Why soccer will never come home to the U.S.

Assessing soccer's future means re-evaluating the relationship between America and the American athlete

Published July 14, 2014 8:31PM (EDT)

FIFA Brazil is in the books. And the barrage of post-tournament analysis is upon us. Among the countless points discussed about this year’s World Cup — who impressed, who disappointed, the historic performance by America’s brilliant goalkeeper, Brazil’s embarrassing semifinal match against Germany and the condition of their superstar Neymar, the systematic mass eviction of poor Brazilians from the favelas (and the amazing reporting of the Nation’s Dave Zirin’s in "Brazil’s Dance With the Devil: The World Cup, The Olympics, and the Fight For Democracy"), Germany’s suspenseful 1-0 overtime victory over Argentina in Sunday’s championship, and how effective or ineffective FIFA's efforts were to rid the games of racism — perhaps the most important looming question is whether this particular quadrennial tournament finally converted America into a nation of soccer fans.

In many cases, analysts have already begun dissecting the different dimensions of this question. After the captivating journey of the U.S. Men’s National Team, a squad who managed to, in dramatic fashion, advance through the infamous “group of death” and into the knockout round of 16 (only to narrowly fall short to the star-studded Belgium national squad), speculation about soccer’s future on U.S. soil soared. In the New Republic, Franklin Foer wrote that it feels “like the game has passed an important threshold,” expanding beyond its traditional niche audience. According to Foer, “The game has traveled much further and faster into the mainstream that I imagined — and it’s exhilarating.” Others, like the Los Angeles Lakers Hall-of-Fame center, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, soon followed suit, weighing in to the contrary. In a Time essay, the basketball great wrote that American culture — our penchant for “rugged individualism,” ordinary heroes, and our need to be rewarded for extraordinary effort — will inevitably prove too great a hindrance for soccer to assimilate to the mainstream. “Soccer doesn’t fully express the American ethos as powerfully as our other popular sports,” Abdul-Jabbar argued. “Once the World Cup is over, soccer in the U.S. will return to its sick bed and dream of glory.”

Foer and Abdul-Jabbar chart two separate paths for the future of soccer in America, both contrasting soccer’s DNA to America’s. But it’s worth noting that this is only one factor that will determine soccer’s future success in the states. Equally important: the Major League Soccer’s (MLS) profitability, youth development and investment at the amateur level, corporate sponsorship and broadcasting contracts, among other things. Each is significant in their own right. But another layer exists, and it goes much deeper than numbers, money and how boring or exciting a (0-0) draw can be. Beyond how much support soccer gets from American markets and its compatibility with, to borrow from Abdul-Jabbar, the American ethos, assessing soccer's future requires reevaluating the relationship between mainstream America and the mainstream American athlete.

Every four years, the World Cup masterfully demonstrates the fundamental differences between how America and the world respectively treat their athletes. Other countries tend to revere the individual identities of their players. The larger world embraces the modern soccer athlete’s swag — and, of course, his skill. Personality and pizzazz is what the fans cheer. Take for instance, the enthralling goal celebration by Ghana against Germany in group play. The dance made international news and generated positive responses from writers everywhere (even in the American media). Not to be outdone, the Colombian national team, following a goal by Pablo Armero against Greece, performed the “shout” scene from the film “Animal House,” a well-orchestrated flash dance that enthralled fans both at the stadium and in their living rooms. Then there was Costa Rica’s Joel Campbell, who in a surprise move decided to dedicate his goal against Uruguay to his pregnant girlfriend by stuffing the ball under his jersey, acting as if he was with child. Following his display of affection, my colleague Katie McDonough tweeted her elation, posting “Costa Rica soccer guy scored a goal and put the ball in his shirt so it looked like he was pregnant and he's so happy and now I love soccer … And now everyone is hugging.” Viewers can’t get enough of such emotion, joy, and passion.

Sadly, in American sports, the opposite is often true. As the New York Times noted, there are stark differences between sports culture internationally and domestically, so much so that, “All this naked passion can feel like a refreshing change of pace from the staid culture of sports in the United States, where a common mantra is ‘Act like you’ve done it before.” Accordingly, “There is little leeway in most American sports” for athletes to ditch their filter. This is particularly true in sports dominated by African-American athletes such as basketball and football. Just last January, Seattle Seahawks all-pro cornerback, Richard Sherman, made national news for his momentary outburst following his game-saving play in the NFC Championship game. He was publicly castigated and bullied, and called a thug and other racial slurs. Likewise, the San Antonio Spurs’ forward, Tim Duncan, arguably the league's most stoic player, was ejected simply for smiling. Whereas American athletes are condemned for showing emotion, soccer athletes are greeted with adulation.

In 2009, ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary series chronicled this phenomenon in the Billy Corbin-directed film “The U,” a historiography of the 1980s University of Miami football team. The film illustrates how the program led a cultural revolution, bringing inner-city “street values” and braggadocio onto the football field. Miami’s idiosyncratic identity, coupled with its close ties to the burgeoning hip-hop sound in the city, challenged the attitudes of what was still a predominantly white institution, college football. The Canes danced and shit-talked. They boisterously taunted and intimidated their opponents. Their celebrations were jaunty and provocative. And their victories were plentiful.

