Sacramento Republic use soccer to break the walls of prison

[Soccer] can break down walls… all with simply the game.

Todd Dunivant, President/General Manager of Sacramento Republic FC

There is something about soccer that just seems to push fans to make fairly audacious claims about its power. Simon Critchley, as I’ve observed before, claims that soccer fanship metaphorically allows us to escape death by making us part of an institution that began long before us and will last long after us. 

In the quotation above, Sacramento Republic president and general manager Todd Dunivant claims that soccer enables incarcerated individuals to break down walls and experience freedom. And look, I tend toward the romantic side of things myself. But even I would have probably looked at Dunivant’s claims with skepticism.

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As I found out, there is a great deal of evidence to back him up.

Each month, roughly half a dozen staff members from Sacramento Republic FC, with two players from the first team, visit Folsom State Prison and play a game with some of the prisoners there. The staff members—including those in charge of marketing and ticket sales, as well as head coach Mark Briggs—are split into teams with incarcerated individuals, and the two players act as coaches (due to concerns about potential injuries on the decomposed granite/turf, the first team players are not allowed to play in the game). 

When the team arrives, they walk through the prison, past cell blocks and the dining hall made famous by the historic Johnny Cash concert in 1968.

While getting to the yard for the game, everyone is greeted by the inmates, many of whom know the team well from watching matches on television in the prisons. The game is made up of two 25 minute halves. It’s a high-spirited contest that leaves everyone in a mood for gratitude and reflection afterward. 

Dunivant started a similar program several years back with San Quentin Prison when he was working for the now defunct San Francisco Deltas.  When he was hired by Sacramento, he reached out to the warden at Folsom to start a similar program there. Since the program launched in 2018, they’ve attended the prison every month (save April 2020-July 2021, when COVID protocols prevented it). 

Warden Rick Hall has been incredibly welcoming of the idea, Dunivant notes, and he helped set the tone for the entire staff. The goal for both Dunivant and Hall is to expand outreach to those who are otherwise forgotten or maligned, showing compassion to people who have made mistakes, but will one day return to being neighbors again.

And the program seems to perform just as everyone had hoped.

Indeed, inmate Raymond Morrow observes of his participation in the program:  “What I want to do when I get out of prison, I want to give back to the community as far as running sports leagues. This is a good step for me, as far as being a mentor in my community.”

Republic FC Head Coach Mark Briggs calls this “one of the most rewarding experiences I ever had in my life.”

Kevin Burdick, Director of Community Investment for Sac Republic, tells the story of an inmate named Edwin who was involved in the program while imprisoned.  When he was released from Folsom, Edwin did three things, in order: He got a cheeseburger; he got a phone, and then, he went directly to the Sacramento Republic FC office for a visit.  The team later had him visit the locker room during a game where he began weeping. Sacramento Republic FC player Cameron Iwasa notes that “It meant so much to him that our team had come and done these appearances. It meant so much to him that we treated him like a human.”

There is something about the experience that inmates consistently refer to a making them fell free, to feel as if they are not behind those walls.

Oft-quote inmate Lui says, “Playing here, and in here, makes me believe that I’m not in here.  I know I’m behind the wall but it makes me feel free. It makes me feel human.”

A letter from inmate Tom Lamphere notes, “When I play, I forget where I’m at.  All I feel is joy and the liberating freedom that playing soccer gives me.”

Even warden Hall notes that the soccer matches give “our inmates the opportunity to kinda step out of the prison walls without leaving the prison.  It breaks down the divisions a loft of the barriers that prison seems to promote. The racial divides, the gangs, none of that matters out here.”

Soccer, then, transcends, even more boundaries.

We should salute Sacramento Republic FC for this program. And we should encourage it to be replicated elsewhere.

Author: John Sloopgrew up in Asheville, NC, and after forays to Georgia and Iowa, found his way to Nashville over 25 years ago. On a trip to Portland, Oregon, 15 years ago, he watched the (then) USL Portland Timbers youth squad play one afternoon and fell completely and totally in love with soccer, to the detriment of his love of all other sports. In addition to thinking, writing, watching, and talking about soccer, Sloop teaches media and rhetoric at Vanderbilt. He is currently serving as the Chair of the Board of the Belcourt Theater and is part of the team that runs Tenx9 Nashville, a monthly story telling event.

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