Back in July, on the day before the Flint City Bucks’ playoff game against the Golden State Force, I asked Audra Hollenbeck, a lifelong soccer player and enthusiast, what she was most looking forward to in the match. “A win!” she yelped. Spoken like a true fan; winning is what it’s about. But in a place like Flint, Michigan, the ways of winning can seem like few, and there is urgency in every step.
Founded in early 2019, the Flint City Bucks play in the Great Lakes Division of USL League Two, a few tiers below Major League Soccer. The players come mainly from local college athletic programs, including Michigan State and the University of Michigan. This franchise is a reboot of the former Michigan Bucks soccer team, in existence for 24 years in different locations. The team’s new home is Atwood Stadium in downtown Flint. General admission tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children 12 and under. VIP seats close to the press box and behind the benches are $15. During the first season, attendance at home games averaged about 4000; Atwood’s capacity is 11,000. The Bucks’ YouTube channel–the main way to watch matches if you can’t be there in person–currently has 225 subscribers. By comparison, rival Detroit City Football Club has 1.94k subscribers.
USL League Two used to be known as the Premier Development League, which makes sense given its role as an MLS feeder club. Although there are rumors about MLS coming either to Detroit or to Traverse City, nothing has materialized. Youth soccer programs are popular in Michigan, but professional and semi-professional play doesn’t get much attention on the ground here. There are roughly thirteen recognized men’s clubs in the state and seven women’s clubs. Spectator-wise, baseball, football, and hockey are far ahead.
I am no expert on either soccer or Flint. I grew up in the northeastern US, and sports were never a big part of my life (though I did go to Fenway Park once, and it’s fabulous). Since 2010, I’ve taught at a community college 45 minutes north of Flint. I sometimes have students from there, but more are from Saginaw, considered by some as mini-Flint: the cities have similar histories and challenges. As the water crisis in 2014 unfolded, one of my classes organized a GoFundMe to help Flint’s undocumented people. We ran the campaign for about two weeks, the little green donation line barely moving. I occasionally went to Flint for the excellent Indian restaurant a man from Calcutta recommended to me, but I rarely visited otherwise.
The first time I noticed soccer was during the 2010 World Cup, and it was because of the vuvuzelas. I had never heard that sound before. I made a point of watching the 2014 World Cup and developed a full-blown obsession in 2018. To me, the simplicity of the game itself contrasts with the sport’s global complexity, and it hooked me in. I started looking around where I lived to see what soccer there was, and I came across the Flint City Bucks.
After following the Bucks online for a while, on a cotton-clouded night, I went to Atwood Stadium to see them play the Dayton Dutch Lions. I had sprung for a VIP ticket and found myself sitting about 20 feet behind the team benches. I would guess that there were about 2000 spectators, and most were in my section. Elsewhere, entire sections of the stadium were empty. Although just over 50% of Flint’s population is African-American, I saw few black people at the game who were not stadium employees.
After the whistle, the Flint and Dayton players broke into play on the bright green field (new team, new turf). Flint were in blue, gold, and white, and Dayton wore orange and white. Even from a distance, I could hear the chanting and drums of the Bucks’ supporters club, the River Rats. Their section was by far the fullest in the stadium.
Americans’ perennial resistance to soccer—in whichever league, at whatever level—didn’t stop Michael Allard, a public health professional and Flint resident, from starting the River Rats. While living in Edinburgh a few years ago, he noticed how community-focused many teams and supporters clubs are and hoped to recreate something like it in the US. When he heard that Flint was getting a soccer team, he contacted Costa Papista, the team’s president, and started building a relationship. Together, they toured Atwood to decide where the supporters’ section should be and chose Section 11. Close to one of the corner flags, it’s one of the most accessible in the building. Section 11 is now affectionately referred to as “The Rats’ Nest.”
The River Rats’ name suggests the Flint River, and with good reason. It was only last year that Michigan passed a law to tighten regulations on lead in drinking water, and local municipalities are challenging it, denying their responsibility to upgrade pipes. The River Rats’ logo features no water; instead, it is a somewhat ferocious-looking cartoon rat bearing teeth and claws. There are three wavy blue lines at the bottom of the Bucks’ official crest.
