Portland Community Football Club is like a lot of sports organizations for kids. It focuses on soccer and provides coaching, training and opportunities for kids of different ages to play competitively. But the PCFC is unlike many otherwise similar organizations in its mission to serve kids regardless of their gender or their family’s ability to pay. Founder Kaig Lightner says his love of sports began when he was in grade school. He said while he was bullied for not fitting into traditional gender roles, as he was raised a girl, sports was where he felt at home, first with softball, then with basketball, soccer and volleyball. He started coaching at 15.
Lightner started PCFC in 2013, mainly serving kids in first and second generation immigrant and low-income families. His mission is to serve everyone who’s interested, and more broadly to “liberate sports.” The teams are not organized by gender and the cost is sliding scale. PCFC will even provide the uniforms and cleats if needed. He also decided to come out to his players as a transgender in 2017 and received more support than he could have hoped for. He joins us, along with one of the PCFC players, Saidu Yillah, a high school senior who also referees.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. The Portland Community Football Club (PCFC) is like a lot of youth sports organizations. It provides coaching, training, and opportunities for kids of different ages to play competitive soccer. But the PCFC is unlike some organizations in its mission to serve kids regardless of their gender or their family’s ability to pay. It was founded 10 years ago by Kaig Lightner who focused on kids in low income and 1st and 2nd generation immigrant families. He says his mission is to liberate sports. Lightner joins us now, along with a PCFC player. Saidu Yillah is a senior at Portland’s Lincoln High School. It’s great to have both of you on the show.
Kaig Lightner: Great to be here.
Saidu Yillah: Thank you.
Miller: Kaig, what did sports mean to you when you were a kid?
Lightner: It meant everything to me. I grew up as a young girl actually. So I’m a trans man. And in my younger years of being a kid that was picked on, bullied, teased for not fitting in to being what girls are supposed to look like or be like, sports was my place that I found my refuge and, my ability to work through the anxiety and the stress and the bullying. And it was all sports. I played softball, basketball, soccer, volleyball. I just couldn’t stop being an athlete because it gave me such a sense of purpose.
Miller: You told the New York Times in an article back in May, that sports kept you alive. What did you mean by that?
Lightner: It was sports and my family. But sports is really what gave me the sense to keep going day after day, even though I would day after day get bullied and teased and picked on and told that I was a freak and told that I didn’t belong. I got all the messaging that there was something wrong with me from society. But when I would step into the sports realm, I could let go of all of that, and I could be this one, congruent person. And that’s what kept me going day after day. And if I didn’t have those sports, I don’t think that I would be here. I just don’t think that I would be alive.
Miller: When did you start coaching?
Lightner: When I was 15.
Miller: What was that like?
Lightner: Oh, I loved it. It was the same sense of joy and ability to see my future as sports was when I started sports, because I started to recognize this is where I belong. I belong as a coach. I belong working with youth and being a part of their lives and seeing them excel within the sport that they love. Soccer was what I was coaching. But also to just excel in life, because I got to see what it was to be a coach and a mentor for kids from all different kinds of backgrounds.
Miller: And you stayed coaching, right? This is before you transitioned. Did it seem possible to you, zooming forward a little bit, in say the early to mid 2000s, to be a youth sports coach and be an out trans person?
Lightner: No. Absolutely not.
Miller: Why not?
Lightner: Well in the early 2000s I was an out queer coach, and so I wasn’t hiding the fact that I was an LGBTQ person. But then when it came to looking at transitioning, and my voice changing, and my body changing, and changing my name and my pronouns, I got all kinds of messages from the athletic world, from the coaching world, that that’s not acceptable.
Miller: Explicit messages.
Lightner: Yeah, I had an explicit experience with a fellow coach when I said “I’m going to change my name to Kaig and this is what I’m going to start to use,” and she laughed at me and said “That’s ridiculous, I’m not gonna call you that.” That was a good message to me of “Okay, this isn’t a safe place for me.”
Miller: A clear message, if not a good one. But I guess when you say there was a benefit to the clarity, even if I imagine it was painful to hear.
Lightner: Yeah. It was a clear message of I have to stop coaching for now to do this transition. I have to leave what I love to transition.
Miller: Because at that point, that was also a clear decision you had to make. Give up something you loved so you could actually survive as who you actually are.
Lightner: Right. That I could be my authentic self.
Miller: So let’s fast forward a bit. You eventually transitioned and you started working as an after school program instructor in East Portland. Why did you start this football club?
Lightner: Well, it actually started with that work that I was doing out in East County with kids and after school programs, because I was doing soccer with those kids as their soccer instructor through those after school programs. And I didn’t realize at the time, but what I was seeing was the culmination of bringing this beautiful game together with social justice. And understanding that the communities that are getting left out of this sport are the communities that are also not getting access to education, health care. All of the systemic barriers that exist in our society are also impacting these kids that play soccer.
And what I found was that through coaching and through being a part of those kids lives, I was learning about what their lives were, and what the barriers their families were up against. And that’s when it started to coalesce in my mind of “Why can’t we have a soccer club that supports these communities through the game?”
