Making The World 1% Safer

Facing Social Justice in Sports

Scotty Lee’s story as told to John Lynch

Are you 1% better than you were yesterday?

It’s a question I ask of both myself and the people I coach. Can you be 1% better than you were yesterday? If you can, then you’ll be just fine.

That’s my approach: as a coach, as a person, as a philanthropist. What you’ve done and what you are doing now aren’t relevant to my mission as a trainer: It’s what you dedicate yourself to doing tomorrow.

That philosophy serves me well in my work. The world, quite frankly, is pretty much shit. The fact is, my generation, the Gen Xers and Baby Boomers of the world, have fucked up the world for the people coming after us. Climate change, polarized politics, all of that? Us. Those poor bastards following us are going to have to experience the end result of all of our mistakes.

My organization, Spirit of Soccer, tries to make the world that 1% better every day. There are a lot of problems the organization has solved since we started in 1996, but the biggest one is landmine awareness. See, when our militaries go into foreign countries, we have a nasty habit of leaving behind some pretty bad consequences — landmines being one of the worst of them.

It’s a problem that children in particular in these countries — including Iraq, Bosnia, Sri Lanka and half a dozen more — face more than anyone else. Kids are losing their lives and bodies to landmine-related incidents every day, and it’s largely because they don’t know any better.

That’s where I come in.

Soccer’s pretty accessible as far as sports go: All you need is a ball, a couple goals, and enough people and space to play it. It’s also popular across the whole world, so getting communities on board with our education program for landmine avoidance is usually pretty easy.

My first experience with the chaos that war can bring was in Bosnia. I had spent plenty of time in the country during the height of its civil war in 1993 delivering food convoys as part of Arsenal F.C. ‘s humanitarian efforts in the area, but my first experience with landmine removal wouldn’t come for a couple more years.

There was nothing left in Bosnia after the war, so while I was still coaching for Arsenal F.C. in 1996, the club sent me down to Sarajevo to do some coaching in the area to reintroduce the soccer programs the region had lost to the war. Turns out, the two main stadiums in the city were heavily mined. Thankfully, I had some pretty damn good connections at the United Nations as a result of Arsenal’s humanitarian partnership, which got the fields de-mined relatively quickly.

That wasn’t the end of that exposure to the threat of landmines. While I was there, some kids were playing a game of soccer, and a ball went out of bounds into some tall grass. They tripped a fragmentation mine, which is used for anti-personnel purposes in war zones, killing them.

They never had a chance — the blast just tore them apart. That ‘96 trip to Bosnia lasted two months. What I saw changed my life.

See, as a coach, I know the importance of training. In sports, training is necessary at every level of development. You don’t grow or progress without training, and that’s exactly what we do for kids who might be the victim of landmines one day. We pair the messaging the kids need to hear with a universal messenger: the game of soccer.

That year, I founded Spirit of Soccer to make sure what I saw wouldn’t happen again. I developed a Mine Risk Education program that could be applied through the training and coaching techniques of soccer, secured some funding from the U.S. State Department’s Office for Weapons Removal and Abatement and got to work building the organization. Twenty-five years later, it’s still going strong, operating on four continents — Asia, Africa, South America, and Europe.

The way we get messaging to stick is pretty simple really: We play a game, and then we teach them a lesson. We’ll alternate drills, lessons on the game, and full games with lessons on how to identify and avoid landmines. There are four pillars to our education program: “Keep Away. Don’t Touch. Report. Communicate.” It’s simple for a reason; not only does it have to be easy to understand for children, but we encourage local coaches to pick up the program and keep teaching it.

The great thing about working within the coaching framework is that it allows us to keep our team small and efficient while still reaching plenty of people. One or two coaches can teach about 100 kids in a two-hour session, and the results speak for themselves. We’ve reached an estimated 60,000 children through our operations in Iraq alone, and we reach approximately 100,000 kids each year through not only the training programs but the tournaments and games that we set up in the area.

That’s not just coach-speak either. My training methods have worked all over the world; Spirit of Soccer has done some amazing work in Cambodia, Iraq, and Colombia in 2005, 2007, and 2015, respectively. When I started Spirit of Soccer, international landmine deaths were over a thousand annually, and around 40% of those deaths were among children. Last year, the number of deaths was four, and the rate of landmine incidents in places we have visited is down 50%. It’s not all because of us — landmine removal and decreased use of mines play a big part — but we’re extremely proud of our results.

But it’s a classic coaching technique: I come along; I engage you with something you love, and I educate you and then you leave and make better decisions.

Now, our mission is bigger than just landmine-awareness education. We’ve realized our platform is big enough and successful enough that we can start rolling other programs into our training. For example, advancing women’s rights, spreading knowledge about climate change, and educating less fortunate areas about COVID-19 prevention have become big components of our latest curriculum.

We’ve been able to achieve a near-50-50 split between male and female coaches within our program, and, unsurprisingly, even in areas where women’s rights are far behind the rest of the world, placing women in places of influence helps change perceptions of how women can function and be treated in their communities. Even in deeply fundamentalist Islamic communities, particularly where the Taliban are our main points of contact in terms of government, putting women in leadership positions has opened eyes to what women can do. It’s all about the game where performance on the field is all that matters. We hope to get that 50-50 balance to reflect itself in the kids we coach in the coming years too.

So back to the original question. Are you 1% better than you were yesterday? I certainly hope I am. The whole point of Spirit of Soccer is to make the world a better, safer place. I hope that counts for more than 1%.

This story originally appeared in Facing Social Justice in Sports, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized and edited by Dr. Adam J. Kuban.

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