In the early 1970s, it was fairly common for commentators to introduce hack leftist political analysis into discussions about sports. Then, we grew up and this sort of chatter faded from mainstream discourse.
Apparently, though, it is still popular in left-wing precincts. The leading practitioner seems to be Dave Zirin.
Zirin has written a piece for NPR and The Nation about the World Cup, which serves mostly to remind us of how much a political agenda detracts from serious consideration of sports. Zirin’s article is called “Why the Far Right Hates Soccer.” He considers only two possibilities: racism and our national team’s lack of success at the World Cup. Why does he limit his analysis to these options? Because they best fit a left-wing narrative. Such circularity is the hallmark of this genre.
In Zirin’s case, he fails even to present meaningful evidence to support his premise that the far right hates soccer. He points to negative comments about the sport from two individuals — Glenn Beck and J. Gordon Liddy. Beck is certainly an influential figure, and Liddy may be too. But there’s no reason to suppose that they speak for “the far right” on the merits of various sports.
Nor does Beck’s statement about soccer, as quoted by Zirin, provide any basis for the view that racism, or perhaps America’s lack of success, explains his aversion to the sport. Here is what Beck said:
It doesn’t matter how you try to sell it to us. It doesn’t matter how many celebrities you get, it doesn’t matter how many bars open early, it doesn’t matter how many beer commercials they run, we don’t want the World Cup, we don’t like the World Cup, we don’t like soccer, we want nothing to do with it.
Here is Zirin’s absurd translation of Beck’s statement:
I know a lot of folks who can’t stand soccer. It’s simply a matter of taste. But for Beck it’s a lot more than, “Gee. It’s kind of boring.” Instead it’s, “Look out whitey! Felipe Melo [a central midfielder for Brazil who is “of color”] is gonna get your mama!”
The left isn’t known for the rigor of its analysis and neither is your average sports writer. Still, even a marriage of the two should produce something less idiotic than this.
It’s normal for people in any nation to favor the traditional sports of their country. In Europe, neither baseball nor football has caught on. Basketball has (as soccer has here), but still lags far behind soccer in most European countries. Nor are we the only nation in which soccer has failed to make a huge mark. It’s not particularly popular in Canada or in Cuba. Surely, this isn’t because of racism or right-wing chauvinism.
There may, however, be a political dimension to the way in which some American conservatives express their dislike of soccer. Indeed, if Zirin were a serious writer, he would have picked it up in Beck’s comment and that of Liddy, who speaks of “American exceptionalism.” Conservatives are far less likely than liberals to appreciate being told they should take interest in a sport that doesn’t much interest them. And to make matters worse, for years a big part of the pitch for soccer in this country has been that it’s “the world’s game.” The idea seems to have been to “guilt” us into taking soccer seriously through references to world opinion. That’s not exactly what the right wants to hear.
But I doubt that people dislike soccer because of the obnoxiousness of the way it’s pitched. More likely, the underlying negatively (or embrace) is based on the merits, assessed as a matter of taste. In any event, unhappiness with the perceived over-hyping of a sport has nothing to do with racism or being a poor loser.
I’ve found that the best way to think about the World Cup is as a sporting event, not a political phenomenon. And the best way to enjoy the World Cup is not to worry about who else likes it and why or why not. My only hope in this regard is a selfish one. I want enough interest to keep the matches on the television screens at bars, but not so much interest that I can’t get a seat.
JOHN adds: The “why conservatives hate soccer” theme is one of the dumbest extant. Speaking as a proud member of the “far right,” I have close to zero interest in soccer, but I’d a million times rather watch a soccer match than a NASCAR race. Actually, you’d have to tie me to a chair to get me to watch an automobile race. All of that is a matter of taste and experience that has zero to do with politics. In fact, one of the great things about sports is that it transcends politics. You may not be able to talk politics with your in-laws, say, but you can always talk about the Twins. So the less we drag politics into sports, the better.