Community Centered: Inside Racing Louisville’s Ongoing Dedication to Community Service

The author would like to thank Michael Shaw and Logan Agin for their assistance with this article.

On Saturday, Racing Louisville’s players walked onto the pitch wearing black t-shirts over their uniforms. The shirts were inscribed with the words ‘Protect Women’ spelled out in lavender and the letter ‘O’ in ‘women’ was replaced with Racing’s circular crest. These shirts and the message they carried were a team statement against the abuse that has run rampant for years and touched nearly every team in the league.

“‘Protect Women’ really stems from the fact that we just feel that after nine years in this league we weren’t protected,” said team captain Michelle Betos. “You know, we felt like a commodity. And now we’re saying, hey, protect us. Invest in us. Give us what we deserve.”

Racing and Pride players walk down stairs onto the pitch wearing statement tshirts in support of the NWSLPA and protecting women

Players from Racing and the Pride enter the stadium in protest t-shirts on October 16 / Image courtesy ISI Photos

The shirts, which were designed by the team and approved by the players, were available to buy online prior to Saturday’s match. By Monday morning, they were sold out in all sizes. All proceeds from the sales were earmarked for charity and players were given the choice of who would benefit: the NWSL player’s union or a local non-profit. In a move that should surprise no one who’s followed Racing closely, the players chose to support their local community. As a result, all proceeds will be given to the Center for Women and Families, a rape crisis and domestic violence shelter in Louisville.

From the moment they arrived in Louisville, Racing’s players have dedicated themselves to their new city. Since April, players have volunteered at a Special Olympics tournament, auctioned signed jerseys and warm-up shirts for a local LGBTQ+ youth charity, ran a children’s soccer clinic with Korsair Children’s Clinic, put on soccer and literacy day camp for local elementary students, helped stuff backpacks with food for children in the free lunch program to take home on weekends, and participated in local food drives more than once. This isn’t even counting their participation in the local library’s summer reading program, the COVID vaccine drive the club held during a Racing match, or any of the not officially organized connections different players have with community members.

While this seems like a lot, the team would be doing much more if the pandemic wasn’t still an issue, says Jonathan Lintner, Vice President of Communications for Racing and Louisville City.

“While I know the team wants to do more – COVID-19 restrictions still exist for the players – all of the outdoor opportunities we’ve been able to participate in have been welcomed,” said Lintner, “If we ask for five Racing players, 10 tend to sign up.”

This level of dedication to community service isn’t just a coincidence. It’s been built into the club from its inception. This article will explore what inspires the players to devote their free time to helping the Louisville community and also take a closer look at a few of the projects they’ve been involved in during their inaugural season.

Three women stand together with the two in the front having their backs turned and the one in the center facing the camera is laughing
Ebony Salmon laughs with teammates during an event for Blessings In a Backpack in August 2021 / Image courtesy Racing Louisville

“Everything We Embody”

The philosophy of giving back is something that’s been ingrained in the soccer culture in Louisville since the USL Championship’s Louisville City was started back in 2015.

“When this same group launched Louisville City FC back in 2015, community service was one of its bedrocks,” said Lintner. “Outside of pandemic times, it seems like every day we have a player visiting a school, helping host a soccer clinic, or working toward some sort of charitable cause. It gives LouCity the feel of a community club, and Racing Louisville FC looks set to follow that lead.”

Racing Louisville’s mission statement discusses striving daily for the highest standards and empowering players to put on their best performance. This is typical of most sports teams. However, it also calls on players to “enrich our community.” The “our” in this phrasing is very deliberate as it calls on players to become part of the Louisville community instead of being temporary visitors or part-time citizens. According to Betos, the players have fully bought into this mindset.

“One of the biggest parts of our missions statement from the day we got here is that we’re here to lift up the community,” said Michelle Betos. “That’s something we’ve all taken on individually and collectively. We really feel that Louisville’s embraced us and we just want to give back in any way we can.”

This feeling of gratitude towards a city and fanbase that has enthusiastically supported Racing in their first year is a sentiment that is regularly mentioned by players.