Anywhere between 20 and 40 River Rats gather before home games at the Soggy Bottom Bar, a popular hole-in-the-wall. The Rats then march from the bar to the stadium, waving flags and beating drums. While many soccer teams have this kind of supporters march, holding them in Flint carries weight. Because of the systemic problems the city faces, it often makes the “top ten most dangerous” lists, and mainstream media recycles images of crime, poverty, and suffering when referencing Flint. A march down a public street counters the images the rest of the country sees. Typically, one police car escorts the Rats, but this is due to the need to redirect traffic, not to ensure the supporters’ safety. During a phone call with me, Allard said about the marches, “This is a statement. You can walk to the game.”
Speaking of security, Allard and the Rats have been careful to stop any European-style hooligan culture from developing. “Hooliganism doesn’t foster community,” he said, “so we don’t want it here.” The group has no time for “nostalgic fantasies of collectivity,” “primal masculinity,” or “violent tribalism” associated with hooligans. Instead, according to Allard, they are seeking to “organically build a community that is inclusive and non-toxic to the larger community we exist within.”
Clearly, this club is not just about soccer. In June, they participated in Prideraiser, an effort related to inclusivity in soccer for LGBTQ+ individuals. The Rats set a fundraising goal of $1000 and made $1400. They donated the money to the Center for Gender and Sexuality at the University of Michigan-Flint, one of the institution’s lesser-funded campuses. June 27th was Pride Night at Atwood, and a handful of Flint-area drag queens joined the Rats on their march to the stadium.
It is hard to overstate how striking something like this is to witness in mid-Michigan. Republican leaders are currently trying to make it illegal to fly a rainbow flag over any state building, and when I served as the faculty advisor for my school’s gay/straight alliance, over and over students would attend one meeting, come out to whoever was there, and then never return. To even attend, some had had to tell their parents they were going to art club. Who would have believed, or hoped, that a soccer field could be a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community?
Along with the rainbow and supporter group flags, the Rats bring to every game flags representing the nationalities of the Bucks players, including Ghana, England, Germany, Spain, and Brazil. Although the international flags were the Rats’ idea, team management endorses it. “We want our players to feel at home,” Maddi Vedder, an intern with the Bucks, told me.
A spirit of goodwill and fellowship seems to flow between the management, the supporters club, and the players in general, and President Papista has made community involvement central from the beginning. The new team crest, for example, was crowd-sourced: over a thousand Flint residents submitted their ideas through a website. Throughout the season, half-time entertainment featured local artists and performers. Papista made an effort to attend every home game and to get to know the supporters personally, sometimes calling the Rats the eleventh member of the team. Hollenbeck’s parents live about two hours north of Flint, and they are season ticket holders. One night, they accidentally made the trek to Atwood without their tickets, and Papista had no problem letting them in. He is, in Hollenbeck’s words, “a neighborhood kind of guy.”
As for the players, their approachability and commitment “is not fake,” says Hollenbeck; it is not something that only happens at the direction of an agent or when a camera is on. In late May, a few players participated in a charity bowl-a-thon. The team also made themselves available for a day game at Atwood; this way, students from the Flint Public Schools could attend. After home games, players greet children on the pitch and sign autographs. They’ve done a meet-and-greet at Halo Burger, a Flint-area institution. The Dayton game was Fan Appreciation night, and children were allowed to run on the pitch at half-time alongside the players as they warmed up for the second half. One would have needed a heart of stone not to be moved by the sight of kids in their practice jerseys tearing up the turf, working on a few touches.
From my stadium seat, I could see the flags flapping gently on the yellow railings at the base of Section 11. Most of the Rats sat in the first few rows and tapered off further up, narrowing into a spire. Looking at the mix of happy colors and shapes, I thought, inexplicably, of a birthday cake.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I could use a little birthday cake. Michigan, never known for its open-mindedness, has seen a spike in hate crimes and xenophobia since Trump’s election. Historians speculate that nearby Fenton and Flushing may have been “sundown towns,” communities hostile to people of color. As a cis straight woman, I am regularly asked where my husband is or why I don’t have children (and it is always first assumed that I have them). Michigan ranks far below the national average for state-level legal protections for LGBTQ+ people.
