Comments and observations on social and political trends and events.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Soccer: The Liberal Sport?

During the recent World Cup Bernie Goldberg published an article Why Liberals Like Soccer More Than Conservatives that repeats the two usual arguments I've heard. One, that soccer is boring because there isn't enough scoring. And, that soccer appeals to liberals because it shows that America isn't as exceptional as some would like to think. To support this he quotes Peter Beinart, a "liberal journalist and professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York" who says that people who like soccer typify "a more cosmopolitan temperament, more of a recognition that America has things to learn from the rest of the world, and in fact maybe we have to learn from the rest of the world if we're going to remain a successful country."

While Goldberg probably is right that liberals tend to like soccer more than conservatives I think he is painting with a brush that is far too wide. He seems to be saying "I don't like something simply because liberals do!" Now that's being objective!

Speaking as more of a libertarian I think there are reasons for liking soccer that can appeal to conservatives too. 

1. In soccer players are free to decide how they're going to play the ball and with their teammates. They have more freedom than some American sports like football and basketball which is heavily controlled and scripted by the coach. 

2. To play well soccer a player needs to have both a high level of skill and tactical awareness since they're literally thinking on their feet with no football or basketball time outs or breaks like innings in baseball.

3. The sport doesn't favor one body type. There have been short soccer stars and tall ones. Some are exceptionally fast while others make up for lack of speed with the ability to fake a defender with their moves. While you could argue that this supports egalitarianism it doesn't mean soccer pushes for equality of results but for equality of opportunity to excel. 

4. Because scoring is very difficult in soccer each goal holds more value. With the offside law scoring requires a highly coordinated, skillful attack that can use powerful shots or delicately placed ones. 

5. If soccer was anti-individualist why are some of its stars such as Beckham, Messi or Ronaldo known around the world and command salaries in the tens of millions of dollars?

John Tierney's article, Soccer, a Beautiful Game of Chance, in the NYT, points out that Major League Baseball and the National Football League, the two primary American sports, have the egalitarianism of equality of outcome inherent in their organizational design. By that he means that both leagues have salary caps to even out the haves from the have nots and that the player drafts in both leagues favor the teams which didn't do well in the previous season. Sounds an awful like Marx's "from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs," doesn't it? 

Meanwhile soccer teams in Europe compete to secure the best star players by outbidding each other. And there are no salary caps. In the premier leagues of England and European teams that fall to the bottom of the standings can be relegated to the next lower division while teams that fight their way to the top of the next lower league can be promoted. Being relegated or promoted has huge impact on the finances of the team and the club owing it! Isn't that an example of fierce competition? Where does relegation/promotion happen in America?

The overall story about soccer is much more complicated than Goldberg admits. If soccer really did appeal only to liberals and folks in socialist countries why is it big in relatively free countries such as Canada, Switzerland and Australia as well as socialized countries such as France, Sweden and Italy?

My point is that Goldberg and others like him (such as Ann Coulter) latch onto one point about this sport to further their political agenda without acknowledging there could be other, valid reasons for liking soccer. (Just as Beinart makes the same mistake from the left side.) They grossly oversimplify soccer in the overpowering desire of scoring an easy point (so to speak) by taking an easy but misguided shot.