“Of course, we’re second in the league in attendance as an expansion team,” said Lintner. “When players are asked about the importance of volunteering, that’s something they often bring up: wanting to show up for the community that has already welcomed and supported them.”

“I think as soon as this team was announced before we even knew who was on this team the community was very excited about it,” said forward Emina Ekic, the lone native Louisvillian on the team. “They got behind us no matter what, no matter if we win or lose. I feel like everything we embody as a team we try and put out into the community and it makes the world a better place.”

Defender Sinclaire Miramontez agrees. “This is a community that’s embraced us,” she said during the Dare to Care pop-up food drive that took place in early September. “This is our first year in the league and this community has welcomed us with open arms and has really supported us and so we want to be able to return the favor – whether that’s coming out here and handing out food to people that are driving by or saying hi to anyone that we can in the community. It’s so important for us to stay involved in the community. As much as they’ve given to us, we want to give just as much back to them.

Long-time league veteran Betos has also been impressed by the way fans have immediately taken to the team.

“They’ve been incredible. Since day one,” she said emphatically of the support they’ve received. “I love that question any time I’ve gotten it because since day one, you know, we walked into goodie bags of hot spots in Louisville. We felt so welcomed from the time we got here, so embraced. You know the men’s team’s been really good to us, the community, the fans. It’s grown, the support has grown, and it’s been an incredible experience.”

“Acceptance and Joy”

As Lintner mentioned, COVID restrictions have limited what players can and can’t do in terms of service. Opportunities typically need to be outdoors or in controlled environments so players can stay safe. Additionally, it needs to fit into their busy schedules that are filled with travel and game preparations. Despite the limited option, enthusiasm hasn’t dimmed.

“This team is so dedicated to wanting to be involved in the Louisville area and the community. And so any time a volunteer opportunity comes up to us, honestly, those spots are usually gone so quickly,” said Miramontez. “More often than not we have more volunteers sign up than are necessary.”

Ekic agrees: “We partake in anything that comes up. Any opportunity that we’re not traveling or that we’re all available that doesn’t interfere with practice …we just go out there and do it and try and do as many as we can.”

As a result, the club tries to arrange as many events to fit the team’s schedule as possible. These include soccer clinics and other opportunities arranged at the team’s practice facilities.

In July, Racing and Lou City jointly hosted a soccer clinic for local children through the Louisville-based global non-profit Bridge Kids International (BKI) and Kosair Children’s Charities. Bridge Kids International’s goal is to use African heritage culture to create communities that support the well-being of young people. The clinic included players running different soccer stations to teach kids different drills.

“The players so generously shared their time and talent and created an environment of acceptance and joy,” said Stacy Bailey-Ndiaye, Executive Director of (BKI). “From a 4-year-old doing drills with determination to a 13-year- old who arrived in full soccer gear, each kid knew he/she was part of something special and they loved it!”

Midfielder Lauren Milliet said the event was as fun for the players as it was for the kids. “It means a lot for us to give back to the community. It was literally so fun. I had a blast. I was laughing the whole time. Those kids were so awesome.”

Ebony Salmon directs a small boy during a soccer clinic
Scenes from a day with Bridge Kids International and Kosair Charities, including: Sinclaire Miramontez and Lauren Milliet laugh with a camper (top);  Ebony Salmon and Savannah McCaskill guiding one of the smallest attendees (second), and Racing players getting autographs from one of their new friends (third and fourth) / Images courtesy Natosha Cundiff Photography

“A Visible and Active Partner”

More recently, Racing Louisville players have been working with the local food bank Dare to Care to combat food scarcity in Louisville. In September, players participated in a pop-up food pantry in Louisville’s Parkland neighborhood. This event was part of a nationwide effort put on by the Black Women’s Player Collective, a non-profit comprised of 43 Black NWSL players who seek to “elevate the image, value, and representation of Black women as athletes and leaders in business, industry, and public and private institutions.”

