Hispanic youth soccer players in Utah are hearing racist comments — often from adults

There have been 25 reports of racist language during games since last fall.

Every time she touched the ball, the song restarted.

It was a familiar tune, one people may have heard from turning on Disney Plus in the last few years. It’s called “Un Poco Loco,” the most popular song from the Pixar film “Coco.” The title means “a little crazy” in Spanish.

But to teenager Mia Godoy, the song wasn’t a celebration of the movie or Mexican culture. It was racist.

“My brain fogged up automatically,” Godoy, an American Fork teen who is of Argentine descent, said. “As soon as I heard those comments, my brain shut down.”

Godoy plays for a girls’ team on a youth soccer club called Utah Rio. In addition to the singing, she said parents of opposing players said “Coco has the ball” as she played during a game in October 2022.

Godoy’s experience is just one example of several instances where mostly Hispanic youth soccer teams say they have been subjected to racist or discriminatory behavior from opposing players, parents and even referees.

Since last fall, the UYSA has received 25 complaints of racist language being used during games, per data shared with The Salt Lake Tribune. In 10 of those incidents, someone received a suspension. Most of the suspensions went to players who had to sit out two games. One parent received an “indefinite” suspension.

“This is more than one team and one unique situation,” said Eduardo Mendez, director of the Weber County soccer club Grêmio FC. “This is way more than that.”

Discrimination from adults

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mia Godoy plays soccer for Utah Rio FC, in Heber City, on Saturday, May 18, 2024.

The Utah Youth Soccer Association, which governs hundreds of youth soccer clubs all over Utah, has a “No Discrimination” initiative. In March, Scot Boyd, the organization’s league commissioner and in-house counsel, led two trainings on eliminating racist language.

But coaches of youth soccer teams say there have still been multiple instances of people using offensive language toward their players. They say the comments largely come from adults — parents and sometimes referees.

Last month, Diego Godoy, Mia’s father who coaches multiple Utah Rio teams, said parents on the opposing sideline yelled things like, “Órale, órale,” and, “C’mon Mexican, can you not play soccer?”

Diego Godoy said he spoke with the referee, who then ejected him with no explanation. When he refused to leave until the referee gave him one, he said the referee just yelled at him to leave.

“What you’re doing to me, it’s just racist,” Diego Godoy said he told the referee. “You’re hearing racist comments from parents and you don’t take action” against them.

Chiqui Pelaez coaches a boys’ youth team for Utah Rio currently, but was previously a team manager at La Roca in Weber County, one of the more popular elite youth soccer clubs in the state. His oldest son, Gabriel, and younger son, Mateo, have been members of both programs.

Pelaez said that while his sons were members of La Roca, there were times parents referred to their players as “Mexican” and told them, “Go back to your country.”

Parents aren’t the only ones who have been accused of racist language or sentiments. At times, referees have been at the center of complaints.

Diego Godoy, Peleaz and Mendez all said they or their coaches or parents have been disciplined by referees for talking to their players in Spanish.

Peleaz recalled two instances in which he was given a yellow card for coaching in Spanish. In one, he said the referee told him, “I can’t understand what you’re telling your kids, so you can’t use that language here.” In the other, a similar chain of events occurred, but the referee apologized after the game and said he’d request to have the card rescinded, Peleaz said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Diego Godoy coaches Utah Rio FC, during a match in Heber City, on Saturday, May 18, 2024.

Diego Godoy said in one instance, an assistant referee who he recalled being white called him a Spanish insult — one many Hispanic people find offensive and even homophobic — every time he passed the coach during gameplay.

Mendez recalled a game last year during which a referee was carding parents for encouraging their children in Spanish and threatened to end the game. That referee, Mendez said, ejected one of those parents.

Boyd said he has heard of instances where a referee carded a coach for speaking to their players in Spanish. In those cases, he gives those referees “one last shot at it to get it right.” If it happens again, that referee will be fired.

“‘You can’t coach your kids in Spanish’ is 100% incorrect,” Boyd said. “I don’t care what language they use — at all. Completely ridiculous. I don’t want it.”

Holly Gundred, director of operations for the Utah State Referees Association, acknowledged this issue has happened in the past. In one instance, she said she and Boyd talked to those involved and heard both sides of the story.

Gundred said she sent an official to that referee’s next game to “not only help educate that referee, but to help educate those parents.”

Discrimination from players

Incidents like the “Coco” comment Godoy experienced seem to happen often, with players — many of them preteens — using words and phrases that appear to cast being Hispanic in a negative light.

Bryan Oviedo, a Real Salt Lake player whose family is Costa Rican, has a son who plays for a Utah Rio team. He said there was one game where an opposing player told his son, “Go eat tacos.”

Peleaz said an opposing goalkeeper made a similar comment in a game late last month. Once a referee confirmed the comment was said, he asked the referee to end the game.

Aside from comments made specifically to Hispanic people, Boyd said the UYSA is also trying to curb the use of a version of the N-word that ends in “a.” Both of his March trainings mentioned competitions last summer where three players were ejected from games and subsequently suspended for using the words.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Diego Godoy coaches Utah Rio FC, during a match in Heber City, on Saturday, May 18, 2024.

