America in Progress

America in Progress
America in Progress

Thursday, January 31, 2019

January 31, 2019: Great (Sports) Debates: Soccer in America?


[Sunday, February 3rd is that national holiday known as Super Bowl Sunday. For this year’s Super Bowl series I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of great sports debates—add your opinion into the mix in comments, please!]
On why soccer hasn’t quite taken off in the U.S., and why that question might be the problem.
As a kid growing up in the 1980s, I was (I believe) part of the first generation to play youth soccer en masse. I don’t know exactly what percentage of us played soccer (I know I could try to look it up, but I’m writing this post on Thanksgiving morning and am feeling a bit too lazy to do so), but it felt like the majority of us at least (although I’m sure there were race and class factors, since registration wasn’t cheap and personal transportation to practices and games was a necessity and so on). By the time my sister began playing five or so years later, the sport seemed even more ubiquitous. Flash forward thirty years later, and it feels like literally every kid my preteen sons’ age (or again, at least every one in certain towns and communities) is out there every Saturday all fall and spring chasing that checkered ball (and a sizeable number of their parents are out there trying to herd those cats as volunteer coaches—I see you, my brothers and sisters in arms, or legs!). When I think about how many pictures I see on social media of kids playing soccer, posted by friends from all walks of life, around the country, it feels like the sport has truly become one of the most shared experiences of American childhood.
And yet, despite those four decades of building momentum, by most accounts soccer still hasn’t broken into the upper echelon of American professional sports. I’ve seen all sorts of explanations over the years for that gap, from xenophobic and silly ones about the sport’s “foreign” flavor (more on that nonsense in a second) to practical and understandable ones about how low-scoring the games (warning, that’s a National Review article, just FYI) generally are, among many many others. But to my mind, there’s a simpler explanation for at least one factor in why men’s soccer hasn’t become a dominant professional sport in America (women’s soccer most definitely has, at least at the national team level): our greatest male athletes have too many other options. In many nations, if you’re a superstar or even just talented youth athlete, soccer is the most likely and logical fit, and the best path to potential professional sports stardom (there’s a reason why Neymar joined a professional team’s system at age 11!). But here in the U.S., such young prodigies have their pick of a number of sports paths, and who can really imagine high school phenoms and freaks of athletic nature like LeBron or Zion picking soccer over basketball (to name one exemplary trend)?
So despite all those youth soccer players, the U.S. hasn’t produced a ton of great home-grown professional talents, at least not yet. But honestly, while players are one measure of a sport’s popularity, fans are another—and on that front, to say that soccer isn’t a major sport in the U.S. is to replicate many of the xenophobic narratives I mentioned. For many American communities, especially multi-cultural and immigrant ones, soccer is most definitely the spectator sport of choice; just check out fans of the Mexican national team celebrating their recent performance in the World Cup at a rally in Los Angeles this past June. Hispanic Americans are far from the only American community to exemplify this soccer craze, but they certainly are a prominent one—and any narrative of soccer as less popular nationally that doesn’t acknowledge the sport’s centrality to this sizeable and growing American community is fundamentally myopic and discriminatory. Soccer might not be at the level of American football yet (and to be clear, neither are hockey or baseball any more, and probably not basketball either although it’s closer), but its popularity is only growing, and is one of the most telling 21st century American trends.
Last debate tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other great debates you’d highlight?

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

January 30, 2019: Great (Sports) Debates: Fighting in Hockey?


