Thursday, June 22, 2006

Sports Stuff

Not my best work, but I throw in my thoughts on the NBA finals and a couple of other pro basketball issues over at Cleveland '64.

Speaking of sports, a couple weeks back, Sports Illustrated gasbag number 2 Steve Rushin (is there any doubt who number 1 is?) wrote a column called "World's Right; We're Wrong" (subscription required). It begins:

The average American eats three hamburgers a week, 16 orders of French fries a month, 25 pounds of candy a year ... and is profoundly uninterested in the World Cup. Soccer, it appears, is the only thing we don't want crammed down our throats. What does this attitude toward the World Cup say about the U.S.? It illuminates many of our least flattering qualities as a nation, not least of which is our breathtaking incuriosity about the rest of the world.
Rushin goes on to argue that Americans are ignorant, and that is why they don't get into World Cup soccer. His evidence is one of those Leno-like man on the street surveys where two-thirds of Americans 18-24 can't find Iraq on a map. Then he argues that stupid Americans should be fans because soccer players are more fit than basketball players and because, I'm not making this up, soccer players, "are probably more frequently concussed than those in the NFL."

Well. Rushin thinks that the lack of World Cup fans is an indication that Americans are not curious about the rest of the world. I see, that must be why we have an extensive college and university system that does non-American studies so well that people from all over the world come to the United States to study the rest of the world. And I'm not just talking about so-called elite schools either--for example, Michigan State has one of the best African studies departments around. But that's 'cause us ignurnt Murricans don't care no how 'bout no rest of the world. Now pass the cheese doodles and put on some NASCAR.

Oh, but we're talking about the common American, not all you college students out there. If the common man, the proletariat, would learn something about soccer they would love it. Funny thing, according to this website, there were over 15 million youth and adult soccer players in the U.S. in 1987. (Incidentally, that number would include me and each and every friend I had back then, boy and girl.) In 2002, the number was over 17.5 million. The only organized sport that is played more in America is basketball. I think a pretty conservative estimate would be that at least 60 million Americans have played organized soccer within the last 20 years. There are about 300 million people in this country right now. I'm not a math guy, but that mean that at least 20 percent of all Americans have played soccer over the last 20 years. At least one in five. Yet many, if not most, of those people grow up to be fans of the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball, but not World Cup soccer, or at least not World Cup soccer like the rest of the world. Must be because they are ignorant about how cool soccer is, because, as Mr. Rushin tells us about ourselves after watching some special soccer highlights he points out in his column, "if you still don't like soccer, you don't like sports. You only think you do."

Which brings us to this year's World Cup, which is now over for the United States. Some of us watched and cheered for our team pretty vigorously. Some of us delayed going into Wrigley Field on Saturday to see the end of the USA - Italy match. Some of us worked from home today to watch the USA - Ghana match. Some of us, I'd wager, know just a little bit more about the rest of the world than Steve Rushin. And some of us, by which I mean me, think that World Cup soccer, as it is currently played by the United States and refereed and run by FIFA, sucks.

First, some of us dumbass Americans would love to know how we are supposed to get excited about a sport in which our team comes out flat in the first game of the biggest sporting event in the world. Then, after the Czechs score the first goal, our team folds like origami (that's Japanese decorative paper folding, which this incurious American learned about in public primary and secondary school). It's bad enough that Sports Illustrated puts Landon Donovan, DeMarcus Beasley, and some other guy on the cover trying to look like tough guys when they combined weigh as much as the quarterback for the Jacksonville Jaguars, but then they completely wuss out in the first game of the tournament.

Second, our brave boys play Italy to a thrilling 1-1 draw after two of our players got tossed from the game for, as best I can tell, sneezing vigorously. We played shorthanded for the last forty minutes, and our guys got very tired. Want to know the best part? We were supposed to be excited about the tie. Oh, and we still hadn't actually scored a goal in the tournament (Italy scored an own-goal).