In an eight-year span, they amassed four national titles, much to the chagrin of the NCAA and the media establishment. As a result, the film shows, the team was lambasted, and their identity subjected to public scorn. Sports Illustrated’s Sally Jenkins, in a 1992 piece entitled “A Helping Of Family Values,” denounced the team for their “penchant for arrogance.” In an open letter to University of Miami President Edward T. (Tad) Foote, Alexander Wolff said it was “clear that the Miami football program has become a disease, a cancer that is steadily devouring [the] institution.” Others chided Miami, affectionately dubbing the university “thug-U.”

The rebuke of the Miami players didn’t stop in the press. Following the 1990 season, the NCAA, who describe their mission as maintaining “Sportsmanship [as] a core value,” rewrote its rules of player conduct to crack down on “unsportsmanlike” antics. The video was then circulated to teams by their athletic directors and coaches to familiarize themselves with the banned behaviors.

Of course, the NCAA wasn't the only league working to make itself more respectable. Former NBA league commissioner David Stern was simultaneously building a basketball empire by smoothing out many of professional basketball’s rough edges. In the twilight of Michael Jordan’s reign as “His Airness,” new waves of talent started surfacing around the league from more beleaguered, impoverished sections of the country. In the mid-1990s, the NBA experienced a mass influx of inner-city kids matriculating into the professional ranks. And while the NBA had certainly seen black players from high-crime areas — i.e. Bill Russell, who hails from West Oakland, California — this new talent pool brought with it fresh attitudes and disparate styles, many of which were in conflict with the image of the league Commissioner Stern had envisioned.

Allen Iverson, the number one lottery pick by the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1996 NBA Draft, led this charge. Much as the University of Miami’s football program had closed the distance between the sporting world and what was happening in the street — the rise of hip-hop and the crack epidemic — Iverson became a similar bridge, transforming the league with his unapologetically candid nature and uncompromising personal bravado. His signature cornrows, platinum chains and tattoos represented the antithesis of the league’s "respectability" politics. Iverson’s creativity and confidence on the court, as well as the negativity that surrounded his travails off the court, threatened the pristine image of Stern’s NBA. As a result, the commissioner implemented a series of regulatory changes to try to change the league’s reputation. Among these changes was putting an end to “palming,” in which the hand allegedly rests completely (or partially) underneath the ball and scoops it while dribbling. Known as the “Iverson rule,” palming was intended to remedy the offensive player’s “unfair advantage” over helpless defenders. The rule effectively banned Iverson's iteration of the crossover dribble, a move that he made popular on the playground. Additionally, Stern instituted a strict dress code as a part of the player conduct guidelines, which had the effect of targeting certain players, Iverson among them, who wore hip-hop clothing (chains, du rags, etc.). Essentially, the dress code became a league-wide sanction against hip-hop culture — that is, "street" culture.

Similarly, the National Football league has undertaken numerous steps to criminalize the behaviors of its athletes. Next season, league commissioner Roger Goodell and the league’s rule makers are expected to implement a ban on the n-word during games. In years past, the NFL has undertaken other actions to clean up “unsportsmanlike” player conduct on the field, cracking down on everything from “excessive celebrations” like the New York Giants Victor Cruz’s salsa dance (which he does to honor his deceased grandmother) to its recent ban on dunking a football over the goal post (which the New Orleans Saints’ wide receiver Jimmy Graham has made his hallmark). All three have systematically undertaken efforts to effectively criminalize the identity and the culture of its athletes. But why is this the case?

In his book, "The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America," Khalil Gibran Muhammad explains how incrimination of black culture and the criminalization of racial identity came to fruition. His research examines a number of primary sources such as U.S. Census data and the works of social scientists to connect racist ideology of the past to American public policy — i.e. mass incarceration — today. Muhammad diligently unpacks the biases of academics who write about race and the faulty narratives they promulgate.

Though his work is primarily focused on public policy, Muhammad’s conclusions have broad applicability into other elements of American culture, especially sports. Consider, for a moment, the differences in acceptable norms of behavior in non-black-dominated American sports, like hockey and baseball. Unsportsmanlike antics are ubiquitous in both, from baseball managers protesting a play to fights in hockey. Yet touchdown celebrations and crossover dribbles are puzzlingly considered threatening to the image of the League, so much so that they were written out of the game.

Meanwhile, soccer culture generally accepts the disparate backgrounds and identities of its respective athletes. Of course, this is not to paint the international soccer community as any kind of paradigm for racial relations; racism has long been in a problem in the soccer world, too. But in soccer, at least, racism isn't explicitly written into the rulebook.

In a sense, this is what makes the culture of soccer so hypnotic to the world. And it is this unrequited acceptance of human individuality that comes with it that captured American hearts during the tournament. The infectious human spirit of the World Cup, like league play in Europe and elsewhere, brought America closer to recognizing the possibility of soccer becoming mainstream than ever before.

Ironically, no such acceptance exists uniformly across all mainstream American sports. The relationship between America and American athletes is antithetical to what happens on the world stage. Which is to say that Americans too frequently, consciously and subconsciously, retreat to their own preconceptions and biases, focusing on other things beside the sport itself. In this respect, America’s DNA does, in fact, seem incompatible with soccer’s.

Ultimately, soccer’s successful assimilation is contingent on reconciling these fundamental differences, which may require a little genetic extraction on the part of Americans. For soccer to turn the corner we must be willing to lose a little piece of who we are. We can hope and dream for the sport to go mainstream. But until America is remade in soccer’s image, the world’s favorite sport will never come home.

By Ian Blair

Ian Blair is a writer living in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @i2theb.


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