Saturday, July 5, 2014


Although I have always been somewhat athletic and played soccer in high school, by the time I was 18 I had completely lost interest in all sports. Practice and exercise were boring, athletes tended to be uninteresting, and I had a low need for affiliation or popularity. Nevertheless, I am still susceptible to some of the hysteria associated with sports. I happened to be living in Terre Haute when Larry Bird, "The Hick from French Lick," led Indiana State to the final game of the NCAA basketball playoffs. I lived in Bloomington, Indiana when coach Bobby Knight won and in Louisville, Kentucky when they won. It's all quite stupid, really, but one can't escape being human.

As it happens, I've been watching parts of the World Cup this year, and have comparisons to make between American football and soccer, which, while perhaps obvious, don't seem to get much attention. The first thing that I notice about international soccer players is that they are extremely fit, agile, skilled and attractive to the eye. In comparison, American football players seem oversized, slow, muscular, dull and visually unappealing. Each soccer player needs a variety of skills, whereas football players tend to be more specialized, and in many cases their main attributes are physical bulk and the ability to move it in the right direction at the right time.

Beyond these superficial differences, soccer and football reflect broad cultural divergences. World Cup soccer highlights the strengths of individual players who combine their talents in order to represent their countries. Football, in contrast, is not an international sport, and it is permeated by the corporate mentality that dominates American thinking. Individual football players have less noticeable personas for multiple reasons. You can't see them well under their uniforms, they each have limited functions, and their behavior often seems predictable and scripted. The coach and quarterback resemble corporate managers who issue instructions, allowing little opportunity for the players to improvise. Soccer coaches have comparatively less influence over the game while it is in progress, and each player must be hyper-alert at all times in order to respond instantly to moment-by-moment developments.

There are several ways in which football seems more corporate than soccer. While in both games scoring goals and preventing the opponent's goals are the objectives, football is structured more like a planned campaign to systematically move the ball down the field, relying on consultations and specialists at each stage, and the process for scoring tends to be slow and mechanical, with fewer surprises than in soccer, in which the ball can crisscross the field several times before a goal is suddenly scored. Moreover, football has numerous time-outs and pauses that permit advertisements. Advertising plays a less obtrusive role in soccer. I might add that football is specifically designed to minimize delayed gratification for its viewers compared to soccer, because goals occur with greater frequency.

Our interest in team sports represents a primitive drive to belong to a group that succeeds against competing groups. As a species, we have already out-competed several other Homo species, which are now extinct. Group competition seems deeply ingrained in our nature. For the purposes of this post, I am interested in how American sports culture differs somewhat from that of other countries. On the face of it, soccer is a more inclusive game than football, because one need not be unusually large or tall to play it well. The basic equipment needed is inexpensive, thus almost anyone can afford it. Football, on the other hand, requires special equipment reminiscent of armor used in military campaigns. If you take football as a metaphor for American culture, it is telling that Americans prefer it to soccer. One might say that Americans are gratified by organizing into technologically superior groups that systematically obliterate opponents, and they are unappreciative of the spontaneity and individual talent that one might encounter in soccer. Stretching the metaphor to its limits, Americans understand conformity, militarism and brute force better than they understand spontaneity, individuality and artistry.


  1. I don't think much of sports spectating, especially when large arenas and corporate sponsors are involved, but it seems to me that the many glories of sports are too often and too easily dismissed by intellectuals, especially those of a literary bent. For me, they were a rare opportunity--maybe the only one I ever really had--to be almost entirely unselfconscious. They are also more revealing of character--other people's and maybe even one's own--than just about any other routine activity I've ever taken part in. Nothing reveals selfishness, courage, tenacity, smarts of a sort, and a host of other traits quite so clearly. It's for that reason that I find it hard to understand how someone who claims to be interested in his fellow human beings could dismiss sports altogether.

    I played basketball for years, and even now I regularly dream I am playing. It's always a bitter disappointment to wake up to the realization that it was all, as they say, just a dream.


  2. I thought I might get your goat with this post. It was directed mainly at sports as a cultural phenomenon, and I found it useful as part of my ongoing critique of American culture. There are aspects of sports that can, as you say, highlight personal characteristics or perhaps influence one's self-knowledge, but I think there are other means of reaching the same ends. As I alluded, there is a deep hunter-gatherer orientation in us that can make participating in sports quite satisfying, whereas other activities may not have the same effect. On a personal level, I lump this in with male bonding rituals, which, though satisfying, in my experience generally prove to be of little lasting substance. That doesn't stop me from participating in them, but experience has left me with ever lower expectations.

  3. I wouldn't say my goat has been gotten, as I myself am not a huge sports fan. I mean I doubt I'll ever watch another televised NFL game, even if I live another forty years. I just wonder, as I say, how someone interested in people and what they do could actually be completely uninterested in sports (which doesn't seem to be quite your case).

    For me, male bonding was part of the appeal of basketball, but it was never more than a secondary attraction. And what about girls and women? Does female bonding have anything to do with their joining sports teams?

    1. You seem to be emphasizing some of the feelings that you had while you were involved in sports, and I don't think everyone has those. It sounds as if there may be a nostalgic aspect related to the disappointments of adult life. As far as literary intellectual types go, perhaps on average they are not very athletic. Being bookish often falls at the opposite end of the spectrum from being athletic while people are growing up.

      There are exceptions, though. An acquaintance of mine from college died of cancer not long ago. He was an English major and seemed somewhat depressive most of the time that I knew him. He had several failed relationships with women and never married. He worked as a bond trader in Chicago and wrote short stories on the side, none of which were published as far as I know. A friend says that he had been a soccer star in prep school and became permanently despondent when he was forced to stop playing due to an injury.

      You don't specifically mention the chemical activity that exercise precipitates in the brain - the runner's high, etc. Some people probably get it more than others. I can simply set off on a hike and get it immediately.

      I'm glad you mentioned women. Most of the women I know dislike competition and sports in general. I don't read evolutionary psychology books, but suspect that female-female bonding is altogether different from male-male bonding. Males tend to bond for specific tasks such as winning games and killing mastodons, whereas women tend to form extensive networks of loose associations with other women as a sort of safety net that they can fall back on in a crisis.

      I find that without a common activity, male friendships tend to disintegrate. Most of my male friendships have revolved around Scrabble, bridge, volleyball, badminton, croquet and farm chores such as clearing brush or cutting down trees. This provides a certain amount of satisfaction, but I have always found it intellectually lacking.


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