Soccer, and Hell Freezing Over
A couple of weeks ago, my undergraduate seminar engaged in a discussion of Michael Allen Gillespie’s excellent essay “Players and Spectators: Sports and Ethical Training in the American University”. As we discussed the issue of how ethical norms develop, the question arose of how spectators in different countries latch on to one form of football or another — rugby in New Zealand, soccer in Spain, our football here in the states. Joining us for the day was Emeritus Professor Bobby McCormick, who took a strong stand that soccer in the states was doomed to irrelevance. “Hell would freeze over”, he said, before soccer became anything more than a fringe spectator sport in the U.S. He could not be moved on the issue, neither by me nor a group of articulate students, including a member of Clemson’s soccer team.*
Like my students, I think Bobby is wrong. I’ve made the argument before, and still believe that the power of the media, combined with youth participation in the sport, will ultimately cause soccer to become widely followed in the U.S. There will be a tipping point, and so my antennae are tuned to signs that we may be approaching it. The first of a number of current indicators comes from right under Bobby’s nose. In the last two weeks his very own son has sat through two televised Arsenal matches, on my couch with several of his friends! This is new.**
The second comes from ESPN, the media sports behemoth widely believed to hype its own product just a bit on Sports Center. Last night’s top ten plays went against the hype grain, including two video clips from Inter Milan’s 1-0 victory over Barcelona in the Champions League Semifinal (the telecast was on Fox, not ESPN). The two were relatively meaningless plays at that: a save by the Inter goalkeeper in the first half, an ordinary and futile goal by Barcelona late in the second.
Third, promoters in the U.S. are now either crazy or prescient enough to arrange a pre-season version of the “Old Firm Derby” between Celtic and Rangers at Fenway Park in Boston. The Boston Globe ran a story yesterday that referenced crowd trouble at Rangers games, apparently with unintentional blame bestowed on Rangers for the 1971 Ibrox disaster, and a bit of ill-advised favoritism towards Celtic. The “furious response” from Rangers fans was enough for the Globe to delete the article from its website, and post an apology from the author. (For the curious, here’s google’s cache of the original story. Some quotes from it can be found in this article about the reaction.)
Finally, I can’t mention the media and last night’s semifinal without having a go at the media maestro extraordinaire, Inter coach Jose Mourinho. Noone marshalls the media for his own purposes like Mourinho. Crazy and fury are words that come to mind, but don’t quite capture his wild yet surely calculated celebration after knocking out Barcelona. Mourinho has a habit of taunting his opponents with soulless chutzpah before the match, and gloating like a demon after beating them with dour, defensive football. But yesterday’s celebration was a sight to behold. Amy Lawrence writes that “Mourinho scampered across the sacred turf of Camp Nou, then struck a pose, a gesture of rampant defiance, aimed at the pocket of Inter fans up in the gods.” That’s about right, except that the show’s true target was the 80,000 plus Barcelona fans in attendance, and the millions watching on TV. Mourinho is a win-at-all-costs manager, and I fully recognize his brilliance in winning big games. But this returns me to Gillespie’s essay on ethics and spectator sport. That I despise Mourinho’s antics and appreciate Gillespie’s view on ethics are one and the same.
*Revealed preference suggests that Professor McCormick takes strong stands for the purpose of stimulating vigorous discussion.
**I’d be interested to know what’s going on in sports bars these days. The transition from isolated fans into numerous small clusters will presage the tipping point.