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Monday, Mar 21 2011 01:02 PM

Brothers dropped from soccer event -- for their genes

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    Arie Kapoor, left, and his younger brother, Nigel, were disqualified from an invitational soccer tournament because they are only half-Indian. The brothers, shown with their father Sunny, were allowed to participate in the same event last year. (Photo courtesy of Julie Kapoor)

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BY JEFF GOODMAN, Californian staff writer jgoodman@bakersfield.com

Arie and Nigel Kapoor have an Indian father and Indian friends. They've participated for years in the local Indian community. But at a soccer tournament last weekend, the brothers weren't quite Indian enough.

Their team, the Bakersfield Lightning, was disqualified and forced to forfeit its game after the opposing squad's coach complained about the Kapoor brothers' genes.

The boys' father, Sunny, is from India. But their mother is American, and the event's organizer said that was against the rules this year.

Satnum Manku, coordinator of the fourth annual Bakersfield Soccer Cup, said Thursday a rule sheet was sent to participants a month before the invitational tournament. One of the conditions: No half-Indian players allowed.

The incident exemplifies a dilemma that has persisted in the United States since the country's inception, said Andrew Fiala, director of the Ethics Center at Fresno State.

"We do want to allow people to determine their own criteria for membership, but we also want there to be open opportunities for everyone," he said.

Fiala added that the growth of mixed families across the nation has created a series of other practical problems, not the least of which is the difficulties some people face in checking boxes about ethnicity on various paperwork. It often becomes a matter of definition.

"We're still trying to work it out," he said. "It's the right to self-determination and freedom of association -- a First Amendment kind of right -- versus an argument for non-discrimination and inclusion. The American project is trying to balance those two."

Conflicts of interest

The issue didn't arise until after halftime Saturday, when the game was stopped and the Lightning was told it had violated the eligibility rule.

Julie Kapoor, the boys' mother and a longtime Bakersfield resident, said her sons previously had never faced exclusion as a result of their mixed background.

"This was ridiculous," she said. "It's supposed to be fun and recreational."

Kapoor added that Arie, 19, a recent graduate of Centennial High School, and Nigel, 16, currently a student there, had both played in Manku's tournament in previous years.

"Last year ... everyone was fine with it," Kapoor said.

Well, maybe not everyone. Manku said he has faced increasing pressure from coaches in recent years to make the tournament's eligibility requirements more stringent.

The event, he said, is meant to provide a niche for youngsters who otherwise probably wouldn't have a chance to play competitive soccer.

The organizer argued that the influx of non-Indian talent, which he said has included semi-professional players with fake identification cards, compromises that goal. And so the rule was born.

"It's unfortunate," said Kevin Nichols, principal of KLN Consulting Group and a member of the California Diversity Council, a nonprofit group that promotes inclusion and equality. "The kids will feel as though they've done something wrong even though they are the same kids they were last year.

"We need to be more inclusive than exclusive."

Similar restrictions, however, are in place for other tournaments in the state, Manku said.

Some of them, for example, allow a certain number of non-Indian players per team. He even knows of at least one such event in California that only permits players who are Punjabi, a subset of the Indian population.

Manku said he and his staff try to determine a disputed player's Indian background by asking for his birth certificate, which shows the names of both parents.

"It's not a good rule," he said. "But the other teams said, 'If you guys don't keep this rule, we won't come to play.' So we had to keep the rule."

Right direction?

Perhaps not surprisingly, the disqualification -- and the rule itself -- didn't sit well with a family that takes pride in its multicultural identity.

Kapoor said she hadn't seen the handout with the new requirement and added she would have been just as upset if she had.

She also claimed her sons had prior approval because they had competed in the tournament before the rule took effect.

"They were outraged," she said. "They've never really been subject to any racism because of their Indian background. ... This is not typical. Indians are a very warm, welcoming group of people."

Kapoor, manager at the Park Plaza Executive Offices on Oak Street, has been married to Sunny for nearly 25 years and has visited her husband's home country.

Sunny, who joined his sons in last year's tournament, is an administrator for the West Kern Water District in Taft.

The two have raised their children to be "color-blind," Kapoor said, and the boys have embraced their father's heritage.

"They don't know the language, but they know that's their culture," Kapoor said. "And they've always been comfortable being around Indians. ... For them to be rejected, it's appalling."

"It causes pause," Nichols said. "It makes you wonder if we're headed in the right direction."

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