Third, we get absolutely bailed out by Ghana and Italy both beating the Czechs and Italy beating Ghana, so all we have to do in our third game is beat Ghana and we move on to the next round. Ghana has a couple players out because of yellow cards and they are coming off of a big win against the Czechs and are primed for a letdown. So what do we do? Our captain, Claudio Reyna, gives away the ball in his own end so Ghana can score an easy goal. Then Reyna lays on the field in agony for five minutes before coming back into the game. (To be fair, he had to leave later and he probably jacked his knee up pretty good. More on this issue in a moment.)

At the end of the first half our boys rally and finally actually kick the ball at the white rectangle thingy they call "goals" (see, Rushin, I'm getting the hang of this), and we score a goal. Then the ref promptly turns around and gives Ghana a penalty kick when the only guy (Oguchi Onyewu) on team USA who weighs as much as anyone on my sister's old 15 year old girls softball team slightly bumps a Ghanese player in the penalty box during stoppage time. Ghana goes up 2-1 going into halftime.

So do our boys, knowing they need a win to stay alive in the tournament, come out and launch a furious rally in the second half? Does coach Bruce Arena immediately substitute for offense? Does team USA bring forward its defense, play with reckless abandon, launch shot after shot on the Ghanese goal, grind team Ghana down in an all-out effort to stay alive? No, no, no, no, and no. Our boys lollygagged around the field for the whole second half. Our supposed star in Donovan did nothing, and Arena took no risks.

In the meantime, the players for Ghana delayed all over the field, most often by pretending like they were hurt and rolling around on the field for a total of at least ten minutes of the second half. For those who don't know, the clock never stops running in soccer, but they add time at the end of the game to make up for the thousands of concussions and broken bones that happen in every game. Only there is no rhyme or reason to the stoppage time system. This is what we Americans like to call "stupid." And the stupidity is only compounded by the fact that we have to watch a guy who isn't really injured roll around on the ground and act like he stuck his leg in a meat grinder so that four guys who should be wearing clown costumes come out with a stretcher to carry him off the field so that the player, meat grinder leg and all, comes sprinting onto the field a few minutes later. (For reference, Chris Spielman swore he would retire if he ever had to be helped off of a football field. And he did.) Of course none of this is punished by the refs or soccer, so the game comes to a virtual halt and at the end of an exciting 45 minutes of action the score remains 2-1. And we're gone.

So here's the deal: we get screwed by the refs in the World Cup, we have to watch foreign players try out for the theater every time they get touched, and we are represented by a team that scored one goal in three games and is most proud of the fact that they got one draw in the tournament.

Yeah, that's it, Americans are ignorant. That's why we don't get into World Cup soccer.


greg said...

Tom, you are absolutely right-on about Rushin. He is the token sensitive-guy for Sports Illustrated and he's terrible. I am really sick of hearing how Americans don't like/understand/care about soccer. TO be honest, I DO think it's boring. That's why I quit playing. BUT, as you point out, that Americans are ignorant of the World Cup is a trendy argument that, like most trendy arguments, holds absolutely no validity. I've been coaching a basketball camp (because Americans like basketball better than soccer) and I'd say 75% of the kids, ages 7-14, knew about the match today and were awaiting updates as I and my assistants ran back and forth from the computer to the gym.

There's nothing wrong with soccer (except all the fake injuries. My god, get off the grass and quit holding your knee you panty-waist!), there's nothing wrong with Americans liking soccer, there's nothing wrong with Americans not liking soccer and there's nothing wrong with Americans liking other, American-made sports better. And there's no friggin' way that pasty white, pudgy Steve Rushin can authoritatively say that soccer athletes are in better shape than basketball or football players.

Dane said...

I'm not a soccer fan. I hate to run. I played soccer when I was a kid, and hated it. (Ignorant American here.) But, I did play baseball...and was good at it as well. "Best Little Leagure Catcher in California".etc.

Anyway, I turned on the game today, and we were down 1-0. I figured, I might as well watch the match. I started to get into it, because we scored a good goal. (I did stand up in my apartment yelling GOL!!!!!!!)

I then went on watching, and seeing each Ghana player fall down in agony when a slight breeze fall across their face.