[Sunday, February 3rd is that national holiday known as Super Bowl Sunday. For this year’s Super Bowl series I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of great sports debates—add your opinion into the mix in comments, please!]
On the way not to argue for a sport’s violent tradition, and a possible way to do so.
First, in the interest of full disclosure: of the four major sports, I know by far the least about hockey. And that’s especially true of hockey history—other than a few big name players and the occasional interesting story (both of those hyperlinked pieces focus on Boston-related topics, which is likely why I know a bit more about them than I do other hockey histories), what I know about the history of hockey can be fit inside a box much smaller than the penalty one. So as always, and especially when it comes to topics like this one on which I am generally and admittedly ignorant, I’ll very much appreciate any responses and challenges and other ideas in comments (or by email). I don’t think I’m ever gonna get to full octopus-on-the-ice level hockey fandom, but there’s no topic about which I’m not excited to learn more, this one very much included.
So with all of that said, it’s my understanding that one of the most heated debates in the hockey world is over whether fighting is a central and beloved element of the sport that must be preserved or an outdated and dangerous aside that should be discarded to attract more widespread fan support. Obviously I don’t know enough to have a strong opinion (I’m opposed to fighting-based sports, but this is somewhat of a different story of course), but I will say this: from what I can tell, many of the arguments in favor of fighting seem to come from what we could call hockey traditionalists. And having had more than my share of experiences with baseball traditionalists, I’d say that “This is how we have always done things” is an incredibly ineffective way to argue for any aspect of a sport (or most anything else for that matter). For one thing, such an argument would by extension make any change impossible, and anything that is going to endure over time needs to evolve in at least some ways in order to do so. And for another thing, there are many cases where we learn things that require specific changes in the way we do things—and it seems to me that what we now know about head injuries, for example, just might make that the case when it comes to fighting in hockey.
I’m pretty serious about CTE (although I haven’t been able to give up football yet), so if I were to weigh in more fully on the fighting in hockey debate, I’d likely be in the opposition camp. But I try to be open to different perspectives of course, and in a debate like this what I’d be interested to hear is how pro-fighting perspectives might argue for its role in how the sport is played. That is, when it comes to fighting in baseball (something I know a lot more about), fights represent an entirely unsanctioned and illegal element, one that always leads to ejections and suspensions and fines and so on. Whereas fighting in hockey is more or less entirely sanctioned, with the two fighters surrounded by the referees and allowed to complete their fight before the regular gameplay resumes. So perhaps there are reasons beyond tradition alone, ways that fighting contributes to the play of hockey within games, within a season, as a sport. After all, all rules in sports are arbitrary and constructed, and don’t necessarily need changing as a result. This one features violence to be sure, but so for that matter does hockey overall—so I’m open to hearing (including here if you’d like!) for how this element of hockey might also feature other sides to this sport, past and present.
Next debate tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other great debates you’d highlight?

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

January 29, 2019: Great (Sports) Debates: LeBron or Michael?


[Sunday, February 3rd is that national holiday known as Super Bowl Sunday. For this year’s Super Bowl series I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of great sports debates—add your opinion into the mix in comments, please!]
On two layers to the best basketball player debate, and an unexpected twist.
In many ways, the debate over whether Michael Jordan or LeBron James is the greatest basketball player of all time seems to come down to a very familiar refrain: championships vs. stats. That’s the same metric that has often been used to adjudicate another famous basketball debate (Russell vs. Chamberlain), as well as some of the more famous ones in football (Montana vs. Marino and Brady vs. Manning). It’s a particularly compelling sports debate because it extends the focus from just the two individual players in question to broader arguments about whether team victories or individual achievement are more effective measures of greatness—of course the ultimate goal in team sports is to win a title, but how much can any individual contribute to that, and how much should we penalize those whose teams just weren’t quite good enough? Plus, LeBron has made it to a ton more championship series and just hasn’t quite won them all—if he had gotten those few extra bounces and won them all, would we even be having this debate? Are Jordan’s stats comparable enough that he would stay in the conversation regardless? And so on (and so on and so on…).
There’s another possible side to the greatest basketball player debate, though: the character and communal presence of each man. I wrote about Jordan’s relative lack of community engagement here, and about LeBron’s impressive activism here (which has only increased recently with his opening of a wonderful new school). Obviously activism isn’t the only measure of character, but in this case it does seem to line up pretty well with that side of the two men as well: Jordan was notoriously nasty and petty as a player, gave one of the most arrogant and vindictive Hall of Fame speeches ever, and has spent much of his retirement gambling like he’s in a Scorcese film; while LeBron has married his childhood sweetheart, given back to his community at every turn, and basically turned the other cheek to ridiculous levels of vitriol and hatred from fans almost everywhere other than his own cities. Obviously activism and character are separate from athletic performance—but once we introduce championships into the mix, we’ve already moved beyond the individual accomplishments of players in any case, so I see no reason not to think about whether other factors might contribute to how we measure overall greatness.
And once we start considering other such factors, the whole debate has the potential to take a surprising twist. After all, neither Jordan (#4) nor LeBron (currently #5) are at the top of the all-time NBA scoring list; that honor goes to the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And if we’re talking about social and cultural presence and impact, I don’t know that any professional athlete can compare with Kareem—from his early days in film to his ongoing career as a writer and novelist, and especially to his consistently thoughtful and impressive contributions to public debates, Abdul-Jabbar has left his imprint on American popular culture, politics, and society in numerous ways over the last five decades. That’s not enough to ensure all-time greatness of course, but again, Abdul-Jabbar is also the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and was unquestionably one of the greatest players by any number of such measures. So at the very least, I’d say that his combination of on-the-court greatness, championship contributions, and social presence and activism puts Abdul-Jabbar on the very short list of all-time greats, and perhaps should make him, rather than MJ, LeBron’s fiercest competitor for the throne.
Next debate tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other great debates you’d highlight?