was my first time in England and we were there playing in a tournament and we got to go to a couple games. Seeing the atmosphere, witnessing the culture that Europeans surround around football culture — it was just absolutely incredible! And that’s when I fell in love with it and thought: This is what I want to do for a job. I want to be a professional soccer player. So from age twelve I quit all the other sports I was playing — I was a little kid playing everything: basketball, baseball, soccer. I decided at twelve to quit everything and focus on soccer.
Becky: How did your family react when you first told them that you wanted to be a professional soccer player?
Lance: I’ve been extremely lucky to have parents that support me. They never forced me as a child to do what they wanted… I see a lot of (especially growing up) dads [who to them] their kids were invisible. [Their kids] don’t want to play baseball but they make them practice for like twelve hours a day — they’re trying to I guess live a dream through their kids, and I’m so lucky that my parents never made me do that. They told me that whatever you know you want to do, you can do it. So you can play soccer, you can do this, you can do that.
Becky: I think gender roles are more flexible, less structured, in our world today than they were a century ago or even during our parent’s times. But in your opinion, what does it mean to be a man in today’s world?
Lance: In what terms — to be a man versus a boy, to be a man versus a gentleman, to be just a man with a manly presence?
Becky: Let’s go with a man versus a boy.
Lance: [Pauses] Being a man versus a boy, for me, that has to do a lot with maturity. There’s definitely a lot of grown — grown males I should say — that aren’t men. They’re still boys. The way they act, the way they behave, present themselves in public, [the] kind of actions that they take, the way they present themselves, carry themselves — that I would consider them boys. A man, he’s gonna think before he acts, he’s careful of what he says, there’s just more thought process about how he goes about his day. And boys they just tend to act without thinking, he’s just spur of the moment, and he gets in trouble a lot.
Becky: How has the game of soccer helped to develop your personality as a man?
Lance: It’s helped me to be able to work well with others in a game setting. So whether that’s having to get along with people at work, or at school, or a team project, it’s helped me to be really good at that. It’s also helped me develop a leadership role with all my former teams: college, club, high school — you kind of figure out the best ways to deal with certain people. Different people act differently to different scenarios, [I’ve seen how] some people you get the best out of them by really giving it to them, being pissed off, yelling at them. Other people they shut down on you. You know, so you have to know ‘hey, I’ve got to encourage this guy.’ [Give] positive criticism and [be] a little more soft spoken. Some guys might get embarrassed if you call them out in front of the team. So it’s helped me to read people better, to know how to interact with people, and to get the best out of them. And as I said, it’s helped me to grow as a leader, as an individual.
Becky: There can be times when celebrities are leaders who set examples for us to follow. Some sport celebrities, recently like Michael Sam from the NFL, set the bar high for others to follow. [Michael Sam is now the first openly gay player in the history of the NFL.] Do you see sports as a place that openly accepts people regardless of their background?
Lance: No. No, I don’t.
Becky: That was a very quick response, and very honest. Why not?
Lance: Because sport has been around for a very long time. Since the beginning of different sports, the mentality of everything like that was very hush-hush and some players think things like if you’re “too feminine” you can’t play sports. Or guys might be extremely homophobic and think: ‘I can’t have this guy on my team because he’s going to be looking at me funnily’. Or it makes them uncomfortable. So yeah, it’s definitely not accepted yet in sports.
Becky: Do you foresee a time when it might be accepted — even though it’s hard to predict when exactly?
Lance: Yeah I do. It’s probably going to take a long time though, especially with more of the “macho” sports where you have to be a “real man” to play the game. And that’s sad because your sexual orientation shouldn’t determine how good of an athlete you are, how smart you are, or anything like that.
Becky: When I was a girl, I had a dream of being the first girl to play beside players like Jordan or O’Neil in the NBA. Do you think pro- mixed gender teams could ever become a thing in the soccer world’s future?
Becky: Never? Why not?
