An Homage to Football by Steve Davis
One of the recurring themes of our effort as New Social Democrats is the insistence upon improving our country by stealing ideas pioneered and consolidated by our counterparts in Europe. This strategy extends to the world of sports, where it is increasingly clear to me that European football is far superior to the misleadingly named American variety. The preceding sentence is utter blasphemy to those who loutishly celebrate America First and American Exceptionalism. All the better reason to make this case.
A personal confession---I have loved our football since boyhood and have never kicked a soccer ball in my life. When I was growing up in Houston’s East End, fellow neighborhood urchins and I commandeered two adjacent vacant lots where we filled the hours with either improvised baseball or tackle football depending upon the season. One indelible memory is coming home from our field one chilly November Sunday in 1963 and getting the news from the adults that President Kennedy’s assassin had just been shot on live TV. NFL games were played that same Sunday upon the insistence of Commissioner Pete Rozelle as an ill-considered gesture toward maintaining some semblance of national normality in the aftermath of the Dallas horror. It is only in recent years that I’ve tried to appreciate the true “foot” ball that is understandably the world’s most popular sport. Here are some of the game’s most appealing features to me:
1) It’s difficult to score. The paucity of goals is historically one of the biggest turnoffs to Americans who thus conclude that soccer is boring. Fans in this country want action in the form of runs or points scored or knockouts in championship fights. We are shaped by a consumer capitalist culture that demands instant gratification. Football is an antidote as it teaches patience. My Peruvian colleague, Miguel Cáceres, taught me how important it is to watch a match in its entirety. Teams or sides often start slowly with the pace picking up in the second half. You have to view the whole game to appreciate its rhythm, its development. And then when a breakthrough occurs and a goal is scored, the effect is practically seismic!
2) Matches can end up tied. This is another affront to capitalism in that our system demands winners and losers. But in sports as in life, sometimes no one wins and there are occasions when a draw feels like victory. This past weekend in the Euro 2021 tournament, Scotland and England played to a 0-0 conclusion in London’s historic Wembley Stadium. The Scottish players and fans though seemed elated at the result against a favored rival. And I will never forget the incredible drama of the scoreless tie between Mexico and Brazil in the 2014 World Cup. I watched at an eatery filled with Brazilian fans wearing yellow and green fright wigs and creating the most incredible cacophony banging on drums. Mexican goalie, Memo Ochoa, deflated the crowd by making one brilliant save after another. It was unbelievably exciting! I also experienced multiple occasions as our college club baseball coach (we didn’t play extra innings) when a tie was more than acceptable.
3) Severe penalties are meaningful. In football, a player who is red carded for an outrageously dangerous or unsportsmanlike play is ejected and made to leave the field in ignominy. Not only that, but his team then plays the rest of the game short-handed. Imagine the effect in the NFL or in college football if an egregious foul meant that the offender’s team had to continue with just ten. This would be a far greater incentive to play cleanly than a fifteen-yard penalty.
4) Lousy teams are relegated to a lower division. I really like the fact that the two or three bottom teams in European leagues each year move down a rank to the next league and are replaced by that league’s top finishers. The Netflix series “Sunderland ‘Til I Die” documents the anguish of an English industrial city (one of the birthplaces of Brexit) whose team was relegated twice, disgracefully tumbling from the Premier League to the third-tier League One. This is one area in which American pro sports are truly rigged, providing incentives for teams to tank by purposefully losing to save money or get higher draft picks. Imagine if the price of that sleazy behavior or of simple organizational incompetence were relegation of a franchise to the minors. The Houston Astros embarrassed the city with three-straight hundred loss seasons from 2011-2013 as part of a conscious strategy to strip and rebuild the squad for future winning seasons. Was it worth it? The question becomes even more relevant given our knowledge of how the team cheated to win the 2017 World Series. Perhaps a couple of seasons in the minors would have been a more just outcome and would have kept management from even thinking about fielding such a pathetic lineup those three campaigns.
5) Games are short. As I write, Denmark and Russia will meet in the Euro tournament at 2 p.m. With two non-stop 45-minute halves, a few minutes of stoppage time, and a 15-minute intermission, the match will take less than two hours. A typical NFL game lasts over three hours and some college games that feature a lot of passing and scoring can last four. Baseball has become a joke in this respect with even a pitcher’s duel often requiring three hours. Life is too short to sit in the stands or in front of a screen through the constant time-outs, commercial breaks, replay decisions, and other ridiculous interruptions.
6) Soccer is safer. Let’s be blunt: American football causes brain damage. The evidence is now undeniable that the frequency of concussive and sub-concussive hits to the head that are integral to the sport impairs players and shortens their lives. The inherent physicality and violence that made football the national favorite by the late 1960s are the seeds of its eventual demise as more and more parents will reconsider ever introducing their boys to participation. As athletes have become bigger, stronger, and faster over the decades, the physical risks of football have only increased. I know that players get hurt in soccer, that heading the ball is medically problematic, and that inadvertent head bumps can cause concussions. But there is no comparison with the life-altering injuries suffered in our own football.
These are excellent reasons to prefer European-style football. If I preach with the zeal of the recent convert, please excuse. I’m enjoying Euro 2021 and pulling for some of my favorite national teams to prevail—Portugal, Spain, France, among others. As my London friend, Eric Lee, commented the other day, it’s inspiring to see a small country defeat a much bigger one as when Wales surprised Turkey. And it’s especially gratifying when a social democratic nation takes down an autocratic giant. With that in mind, it’s time to turn on the tube to Denmark vs. Russia. I can think of no better diversion on a summer Monday.
June 21, 2021
P.S. Denmark beat Russia 4-1, earning a place in the tournament’s knockout round