Monday, June 30, 2014

What's the Deal With Soccer?

 I'm not a big fan of soccer. I don't dislike it, mind you; I just never have been passionate about it. Like most Americans, my tastes run more to baseball and football. A big part of it is personal involvement: I never played organized soccer, but I did play baseball and I went to lots of football games as a member of my high school and college marching bands, so there is some emotional attachment involved. For me, soccer just doesn't have that.

 What mystifies me, though, is how every time the World Cup comes around, this debate starts up about why soccer isn't/should be more popular, and how the game somehow becomes this metaphor for American/world society. There are typically two views that emerge during the debate:

It is the most popular sport in the world in just about every major industrialized country (and even the non-major countries too) except for the United States, so shouldn't we get with the program and embrace it, and what do you mean it isn't exciting? The entire game could depend on just one kick! Our nation is culturally deprived because we don't have the enthusiasm everyone else does, especially since anyone with a soccer ball and some open space can play it. Also, we should call it football like the rest of the world.

The people with this viewpoint typically are considered politically liberal.

Soccer is boring, no-score ties are commonplace, the field is just too big, and who cares what everyone else thinks? We love sports that have been part of our popular culture for decades, and those sports were developed HERE, so if you love soccer move to one of those other places. Our tastes are not defined by what everyone else wants. You can't make us have a passion for a sport that we just don't enjoy, and no one enjoys a sport because "it's good for you." Yuck! If we wanted to follow British sports, we wouldn't have declared our independence from the king. And we'll always call it soccer, because real football is played Friday night in high school, Saturday in college, and Sunday in the pros.

The people with this viewpoint typically are considered politically conservative.

And thus follow radio commentaries and print articles about what's wrong with soccer and how there are all these reasons why *real* Americans prefer other sports.

Before I go further, I do want to be clear about one thing:

But if you're in camp number two, especially if you're politically conservative, I'd like you to consider what you're saying about soccer. The reason is that, somehow, this topic becomes another proxy war in the battle for the culture. A typical skirmish goes something like this:

Person A: Wow! Have you been keeping up with the World Cup? What a game the other day!!!
Person B: Nah, I can't stand soccer. No scoring, it's boring--hey, that rhymes!--and who cares about this "world" stuff anyway? Give me my baseball and apple pie and let me cross off the days until fall camp starts!
Person A: But don't you want us to win? This is one of the best teams we've ever fielded!
Person B: So what? Real Americans could care less about soccer. What a dumb game.

All of the sudden, you've gone from "I just don't like soccer" to "you're un-American if you do."
Now undoubtedly, some of you are reading this and saying, whoa, not only have I never said that, I don't know anyone who has! Or would! But it's too late: the caricature is out there, and it is going to stick. If you doubt me, just Google "Ann Coulter Soccer" and read the headlines. This is how you lose elections: you become known for what you oppose rather than what you support. If you're conservative, you have to deal with the uncomfortable reality that most people in the media hate you.  They want to make you look bad. They don't need a *good* reason, just an opening. And what one of us says, ALL of us believe. It isn't true and it isn't fair, but THAT is our perfectly-manicured over-sized playing field. We are always the visiting team, and the refs are wearing home colors.

 Does this mean we compromise our ideals and move to the center? No, of course not. But it does mean that we must have a good strategy, and we will only sway the crowd by playing the game better than they do. If you don't recognize that it's a game, go to the showers; you've already lost. And if you object to a sporting event because it requires minimal equipment, then you're clearly an elitist who hates poor children. (Remember, there is no logic in the media--object to healthcare reform and you want grandma to die.)

 Just for the sake of argument, let's deal with a few common objections to soccer.
Yes, soccer games are typically very low-scoring. If you're a fan of baseball or hockey, though, you should not use this objection. Remember that scoring is not the only action in the game. Watching guys dunk the basketball fifty times in a row can get monotonous too.

Well, running is a good thing. It even has its own sport! If we want our kids to be active and healthy and burn off all that extra energy, there are far worse things they could do than running around on the grass kicking a ball.

Every sport has its idiosyncrasies. You can't move the basketball without dribbling. No icing the puck. Don't nod your head before the snap--that's a penalty! It makes a lot of sense that a game referred to as "football" by millions of people requires that you move the ball primarily with your feet.

This is what I'd call an "organizational flaw" rather than a structural flaw. The game itself would be exactly the same if there were a requirement for overtime or penalty kicks to decide every single game and require that every game have a winning score. For whatever reason, FIFA has chosen not to do that. Maybe if enough fans demanded it, they would. NCAA football used to allow ties; now they have almost ridiculously long overtimes to determine a winner. This is like complaining about baseball's designated hitter; it could be easily changed with a rule modification that does not impact the actual play of the game.

Why not? A lot of people think soccer is fun, and believe it or not, a lot of those people are Americans. A good number of them are immigrants who loved soccer and then came to love their adopted country too. Do we want to be the ones telling them that they'd better give up their sporting passion if they want to blend?

Well, that may be true. Many liberals say becoming more like other nations, especially European ones, is something America needs to do. But we should not object to a game simply to be contrary to our political opponents. If a person simply loves the game, we are being shallow if we allow that to become a point of political division.

