Why you should care
Escape comes in many shapes and shades.
Watching sports in prison is to prison what bars are to prison. Mandatory.
You see, prisoners live and die with their teams, be it basketball, football or baseball. Going apeshit when their mob wins and ready to fight whenever they lose. There’s a mad rush to place chairs when the doors crack, and if you take the wrong person’s spot it can mean a shank in the neck. And if it’s the Super Bowl or NBA finals? Standing room only. Yeah, sports are on 24/7 inside the belly of the beast, but try to put a soccer game on and there’s going to be a fight.
But I’m a die-hard soccer fan. I love to watch the English Premier League, the Champions League and the World Cup. I support Arsenal, Italy and the United States. I hate how Americans make jokes about soccer and consider it a boring sport, because of what they claim is a lack of scoring. Every time a sportscaster on this side of the pond makes a sarcastic remark about soccer I want to scream. To me what they call “the beautiful game” is wonderful and poetic, a chaotic ballet of skill and individuality set within the dynamics of the game.
I grew up playing soccer in California. My mom was a “soccer mom” long before they ever started calling it that. I wanted to be like Pelé, but I was more like Kasey Keller. I played other sports — more American sports, like basketball, baseball and football — growing up, but soccer was always my favorite. I remember going to see the North American Soccer League’s San Diego Sockers when I was a kid. Then as a teenager my dad was stationed in London; I was a military brat living in the birthplace of soccer.
Convicts held their TVs by a show of strength and even violence when called for.
When we returned to the States in the late ’80s, I got involved with drugs and ended up catching a case in 1991. Worse, they sentenced me to a quarter of a century under the federal mandatory minimums. I’d drifted away from soccer during my druggie/criminal years, but once in prison I was free to enjoy the sport again, both as a player and a spectator. With an abundance of foreign nationals — Mexicans, Jamaicans, Colombians — locked up in the feds, because of the drug war and mass incarceration, it was like being in fútbol heaven.
Our numbers were always small in comparison to those who liked basketball, football and baseball, but we were allowed to form and play in intramural leagues and watch the games when they came on TV. There was always a TV designated for Spanish speakers, and if the soccer fans had the numbers, a game was usually on. But it was limited. There were a lot of soap operas to watch. At first I was cool with it, because I didn’t want to make waves, but as I adapted and adjusted to prison life — and, more important, grew more confident in my surroundings — I got sick of watching soccer in a language I could barely understand.
I found myself politicking, forming alliances and even fighting to watch soccer on the American sports TVs. At the Federal Correctional Institution at Fort Dix, I watched the sports TV that was designated for baseball. Every Tuesday and Wednesday at 2:30 p.m., I’d watch the Champions League games. It became a ritual to me. A tall rangy Dominican they called Papi, who was known for hitting home runs and busting dudes in the head with his fists, called the shots for that TV. Luckily I played on the A-League softball team with him. He was gracious enough to let his homeboys know I’d be watching the games. They didn’t argue.
But every now and then a new guy would come in. With the Champions League schedule taking weeklong breaks, I wouldn’t be there to claim my spot. One time this new Muslim guy from Philly everyone called Ock transferred in from a different place. He went hard on the soap operas, and when I walked in there on a Tuesday afternoon and told him I was changing the channel, he got all huffy and puffy. I told him to put up or shut up, and he stormed out of the room. Next thing I knew, I had five Muslim guys from the City of Brotherly Love all up in my face asking why I disrespected their man.
Watching the games was my escape from prison, and it helped me do my time and gave me something to look forward to. Even though the odds were against me, I wasn’t backing down for nothing. Shit was about to get hectic, but luckily one of the Dominicans peeped what was going down and went and got Papi, who came with his crew. “Yo, homeboys,” he announced, as a rack of Dominicans poured into the TV room, surrounding the five Muslims. “This is the Dominican TV for baseball. My homeboy Seth watches soccer in here, too. That’s how it works. Any problems with that?”
The Muslims didn’t like it, but they were outnumbered, plus the guys that had been there knew the rules. Everything was divided up, TV wise, but convicts held their TVs by a show of strength and even violence when called for. The Muslims nodded. The new guy even apologized to me. A disaster, at least for me, was averted. I went hard and showed not only the Dominicans what was up, but the Muslims as well. Soon it was all over the compound. Don’t fuck with the white boy when he’s watching soccer.
I still watch the games today, but in the comfort of my own home and on my big-screen TV. Quite a difference. But I look back fondly, if that makes sense, on those prison days watching soccer.