Lance: I actually had a conversation about this last week with my friends. [There are] professional women’s and professional men’s soccer, but I don’t see them combining them…. Women can be extremely gifted technically. Like my friends in college had played with soccer women and their technique was flawless, amazing. But you can only get so far with that. If you have a five foot six girl and a six foot guy going up against each other for a head ball, you know the girl’s not likely to win that. And even if you say, ok well if the girls are quick enough to move the ball around the guy and get a couple of the guys [on her team] to get to it, or even if she has enough time to take a shot, it just won’t be as powerful as potentially another male to get the ball by the goalkeeper. In some instances though you don’t need that! In some instances, you need to pace it around a goalkeeper, and yes [women] are perfect for that, but then there’s other times when you just gotta rip it as hard as you can. So there’s just genetic things that you can’t leave behind.
Becky: Can I ask what brought about the conversation between you and your friends?
Lance: It was actually because I did an appearance and there was a guy that came up to me at the appearance and he [didn’t know too much] about soccer. He was a big hockey fan. But he asked me a very similar question. He was like: ‘Hey! So did you know that a female goalie for the Oilers came in and trained with the team?’ And I thought about it for a little bit and … I can see a female playing hockey because I believe goalies can’t be touched in hockey right? And so, it’s all about quick reaction…. So he had asked me that question and then I was talking to my friend afterwards [about it]. I’d never been asked that question before, so on a whole, that’s good to be discussing it in society. And yes some females are [really good] but I just don’t think they’d be better than some guys in terms of [females] being more technical and less physical.
Becky: What can be done to help promote the idea of equality between all people regardless of their background – whether that’s gender, religion, race, etc., in sports?
Lance: I think there have been steps taken towards some things. Race has been a topic that been [worked on] throughout previous decades. Religion has come about [in Edmonton] with a Muslim player that had to go through Ramadan and I thought that [would be the most difficult thing], because you’re a professional athlete, so you have to train. But you’re not allowed to fuel your body throughout the day…. But the coaches did well with it, accommodated him, which I thought was really cool! So I don’t think religion has been a big thing [in Edmonton]. Some teams still pray before games and if you are or aren’t religious you can take it for what it [means to you]. And I feel that no one gets upset about that anymore. And with homosexuality it’s just coming to light and there are guys that are coming out and I honestly think that the reception on that has been taken extremely well by most of the general public. But you still definitely have people that don’t agree with it. And for me I think that’s kind of how they’ve been raised — and until you get the majority of people that believe in [their sexuality not mattering] then things still have to be worked on.
Becky: Have you ever heard bad statements made from viewers in the stands at games towards the players about things like race, or negative comments about sexual orientation, etc.?
Lance: No, nothing like that has ever happened. They chirp at the other teams all the time. But I haven’t personally heard them say anything about race or religion, homosexuality, or anything like that. But the players are getting wise and learning how to deal with situations like that. Like — I forgot who exactly this was — but a soccer player was about to take a corner kick and this literally happened about a month ago and… somebody threw a banana at him. So the guy played it off amazingly. He got the banana thrown at him, so he goes over and he picks it up, he peels it, he takes a bite of it, and then he goes in [to the field] and he’s the guy that gives the assist to beat the other team. And he jokes and says that the banana gave him energy to build the assist to beat that team. So he dealt with that really well. But yeah there’s still definitely stuff that goes on like that. In my experience, I haven’t witnessed anything like that and I hope I don’t have to.
[The player was Dani Alves. Watch his reaction in the video below.]
Becky: Final question: FIFA, 2014, Brazil. Which team are you rooting for?
Lance: [Chuckles] I’m rooting for the US obviously. But if I have to be honest, I’d be surprised if they make it out of their bracket… Whoever wins the semi-final game — which I think is going to be Germany versus Brazil — is going to win the tournament.
This interview is a part of the series “Identity Games” on The Times For a Feast.