Maybe I should have sat in Section 11. As the scoreboard flashed that one and-a-half minutes of play had passed, a voice brayed from behind me, “Why haven’t we scored yet?” I turned around to see a pudgy white man in a baseball cap. “I came here to have fun,” he stated, again in a voice that no one could miss. For the next two hours, he held forth with yells, whoops, and taunts that revealed the finely-honed skills of Just-Enough-To-Avoid-HR. Each time Flint started building a pass, he would cheer, “Get some!” If two players came close to tussling over possession, he would comment how size mattered. At one point, when play slowed, he quipped, “I’ve had dates with more contact than this!”
The Bucks, past and present, get their team name from deer. Bucks are male deer, and serious hunters do not shoot them; they prefer the female does. As a sport, soccer’s language has references to dominance and control. One possesses the ball, shoots it, tries to get it into the box. So if the brayer wanted the Bucks to “get some,” he wasn’t alone. And hooliganism aside, soccer is supposed to be rowdy, supposed to be aggressive. Why bother going to a live game if you don’t want to shout, to stand on your feet feeling the blood punding in your temples? The beautiful game is loud and raucous, and it should be. But.
When I asked the Bucks’ Maddi Vedder what it was like being a young woman in professional sport, she said she was treated with respect. I loved hearing this and am glad it is true, at least in the front office. “We are all about political correctness here,” Brayer ejaculated at one point during the Dayton game. The stadium loudspeaker had issued a bland directive at the beginning of the game: “Any profanities or racist or sexist language will not be tolerated.” Brayer must have taken that to heart, or maybe he had been warned before.
During the Women’s World Cup, the Flint ABC affiliate rana story on a free youth clinic the Bucks offered at Atwood, and the reporter interviewed a couple of excited little girls about their participation. When asked which players from the USWNT she looked up to the most, one said Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan. The warm fuzzies I got from this clip evaporated when I realized that these girls, at least on this afternoon, had no female mentors on the pitch. I asked Hollenbeck about this disconnect. “Well, it’s always just been guys teaching me, too,” she said. A couple of decades ago, Hollenbeck was the only female player on her high school soccer team, and she always told her coaches that she wanted and could do all the drills that her male teammates did. Her senior year, the school administration decided it wasn’t physically safe for her to continue to play (she had had no serious injuries).
And so here is a tension. There’s no question that the Bucks are bringing joy to Flint and continuing to introduce people to the world’s most popular sport. Hollenbeck remembers well telling the children’s teams she coached how important it was to serve the group, to be part of the whole, not to be a “ball hog.” And, unlike some adults, “you can change the mind of a child,” help them to see social inequity and encourage them to find ways to dismantle it. But how can a girl, even one who grows up idolizing superstars like Rapinoe and Morgan, believe any kind of dismantling is possible, especially when she’s on the training ground always and only with men?
I asked Papista if he would be interested in starting a female counterpart team to the Bucks, and he said he absolutely would. He also said that the Bucks needed to become “a sustainable organization first.” A women’s team on this level might work down the road, but not yet. Unfortunately, the marginalized are familiar with “not yet.” While I think I’ve devoted too many lines to Brayer already, the reality is that people who look like him and me made up the majority of the crowd I saw at Atwood. In a city that is more black and brown, a sea of white faces watched the Bucks with me. When I asked Allard what anyone could do to try to diversify the Bucks fan base, he said, “That’s a soccer problem in general.” He is beyond right.
Structural oppressions are two things: structured and oppressive. They work because they are supposed to, and all the more so in a semi-isolated Rust Belt town that others seem determined to judge or forget. So what can a single person do? They can make choices like Papista: try a daring thing in a vulnerable place, moving with care and managing expectations. They can dream, like Allard, about further efforts to bring people together through sport. Like Hollenbeck, they can stand strong in their optimism. She sees the potential the Bucks have for changing the narrative about Flint, how joining a supporters club and connecting with a team can show people within Flint and beyond “the wonders that do exist” in the city.
The game I saw wasn’t beautiful. The first half was sluggish, and what I remembered the most later were the set pieces the Bucks squandered. Still, they won 1-0, and went on to win the USL2 Championship (beating Pennsylvania’s Reading United). Throughout the season, they came from behind, an outcome that suits the community Hollenbeck knows and loves: “No matter what, the people rally. That’s what this town is about.”
Atwood Stadium is a five-minute drive from where Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha first noticed what was wrong with the water. As I walked to my car after the Dayton match—I had parked on the grass in front of the stadium—I could see the serene brick rectangles of Hurley Medical Center rising up in the distance.
Flint won. How often do I get to write a sentence like that?