June 16, 2010

Chile 1, Honduras 0: Another freezing day saw Chile end a winless WC streak going back 48 years. The Chileans should have had many more goals against a Honduran team that was just happy to be there, no doubt almost as relieved as the North Koreans yesterday to be out of their national hellhole. Hopefully, soccer fans will be spared the efforts of the Honduran military to reverse the results.

During every World Cup there is always an attempt by a certain element within America to disparage the sport that we Yanks call "soccer," brilliantly parodied here by Stephen Colbert. Such eminents as Frank Deford, Jim Rome, and Glenn Beck have taken up the cudgel, usually with the aim of proving American Supremacy from the fact that soccer does not have the mass popularity here that it has in most of the world. Seat-of-the-pants sociology and outright xenophobia intermingle in their arguments, which have become less attached to reality over the years. It's one thing to make the argument in 1990, when there was no domestic league in America and the World Cup was broadcast on TNT, a cable station offered by few outlets at the time, and quite another to make it today.

Over at the New Republic, Jon Chait has attempted to resurrect this tradition. This post includes some of the hoarier chestnuts of this tradition:
Again, I don't really care if soccer becomes a major sport in the U.S. But it is not a major sport in the U.S., nor is it remotely close to becoming one. Bergmann cites two data points to suggest that soccer is a runaway cultural juggernaut. The first is that the World Cup has drawn higher television ratings. This is true. But keep in mind that the World Cup is a quadrennial event that creates massive international hype. Americans love international competition. When the Olympics comes on, we'll watch sports we'd otherwise never dream of following for the chance to cheer our country on against foreigners. U-S-A! U-S-A! Yet the U.S.-England match still drew less than any NBA Finals game. (Check SportsMediaWatch.) It drew less than NFL pregame shows, let alone actual NFL football. This is not a good showing.

The second data point is that millions of American kids play soccer. This is true. It has been true since the 1970s, which is when the claims that soccer is the sport of the future began. Soccer is a great sport for kids -- young kids don't have the hand-eye coordination to play baseball, basketball or football, but they have enough foot-eye coordination to play soccer. When I was a kid, my friends and I all played in soccer leagues for years. Then we got older and starting playing other sports. Even the kids who continued playing soccer mostly became fans of other sports. I realize that soccer can be played by skilled athletes at a high level. In this country, it is primarily a children's game.
The argument that soccer is not a "major sport" in the United States may or may not be true; since the term "major sport" isn't defined by Chait, it's hard to tell what he means. It clearly is not as popular a TV or spectator sport as American football, and it clearly is a much bigger sport, both in terms of spectator attention and fan interest, than tennis. But no screeds were ever generated ridiculing that sport as "minor," nor have there been any attempts to show that American disinterest in the recently-concluded French Open is evidence of American Superiority over the swarthy masses overseas.

But more ridiculous is Chait's request to "check" the SportsMediaWatch blog to compare the ratings for soccer and other "major" sports, focusing specifically on the US-England game and the NBA Finals. Ridiculous, I say, because if you do so, you find that this supposedly trivial, minor pimple on the American sports scene attracted higher, not lower, ratings than the first four games of the NBA Finals. And it's not just any NBA Finals, sir: try Lakers and Celtics, the two most hated-loved teams in the country, which, unlike the World Cup, is playing on prime time TV, when the audience isn't at the office or the beach.

Chait's glaring miscue on the rating's issue probably stemmed from his ignoring of the high ratings that the game Saturday also received on Univision, the Spanish-language station, which may arise from a much more insidious problem: the view that Latinos (as well as other soccer-loving ethnic groups) are somehow less equal than the white fans. Chait himself gives the game away, here:
The cultural backlash against soccer may get nutty at times, but soccer triumphalists bring it with with displays of smugness like this, from The Nation's Dave Zirin:

Among adults, the sport is also growing because people from Latin America, Africa and the West Indies have brought their love of the beautiful game to an increasingly multicultural United States. As sports journalist Simon Kuper wrote very adroitly in his book Soccer Against the Enemy, “When we say Americans don’t play soccer we are thinking of the big white people who live in the suburbs. Tens of millions of Hispanic Americans [and other nationalities] do play, and watch and read about soccer.” In other words, Beck rejects soccer because his idealized “real America”—in all its monochromatic glory—rejects it as well.

This sentiment actually mirrors the right-wing's efforts to divide the country into "real America" and the unrepresentative coastal elites. People who don't like soccer don't really count because they're white, fat and live in the suburbs. It also fails on its own terms, because of course African-Americans are also loyal to football and basketball. But attacking black people for being too fat and unsophisticated to appreciate soccer doesn't have the same P.C. zing, does it?
One would hope that Chait is not as disingenous when writing about important subjects, like politics and foreign policy, since Zirin doesn't come close to saying that. Any fair reading of what Zirin does say is that those who pretend that soccer has little if any popularity in the U.S. are deliberately ignoring the demographic changes in America that have made such assumptions about the sport false. It is hardly an "ugly" sentiment, as the title of Chait's post implies, to observe that America is not as white a country as it used to be, or that assuming that America has "rejected" soccer because white conservatives from the heartland don't like it has a strong element of racial myopia to it.

In fact, the more important demographic shift involved may not be racial or ethnic, but generational; the reason why soccer-bashing may seem more passe nowadays it that its practitioners are slowly dying out. The fanbase for the sport isn't middle-aged pundits like Chait (or Glenn Beck and Jim Rome, for that matter), but people between the ages of 21 and 35, the generation that went to the polls in 2008 and elected Barack Obama President. For them, soccer isn't simply a kids sport; it's a normal part of their lives, like basketball and football (baseball, the former National Pastime, is a distant fourth). Complaints about low-scoring games and being able to only use one's feet are about as relevant to them as arguments about busing and the gold standard. At a time when ratings for most sporting events are going down from year to year, the World Cup's ratings consistently rise, which is, itself, the clinching argument.

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