“As a Black woman and athlete, I am always looking to give back to our communities,” said forward Jorian Baucom. “Although I was fortunate enough to be provided with food and the necessities for living growing up, I understand the ongoing problem of food scarcity within our communities. I want to continue to be a visible and active partner that will always support, advocate and impact lives in the best way possible.”

Sinclaire Miramontez said deciding to participate in the food drive was simple. “When any of our teammates are asking for help or setting anything up, we’re so supportive of them and we want to help them and try and drive a message across that we’re here for everybody, we are here to support everybody that we can, and we’re going to be involved in any way that we can.” 

Fans were also encouraged to participate in September’s food drive by either volunteering at the pop-up pantry or by donating money. A number of them answered the call. Local fan Benton Newman showed up to help out during the Dare to Care event. Seeing the players out there serving the community made him proud of the team he supports.

“While my interaction was limited with the players, it was fantastic to see them out and doing good in the city they represent,” said Newman. “They appeared to have enjoyed themselves and the opportunity to assist others. Soccer clubs and their communities are incredibly embedded, arguably more so than any other sport. I believe that it’s important to see the players put the time into being a positive influence and helping where they can. While the pandemic and other struggles this young club has faced have certainly hindered their ability to do community events like these, I fully expect that we will see a lot more of this in the future.”

Racing has continued partnering with Dare to Care since the September event. Last week, several players helped out at a food distribution center in an event organized by defender Addisyn Merrick, Racing’s Community Ambassador. Food scarcity is a serious issue in many cities and Louisville is no different. It wouldn’t be surprising to see players continue to partner with this organization that defender Gemma Bonner says “is doing amazing things in our community” more in the future.

For the rest of the month of October, the club will be collecting non-perishable items at the team store in Lynn Family Stadium. All who can are encouraged to donate.

a man in a purple hat and three women stand around a pallet of food dividing it up
Benton Newman works with players to distribute food during the Dare to Care event in September / Image courtesy EM Dash Photos
Two women stand by pallets of food waiting to hand packaged items to people waiting in cars
Taylor Otto and Emily Fox hand out food during the Dare to Care pop-up food bank in early September / Image courtesy EM Dash Photos

Addisyn Merrick in a purple shirt opens a box of food items that is resting on a conveyer belt in a warehouse

Racing players at the Dare to Care food distribution center standing posed in two lines
Players unpack and organize food items at a Dare to Care food distribution center in October / Images courtesy Racing Louisville

“A Better Place”

Besides the fact that they want to give back to a community that’s embraced them, players consistently say that the reason they keep volunteering is because they get so much out of it.

“It does make me feel good,” said Emina Ekic. “It’s nice to give back to the community and people who don’t have as much and to brighten someone’s day. It brightens your day brightening someone else’s day.”

Opportunities like the soccer camps allow players to meet members of the community and sometimes even build lasting relationships. This is one of the reasons goalkeeper Katie Lund found her experience with the Special Olympics Kentucky’s (SOKY) Regional Soccer Tournament in mid-April particularly memorable.

“We did a clinic with them at the facility and it was so fun,” recalled Lund. “And we got to really engage with them and get to know them and we’ve actually seen them at the games. It’s been really cool to see them in person and not just when you’re signed up for a clinic. We also saw one of them working at the Nike store so it’s been good to see them outside and develop a relationship with them, not just one time and one experience.”

Like Ekic, Lund says that meeting new people and sharing a moment together is enough to make the experience worthwhile.

“I think every time we hang out with them or they hang out with us everyone’s benefited,” said Lund. “It makes you feel like you’re impacting other people and giving back to people that support you.”

Michelle Betos also agrees.

“I think honestly it’s a cliche to say but we get a lot more out than sometimes the kids or the communities that we’re helping. It’s really nice to get out there to understand what our community is going through in different ways and different ways we can impact the community and it feels really good. And we’ve just been so supported and all we want to do is make this city a better place.”

Author

Bekki Morgan

Covering Racing Louisville and the NWSL. Find me on Twitter and Instagram: @sukiisacat.