Ironically, in both those trainings — one meant for coaches, the other for referees — Boyd spells out the word on a slide. His explanation for doing so during the referee training specifically is they are required by FIFA to spell out words they hear or are alleged.

“I needed them to remember you actually have to write it out,” Boyd said. “And if I’m refusing to write it out in the instruction, well, that kind of sticks me in a bad spot.”

Boyd said that last fall, he emailed instructions to coaches and team managers of teams with players older than 14 years old that outlined how allegations of racist language would be handled.

“For the most part, that eliminated that problem” in that age group, Boyd said. This spring, he dropped the age to players older than 12 because it turned out that language was being used by 13- and 14-year-olds.

Reporting the problem

After a UYSA-sanctioned game, referees are obligated to submit a game report through an online portal. Coaches report scores via the same portal, and can add additional comments about the game if they choose. They can also check a box that requests the UYSA to review the game.

Boyd said coaches using the reporting tool is paramount to catching every possible instance of racist language.

“The big one is communication,” Boyd said. “I have to know. Get me the info.”

Trin Anglin, a state youth referee administrator, said referees are generally not aware of what parents say from the sidelines because they’re focusing so much on players’ safety, the game itself and handling the coaches.

“Myself, if I’m on a game, I very rarely ever hear a parent because that’s not what I’m concentrating on,” Anglin said. “When parents say, ‘That parent said something,’ that ref really would not hear it unless their voice is so loud.”

Coaches admit they don’t inform the UYSA about every incident. Diego Godoy didn’t report when his daughter was called “Coco,” which occurred in October 2022. Pelaez didn’t report one of the instances where a referee told him not to instruct his players in Spanish.

Mendez said if he or his other coaches were to report every incident, they’d be “making a report every week.” But he acknowledged maybe that’s what it would take for things to change.

“I think we did it wrong on our end, not reporting and not following up with every single scenario,” Mendez said.

Michael Anglin, another state youth referee administrator, implored parents and coaches to alert the UYSA or referee’s association of incidents that matter, and not be concerned if they are reporting things too much.

“If you’ve got a consequential issue, something that needs to be addressed, something that’s meaningful, you need to report it — every single time,” Michael Anglin said.

Some coaches feel the UYSA doesn’t adequately communicate when they do report issues. Late last month, when an opposing goalkeeper told Pelaez, “Why don’t you go eat a taco,” the player received a two-game suspension. But Boyd did not inform Pelaez about the disciplinary action.

Boyd said there is simply not enough time to respond in detail to every coach or referee who reports an incident and wants to be informed about any discipline handed down.

“But,” Boyd said, “I think that’s a fair criticism, and a fair concern. … I’ll try to do a better job of that.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mia Godoy plays soccer for Utah Rio FC, in Heber City, on Saturday, May 18, 2024.

Gundred said she doesn’t feel comfortable providing any details that go further than simply whether someone has been disciplined and for how long.

Boyd also said part of the challenge in disciplining people for using racist language is when an allegation is made but no one else can corroborate.

In one of Boyd’s March trainings, he outlined a new protocol for referees who are told about allegations of racist language. If a referee hears any racist language, they are empowered to take any disciplinary action they deem necessary, including ejection.

“If we verify that racist language has been used, it’s an automatic two-game suspension,” Boyd said. “If it’s a parent who used racist language, more likely than not they’re out for the rest of the season. I don’t want to see them on the sideline.”

Diego Godoy said that process was not followed during the game last month, and that he submitted a complaint to UYSA.

“The referee just laughed in our face, screamed in our face, talked to my players and screamed at them,” Diego Godoy said.

What are the solutions?

Oviedo made it clear the impact that hearing racist language as a preteen can have.

“A kid who is starting a career and wants to be a professional — they treat them like that now, who is going to want to be a professional after that?” Oviedo said. “If it’s from now, they may even have trauma.”

That’s why coaches and parents of teams with minority players want the UYSA to help them feel heard. Too many times, they say, their issues and complaints feel cast aside or underinvestigated.

“I think it’s taking forever to solve the problem because there’s not enough time or attention to the scenarios,” Mendez said.

Oviedo said maybe more players should get trained on the UYSA’s zero tolerance policy related to racist language.

The UYSA says it’s doing the best it can to reduce racist language, and educate everyone involved on its efforts and how they can help.

“For the most part, all of our coaches, all of our players, all of our parents are great,” Boyd said. “Ninety percent of our games go off without a hitch. But 10% of the games, you’re going to have moments in a game where it’s blood in the water.

“What I’m asking our parents, referees, coaches, players is, in those moments, to be at your best, not at your worst. Unfortunately, sometimes they’re at their worst, and that’s what we end up having to deal with and trying to fix.”

Godoy considers herself a feisty player with the ability to tune out comments related to her on-field performance — comments she says are part of the game. But she has an issue particularly when it comes to racism and discrimination.

“It’s unfair for 12- and 13-year-old kids to be getting these racist insults, in my opinion,” Godoy said. “What can they do? They can’t do anything. And if they do anything, they’ll be considered disrespectful. It shouldn’t be that way.”

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