I sat, as they scored their second goal in disbelief, because he guy was brushed against. (Although, I saw 3 Ghana played push out boys down.)

Meh, doesn't matter. I still know America is better than anyone else.

By the way: I'm a HUGE fan of F1,WRC (World Rally Championship), and Enduro(Le Mans) racing. But then again, I'm a ignorant American...and I hate NASCAR.

Paul said...

i'm trying to think of what it is that sportswriters produce for society...oh yeah, nothing.

dcat said...

Here is my view -- I have loved this World Cup largely because I have been abroad (anyone want to place a bet that my fart molecules know more about the rest of the world than Steve Rushin?) this whole time and have been swept up in it. And because while first and foremost I wanted the US to do well, in soccer I have several loyalties -- I know what it means for an African team to do well, I appreciate the beauty and style of Brtazilian play, i want England to be in the final game while I am there, etc.
But I think Tom identifies several problems and fallacious arguments. The fact is, there are more soccer fans in the US than there are soccer fans in most places. But soccer is not high on our list. That's fine. I'd like to see Americans be a bit less haughty about our sports, because some of them are not played elsewhere (is it really necessary to call our Super Bowl winner the World Champions?) and I think it is great that soccer is popular elsewhere. It's not a zero-sum game. Soccer is not a lesser game because it is not our priority -- so why id everyone so sensitive about our not caring, especially when I can only imagine the handwringing when we do win it all someday.
there are at least three problems with the injury acting -- it ruins the flow of good games and makes bad ones intolerable. It makes even rational people dismiss soccer out of hand -- there are collisions, it can be rough, etc.; and as important, it means that no one takes real injuries seriously. Guys do get hurt -- but we always assume that guys are just being wussies. That's what i thought, for example, the other night when Ronoldo went down writhing, but a close up later revealed that he had taken some nasty cleating. Still, we all remember the boy who cried wolf . . .
I'm going to write a bit more of this game over at dcat, but I would surmise that part of Tom's argument implies that if so many people would stop telling us how ignorant we are and how much we don't care about soccer they would discover that we just don't care as much and it is not borne of ignorance. And that's ok. Nor is the US alone -- despite the success of the socceroos, Austrlaia's sports hierarchy places soccer well down on the list; Pakistanis and Indians and Sri Lankans much prefer cricket. The Chinese are coming to like basketball as much as soccer. isn't this sort of diversity a good thing?


greg said...

Derek, you're right on, except that I think it's safe to assume that the winners of the World Series, Super Bowl and NBA Championship are the best in the world. Furthermore, those championships were coined in a time when the participants were, literally, the only football/baseball/basketball players in the world. And I know, I know, our baseball team lost in the Olympics, our basketball team has lost in the olympics and our we lost the "World Baseball Classic". Big whoop. Give me a team of our professional athletes that train, practice and play together for months or even years that is at the height of their prowess, and they won't be beaten.

dcat said...

Greg --
I dunno. I'm not convinced that an American team would always beat a Dominican team in baseball. I also believe that we have the best basketball players in the world, but at some point it cannot be about what we feel about our teams -- they keep losing on international stages. As for football, no one else plays it. Even the Canadians don't play the same version. It really is silly for the Super Bowl champions to crown themselves with a world title.

A case can be made for Australia as the greatest sporting nation on earth, certainly per capita. They are among the top three in the world at cricket and rugby, the latter being especially impressive given that they also have Aussie rules foiotball, their soccer team is in the knockout stages of the world cup, and in the Olympics they certainly doninate when population is taken into account.

Meanwhile John Tierney seems to side with Tom as well in today's Times, though it is behind their noxious firewall.



jc said...

"It really is silly for the Super Bowl champions to crown themselves with a world title."

Show me another team anywhere in the world that can beat the Super Bowl champs of any given year and I will concede your point (as I do for every other sport BUT American Football)...

Sort of like how the, say, US military is the best in the world, even though other countries have individuals, squadrons, regiments or whatever that are as good, if not better, than the equivalent one from the US...

The NFL is unique.

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