Soccer: A creepy perversion of a fun game
Sports should be sensational. Sports should resemble their old form, their past history, that of the gladiators. In its current form, in America, it has been contorted to a gentle activity. It is not a true rivalry, a competition to the death of honorable opponents. Kamp, a popular sports writer, called soccer, “a creepy perversion of a fun game.” (p. 663, paragraph 4). I agree; in America, soccer has become the best example of a sport that is no longer a sport. It is not visceral. There are no exciting rivalries between American cities, played out by sports competitors who represent their cities. It is barely entertaining. It must change.
The context of this quote from Kamp is an excerpt of his sports column in GQ, a monthly men’s lifestyle magazine. He says that in Europe, the soccer culture is intense and competitive. However, in America, soccer culture is different. It, as Kamp writes, wants to “plane off the rough edges of the sport experience” (p. 664, paragraph 2) .
The gladiators were armed opponents in the Roman Empire (Gibbon). They fought in front of large, public audiences. Some of the gladiators were volunteers, but most were born and died as slaves. The gladiators could inspire admiration, higher social status, and acclaim by all of the Roman Empire. This offered even high class people a chance at visceral, violent energy.
Comparing this history with the current situation of class and American sport is a common argument of anti-sport liberals against the system of major sports like the NFL, NBL, and NHL, which often have a lot of players from the working class. The opponents of these sports argue that the working class in this country cannot get out of being poor due to low social mobility. Like the gladiators, they play dangerous games for the entertainment of people with more money and power than they have. The few that win encourage the others to continue playing and competing for the few spots at the top, but in reality, the chances of leaving poverty through competition in professional sports is negligible. This maintains, the liberals argue, a working class at the bottom who do not rise up against the owners of industry.
In this view of sports, major corporations encourage unfairness. They promote endorsements with the few people from the working class who are able to achieve success in these sports. This situation creates an excellent market for these companies’ products in the mass market. The products are seen as aspirational, because they are associated with the celebrity who managed to beat the odds, but also democratic, because the person came from the lower class. The companies are thus exploitative and co-create a situation of trapping poverty.
As a side note, this argument is untrue and offensive. This parallel between the working class and slaves completely denies the agency and choice of the working class in our country and the progress made by the Civil Rights Movement. It overestimates the power of structural elements and corporations, which are also comprised of people. Especially with the effect of the No Child Left Behind Act, members of the working class have had more opportunity than before (Hursh, 493). The National Assessment of Educational Progress released statistics in July 2005, which showed improved student achievement in reading and in math. Reading and math scores for black nine-year-olds were higher than ever before. Forty-three states either improved or were the same in all of the categories that were measured. Supporters of the act also claim that the point of the bill is increased accountability and responsibility of teachers and schools. The schools are punished if they do not meet their goals. Ideally, this accountability could help teachers and schools realize the significance and importance of their role in the educational system. Proponents of the Act also argue that this helps minority and low achieving populations. Specifically, it creates a common educational expectation for everyone. Because the Act requires schools to focus their attention on major racial and ethnic subgroups, states cannot get by only by measuring average school performance. It also gives school choice to parents when the schools in their district are failing. All of these factors combine to create a situation where people from the working class can achieve the American dream, regardless of whether or not they play a professional sport. People from the working class know that the best way to get out of poverty is not to play a sport.
Soccer, as Kamp argued, is the stereotypical stuff of American wholesomeness. It is not tied up in competition the way other sports are. Soccer is associated with soccer moms. It is considered safe for children. It is considered the preeminent sport to promote for fun and self-esteem. Oliver, writing in 1986, said “soccer is rapidly becoming white, middle-class, suburban, and small town, if we look at the areas of most dramatic growth” (Oliver).
Why has this phenomenon occurred in America? It is several reasons that may be interrelated. Soccer had to enter a market that was already saturated with sports that were well-loved by Americans, particularly football and baseball. Therefore, Americans had to create a culture for soccer, and they ended up created a new one, a tame one. Sportscasters portrayed it differently than other sports, with less scoring or blatant fouls. Oliver suggests this is due to ignorance, though I would like to suggest that it might have been an excellent thing for soccer as an industry, as a product, though not as a traditional sport.
One first factor in the creation of the phenomenon, America is an incredibly and increasingly litigious society. In America, if you burn yourself you can sue a fast food restaurant for serving your coffee too hot, and win. Some children growing up today are not allowed to play Red Rover, for fear that someone may break an arm (and then, sue their school district). The fear of litigation has created a culture that is far more cautious about regulating and policing the athlete’s body than cultures in Europe.
Second, soccer is a new sport to American society, and has had to develop its own culture. The coaches that coach soccer today, unless they are from a non-U.S. country, did not grow up playing soccer. Instead, they grew up playing games like baseball and football, in which coaches play a more active role than in soccer. So coaches first of all, over-coach, and then also try to apply the coaching principles of the sports they grew up playing (Ford & Kane). Oliver (1986) has written that developing one’s own personal style is key to playing soccer, but that American coaches make mistakes by drilling their players too much, and by being too active in their coaching.
Third, soccer has permeated all sectors of American society. On one hand, it is a democratic sport. It does not require expensive equipment. It is not as damaging to people’s bodies. On the other hand, one of the major growth areas is the middle class and the upper middle class. It is portrayed in an extremely sentimental way, as a sport for everyone, not just the strong athletic elite. The very association of the upper middle class with a sport makes it less bloody, less violent, and less visceral. It reduces the implication that the players are dispensable, that they are representative in some way, sacrificed to the greater whole of competition. Instead, famous soccer players are portrayed as the girl next door, as full human beings, as mothers.
All of these factors combined to create a very tame version of a sport. A new place in the sports market had to be created for soccer, into a saturated market. The entire sports industry had incentive to make soccer a different kind of good, not one that would compete with the preexisting sports. At the same time, American culture has become more litigious and thus, careful with players’ bodies. It was a perfect storm of elements combining to create a new, calmer version of sport.
In conclusion, the point of sporting is to serve as a catharsis. Millions of years ago, humans rose from the primordial ooze. Within our brain is an older, more primal brain that reflects our violent past. To keep those impulses and emotions at an emotional level, rather than let them come out as behaviors, they are subjugated into sport that the whole nation watches. None of this is true of soccer, which is portrayed as therapeutic and gentle. Soccer may be an excellent, multi-million dollar industry, but it is not a new sport. It is a new perversion of what a sport could be.
Ford, G., and Kane, J. Go for goal: Winning drills and exercises for soccer. Rockleigh, NJ: Allyn & Bacon. 1984. Print.
Gibbon, Edward and Womersley, David. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. New York, New York: Penguin. 2000. Print.
Hursh, David. “Assessing No Child Left Behind and the rise of neoliberal education policies.” American Educational Research Journal, 44.3 (2007), 493-518. Print.
Kamp, David. It’s Not Just a Game. In 
Oliver, Leonard. P. “Cultural Implications of the Soccer Phenomenon in America.” In Cultural Dimensions of Play, Games and Sport (Ed. Bernard Mergen, Ph.D. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc., 1986. Web.
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