Miller: This has been a little bit of a mystery to me. Obviously soccer, or football around the world, is a global sport partly because it’s relatively cheap to play in a lot of ways. People all over the world, in countries that have way fewer resources than we do, they figure out ways to play the game with whatever kind of ball on whatever kind of field. What kinds of inequities do you see in particular in youth soccer in this country?
Lightner: The problem in this country is that the game has been privatized. It became a game where there was money to be made. And the money was through the privatization of training, and getting kids that extra special training. Because the game didn’t originate here in the US, it originated from around the world and it got brought to the US. So there was no structure to it, there was no centralized way of keeping the game at an accessible level.
Miller: It’s a suburban game when it came to America.
Lightner: Yeah, absolutely. And so because it didn’t keep that grassroots level that it has around the world, it immediately jumped into more and more fees, more and more exclusivity around being able to excel in the game. If you keep it at a recreational level, still fairly affordable. But as soon as you try to excel and thrive and get to a higher level of competition, premier level, that’s when the money and the exclusivity gets baked into it. The travel, the experience, you have to go to these different tournaments around the country to get seen, to go to college. For Saidu to leave and go to college on a soccer scholarship through the system as it exists, he would have to be seen by scouts. And that means you have to travel to these big tournaments around the country. You have to have money to travel.
Miller: It’s interesting, this aspect of it, because the participation of transgender athletes has obviously become so politicized, and such a talking point in some circles in recent years. I don’t mean to minimize that as an issue, and we can talk more about that as we go. But it seems like what you’re saying is that for many people, the class aspect is numerically maybe even a bigger deal in this country right now, when it comes to youth participation in soccer.
Lightner: Yeah, it’s an interesting thing to balance. That’s why “liberate sports” is our mission, that we’re building right now, because it’s really applicable to other sports as well. But the economic barriers are the first biggest barrier. If you can reduce those barriers around the game of soccer, which we’ve done, then the doors start opening up, and you can create a space where you get the opportunity to have more people from different backgrounds come in, including trans players, including LGBTQ players and families and coaches. But that economic barrier is the thing that stops most people right in its tracks.
Miller: Saidu, why did you join this football club?
Yillah: Because, I love soccer very much. And I feel like it gives me a connection with my dad. PCFC was a place I can have more connections, they basically treat us, the players, as their own kids. And I feel like I’m fitting in this club.
Miller: You said you can have more connection with your dad. You don’t live with him, right?
Miller: Where is he?
Yillah: He’s in Sierra Leone.
Miller: And how important is soccer to him, and to the relationship that you have with him?
Yillah: Pretty good. He’s a huge soccer fan, and he loves to play soccer every day.
Miller: And so for you to take part in it, it’s a way to maintain that connection even though you’re thousands of miles away.
Miller: How would you describe the relationship that you have with Kaig right now, the director of this club?
Yillah: I feel like Kaig, he’s more than a coach to me, because they give me the opportunity to be part of their team, and coach kids, doing referee, and stuff like that.
Miller: Oh, so you’ve expanded, you’re not just playing, you’re coaching younger kids? What’s that like?
Yillah: It’s pretty fun. Makes me feel like I’m coaching my younger self.
Miller: What’s the language like? We were just talking right before we went live, talking about you learning English. I asked if playing soccer has helped you learn English, and you said “No, really it’s helped me learn Spanish.” Why is that?
Yillah: I’m gonna say 95% of our players are Hispanic, and they speak Spanish everywhere. At school and when they hang out with their friends, they speak English. But at home they speak Spanish. And I understand Spanish, I practice, most of the parents are there, they speak. And I started understanding Spanish.
Miller: Basic things on the field, like “pass to me,” all that’s in Spanish? Because it comes to mind quickly, I imagine.
Miller: What’s it been like to be a referee? We’ve talked in the past about the challenges that could present even for adults when sometimes parents act out. Do you have to show that you’re the boss?
Yillah: Definitely. I have to tell the parents I’m in charge of the game. They aren’t supposed to tell me what’s wrong and what’s good for the game. I feel like I’m in charge. I don’t listen to parents.
Miller: Kaig, to go back to the creation of this club, how is what you’re doing and the way you’re operating different from other clubs? And I should note that when I’ve looked at some other well known organizations that provide youth soccer in Portland, they talk about giving 50% discounts to families, and some of them say if that’s not enough, if you need more financial help get in touch with us directly and we’ll talk to you. There do seem to be some options for low income families. How is what you’re doing different?
Lightner: It’s a really good distinction, and I’m glad you brought it up. The biggest difference is that our fees to start out are just $50 a season. Five-zero, per season. Not $1,500 per year, not $2,000 per year.
Miller: And that includes at the higher levels?
Miller: And when you say $1,500, you didn’t make that up? For some of the elite annual fees right now for, say, a 15 year old or a 16 year old, it could be $1,800?
Lightner: Easily, yeah.
Miller: So yours is $50.
Lightner: $50 per season. And then if families need more support and can’t afford that, then we drop that down to $35 per season. If families are needing more support and can’t afford that, then we say we’ll give you a free scholarship.
