Every once in a while, particularly when there is more attention in the U.S. on soccer, someone will write a diatribe describing their disdain for the sport. I think it is usually best just to ignore such things, rather than get sucked in and give them what they want (hits on the article). That was my initial reaction to Ann Coulter’s recent column about soccer and moral decay in the United States. But sometimes it is worthwhile to engage such things head-on. Since Coulter's problem is not just with soccer as a sport but its ethical implications and what this might mean for our nation, I’ve decided to go ahead and offer a reply.
First, I am a passionate fan, supporter, coach, and recreational player of the beautiful game. I love the sport, and I love what the sport often stands for. Soccer has its problems, like all sports, but they aren’t what Coulter thinks they are.
There are bad things connected with soccer, including racism, diving, faking injuries, gender inequality, and even biting. All sports have some moral shortcomings connected to them: the NFL has concussions, faking injuries, performance-enhancing drugs, and player exploitation, baseball has harmful performance-enhancers, and the NBA had a flopping problem before recently cracking down on it. All sports have issues with self-promotion, egoism, and valuing the money and fame connected with athletic success rather than the intrinsic goods of the sports themselves. These goods include virtue, unity, and the pursuit and display of excellence. The problems arise because humans are the participants, but this is also what leads to the many good things found in sport.
Coulter's Silly Claims about Soccer
First, it is clear to anyone who knows much about soccer that Coulter doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I won’t cover all of the claims she makes (for example, I’ll ignore her strange comments about girls competing against boys), but I have singled out several misguided ones from her essay:
- “Individual achievement is not a big factor in soccer…there are no heroes, no losers.”
This is so out of touch with the reality of the sport, it is hard to know what to say that isn’t glaringly obvious. But Julio Cesar stands as a hero today for many Brazilians, while Hulk was very nearly a loser after his giveaway led to Chile’s goal. And if individual achievement is not a big factor in soccer, what are we to make of historical greats like Pele, Maradona, Zidane, Henry, Bergkamp, and Ronaldo, to name a few, as well as current stars Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi, Neuer, Iniesta, Van Persie, Robben, and many more. No losers? Tell that to players, who know that individual mistakes in a big game can haunt a player for the rest of his life. Or tell that to Spain's entire national team, after their performance at this World Cup.
- “No other ‘sport’ ends in as many scoreless ties as soccer.”
Maybe this is true, but so what? A tie can more accurately reflect what each team deserves, given their equal performance on any given day. And they get a point in the standings for this, which makes perfect sense. Moreover, part of the beauty, tension, and joy of soccer has to do with the difficulty of scoring a goal, and with the resulting joy when one is scored. If goals were easy to get, there would be less elation when they occur. I’ve been a fan of many sports over my lifetime, but nothing is as fun as when your team scores a goal on the soccer field.
- “The prospect of either personal humiliation or major injury is required to count as a sport.”
This is false, but nevertheless soccer has plenty of both. On the humiliation front, there are plenty of examples, such as Iker Casillas, Barbosa, and many others. As a side note, I don’t think “humiliation” is an appropriate term here, insofar as when a player and team give their best they may be disappointed, gutted, perhaps even embarrassed, but humiliation only comes into play when you do something deeply wrong, like biting someone or attributing your handled goal to “the hand of God.” What about her “no major injury” claim? Aaron Ramsey might be surprised to learn that when his leg was shattered by Ryan Shawcross in 2010 this was not a major injury, as would Eduardo and many others who have had serious injuries, including broken bones, shredded hamstrings, and concussions.
- “You can't use your hands in soccer.”
This is one statement made by Coulter that is nearly true, as goalkeepers can use their hands. No field players can, but what is supposed to be wrong with this? The point of a sport is to set up rules which present a challenge and force participants to develop a certain set of skills. On Coulter’s logic, we should allow kicking in basketball, or not require them to dribble since it would be easier and faster to just run down the court with the ball. And while we are at it, why is the rim 10 feet high? It should be around 6 feet to make it easier to score, right?
- “Soccer is not ‘catching on’.”
Well, this is true. In many ways, it isn’t catching on, it has already caught on. In fact, MLS, the U.S. league, which is not yet at the world-elite level, nevertheless has a larger average attendance per game than both the NHL and the NBA. An excellent example of how soccer can explode in a community can be seen by the re-branding and surge of support for Sporting Kansas City over the past few years.
Soccer and Moral Progress
As I mentioned above, soccer has its problems. But there is much to be said for connections between the sport and moral improvement. For example, many of the unwritten rules of the game exhibit great sportsmanship and character. When an opponent is seriously injured it is customary to put the ball out of play so he or she can get treatment, and then the ball is returned to the team who had possession.
This is a custom even at the game’s highest levels. In a 1999 Football Association Cup match between Arsenal and Sheffield, a Sheffield player went down with an injury and his goalkeeper intentionally kicked the ball out of bounds. Customarily, Arsenal would put the ball back in play to Sheffield, and the match would resume. In this instance, however, a newly acquired player from Nigeria who was perhaps unaware of this unwritten rule took the throw-in and passed it to a teammate who shot and scored. Members of both teams were upset, and after the game ended with a 2-1 victory for Arsenal, manager Arsène Wenger declined the victory and chose to replay the match, saying “It wasn’t right to win that way.”
Soccer can be a display of unity amidst diversity. A club team can be made up of players from France, Germany, England, Ivory Coast, and Brazil. When a group of players from different places, cultures, and religions work together for the common good of the team, they display not only athletic excellence but moral excellence as well. Soccer is a global game, and this is part of its attraction. As Wenger puts it,
“Overall I believe sport has a big responsibility in our society - it can be a model in advance of social development of the society because it can show solidarity and bring people from different cultures together."
Soccer gives athletes the opportunity to develop and display moral excellence as well. While a player can and sometimes should go for individual glory and help her team win in that way, a player can also forego what is in her narrow self-interest for the sake of the team. For example, she can pass the ball to a teammate who is in a much better position to score rather than taking a more difficult shot herself in a self-centered quest for individual glory.
If you watch or participate in soccer for very long, you will witness creativity, compassion, courage, skill, intellect, drive, excitement, joy, and discipline. These are not only American values, they are human values, and perhaps this explains why football is already the world’s sport, and may yet one day eclipse all other sports in the United States.
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For thoughtful writing on sport, see the soon to be launched online journal, The Allrounder.