The biggest difference is that when we say we’re gonna provide something to the families based on what they can afford, we don’t ask them to prove to us what that means. The bigger clubs have their systems, their processes, which is fine. The process that they have is that they need proof of income, they need tax records, they need the kind of information that a lot of undocumented families don’t have or aren’t gonna have access to. And so that’s right there a barrier to even submit for that application for a scholarship. So we just took that barrier away, and just said let’s make these fees already something that’s pretty reasonable, and then be very family centered around how do we make this even more accessible?
Miller: How do you organize the teams?
Lightner: The teams are based on age, and then skill level. We also have no gender segregated teams, so that’s another way we’re doing things really differently. We don’t have an all girls or an all boys team. And we’re doing that because we see the opportunity for kids playing together as so beneficial to their skill level, their development. But also to really unburden their minds around gender expectations. And I think particularly for the boys, getting to see their girls on their team playing so hard, so competitively, so skillfully, it’s really changed the boys’ minds a lot around “girls can really play.”
Miller: And so I imagine that means that as you’re putting teams together, since you said it’s about ability, you have the highest level teams, which are mixed gender, and then the medium ones, and then the starters, the early sport kids who may need a little bit more knowledge about how to do it. All of them boys and girls mixed together.
Miller: Who do you go against? Are there leagues that are set up in the same way?
Lightner: No. Everybody’s playing against all boys teams. Every once in a while you’ll see at the younger ages some other mixed gender teams that show up at the real young ages. But typically once you’re past eight or nine year olds, then it’s all boys because that’s the way the leagues are set up. It’s the rule that if you have one boy on a team, it’s a boys team.
Miller: What do you hear from opposing parents or coaches about the way you have set up your league?
Lightner: We don’t hear as much anymore. In the early years, there was some murmur, some discussion, some pushback on the girls that are on the team. It was almost always around the girls, that’s really what the focus was about the girls that were on the boys team. Are they the right age? Is this appropriate? Can they keep up? Can they play? We just kind of ignored those and said let’s just go play and see how it works out. And it’s always worked out just fine.
Miller: So those concerns have largely gone away as you’ve been playing?
Lightner: Yeah, I don’t hear as many of those concerns coming my way anymore from our coaches. It’s not as much of a pushback. Sometimes there’s been some discussion about the rainbow flag on our jerseys that we have, some of the kids getting some comments towards them about the rainbow flag. Sometimes parents of other teams making comments about forcing kids to wear LGBTQ related things.
Miller: “Propaganda?” I’m just curious what they actually say.
Lightner: I’ve had a parent report to me that she was at a field with her child who has the rainbow flag on the jersey, and a parent at the field from another team just said “I can’t believe you’re letting your child wear that.” And she said “I don’t see a problem with it. We support everybody at our club.”
Miller: How has the club grown over the last decade?
Lightner: Well, we started with about 75 kids in 2013 for our first fall season. And we’re now past 200. So we’ve steadily just continued to add more and more players throughout the years. I think what’s important to note about that is that that doesn’t sound like a lot of players compared to these other big clubs who have 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 kids. But the reason that we’ve grown so slowly is really intentional. I really set out to be intentional with this club that if we’re gonna say we’re providing to underserved communities and marginalized communities something of high quality, I don’t want to let those communities down. And so when clubs sometimes grow really big really fast, you lose touch with your community. And it’s really important to us that we are connected to our families and our players on a deep level to understand what their needs are. And so we’ve intentionally stayed small and connected, and a family centered club.
Miller: Going back to the liberate sports mode, your largest goal here, what is it? One thing I’m wondering is how important it is to you to win championships? To win individual games and championships, and to turn out elite athletes who can go on to division one play, for example, in college? And is that ever at odds with your broadest goals of inclusion? Can you do both of those at once? Or at some points are they in tension?
Lightner: That’s a really relevant conversation that we’re having right now, as the club is growing. They are at odds. And that’s an unfortunate part of this system. It seems difficult to have the ability to train players to get to that division one level or that elite premier level, and still create the inclusion. Because of the way the system is created, if you want to create those premier level elite players, you have to hire a whole lot of more expensive coaches. You need the expertise from those coaches. You need to pay those coaches well. And that takes a lot more funding. We are not a membership-based funding. We are a funding club through grants, through individual donations, through sponsorships. That amount of work that takes to bring in that revenue is hindering our ability to bring in the kind of elite level coaching that we would need for those players.
But that’s actually not our goal. Our goal isn’t to turn out those elite level players. It isn’t to win championships. It is to create a space where everybody feels welcomed and safe and included so they can thrive and excel to whatever level that is for them. And if at the end of the day we can turn out a premier level team, that’s icing on the cake for us. That’s just like a little bit more that we can say we’ve done. But that’s not our primary goal. Our primary goal is to create a club where everybody wants to feel like they can be there.
Miller: Saidu, could you be playing soccer regularly if it weren’t for the PCFC?
Yillah: I could. But I feel like I’d need somewhere I can build up another strong connection with the coaches, players. But it’s really hard for me without PCFC sometimes.
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