Winning elections is about winning the culture. Winning the culture is about giving people a reason to believe that your ideas are better for them and their neighbors. When your reaction to a sports tournament is to chalk up reasons why Americans shouldn't like it even when they have a team competing, you are not broadening your coalition. You aren't welcoming new people; you're giving them a reinforcement of their notion that conservatives are stodgy, close-minded, obnoxious traditionalists who just don't get it. Sporting events bring people together. We should see that as an opportunity.

Person A: Wow! Have you been keeping up with the World Cup? What a game the other day!!!
Person B: Not really; I never got into soccer. What happened?
Person A: We lost the game, but we still managed to make it to the next round. Still alive!
Person B: That's awesome! I don't care if it's competitive kitchen-tile painting, I want to see the US team holding that trophy when it's all over!

We're the land of the free. We put astronauts on the moon. You better believe that World Cup should be ours. Let's go get it.

This is cross-posted at . My thanks to Kayleigh McEnany!

Friday, June 6, 2014

Thoughts On Film: Saving Private Ryan

 As row after row of Soldiers are cut down by constant machine gun fire and artillery blasts, a few manage to find footing on the beach. The only sounds are the rattling of the guns, the booming explosions, and the screams of the wounded and dying. Captain John Miller sees one Soldier run up to him through the cascade of enemy fire.

 "Sir, what's the rally point?"

 "Anywhere but here!"

 This is the invasion of Normandy as depicted in one of the landmark films of recent years, Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. The story is a simple one: A squad of US Army Soldiers in Europe manage to survive the hellish attack on Omaha beach of June 6, 1944. Three days later, they are tasked to locate Private First Class James Ryan of the 101st Airborne Division. PFC Ryan's three brothers were all killed in action and the Army has decided that Ryan must be sent home. (Though fictional, the story was inspired by real-life examples of siblings who fought concurrently. Department of Defense policy now allows for serving family members of those killed in action to be exempted from combat.)


 " looking for a needle in a stack of needles."

 Naturally, the troops have misgivings about what seems to them a public relations mission rather than a tactical one. Without cellphones, GPS systems, Twitter, or Facebook, they have to find one man whose location is "somewhere in France, probably, if he isn't already dead." On top of that, someone who is not trying to be found. Even CPT Miller (Tom Hanks), who properly refuses to question his orders in front of his men, holds out little hope for success. The horror of the opening battle is a shadow through the rest of the film, with any moment holding the prospect that the small group will encounter a larger German force, or that a single well-placed sniper could take them down. (This is to say nothing of the possibility of other American or Allied troops accidentally mistaking them for the enemy.)

 "You wanna explain the math of this to me? I mean, where's the sense of riskin' the lives of the eight of us to save one guy?"
 "We all have orders, and we have to follow 'em. That supersedes everything, including your mothers."

 As they make their way through the countryside, occasionally encountering other Army units and trying to determine if Ryan is in their ranks or among their casualties, the Soldiers wrestle with the thought that, officially, Ryan's life is more important than theirs and how they too have families back home. The new guy (there's always a new guy), translator Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies), wants to learn about the camaraderie of the team, but to them, he's still an outsider. He's spent the war behind a desk and hasn't seen the action that they have. CPT Miller still tries to maintain some distance by refusing to reveal anything about his life and family back home; he has to order these men to kill and may have to order them to die and prefers that they not get too close.

 When skirmishes break out and men in the team die, the question is no longer hypothetical: is saving Private Ryan worth the cost?

 Eventually, they manage to find PFC Ryan (Matt Damon) as part of a contingent of men holding a strategically important bridge. Of course, finding him is not the end of the mission. They have to get him back safely to a secure transport, and the odds of a quiet jaunt through the French countryside are not good. What they hadn't counted on was Ryan choosing to stay, when any of the men who were hunting for him would gladly have gone back home after surviving D-Day. But the camaraderie that unites Miller's squad is also felt by the man who is their mission.

 "Tell her that when you found me I was here and I was with the only brothers that I have left and that there was no way I was gonna desert them. I think she'll understand that. There's no way I'm leaving this bridge."
*     *     *

 From the day it hit the theaters, Saving Private Ryan was a game-changer. The realism of its battle sequences has impacted every historical war movie made since then, including star Tom Hanks's own landmark HBO mini-series Band of Brothers, based on the real exploits of the 101st Airborne's Easy Company. According to William Manchester,  men in war do not fight for flag, country, glory or other abstractions, but for one another. The men in this film are not in a position to see the "big picture," so they do the only thing they can--fight to get themselves and their buddies through one more day. They resent anything that makes that harder, or reduces the odds that they can all go home. For me, one of the biggest messages of the film is that even if one does not think war is wrong, one can still acknowledge that war is a terrible thing, and that even good warriors pay a price for their participation. What the men in the film can't see in the heat of battle and the insanity of a war zone is that their mission to find one man and protect him is essentially what the military is supposed to do for all of us: fight the enemy so that complete strangers can be safe. When a mortally-wounded Miller tells Ryan, "Earn this...earn it..." I find myself thinking about how all of us today benefit from the sacrifices made seventy years ago. Thousands risked their lives, and many of them lost their lives, to allow us to have the freedom we have now. Let's not waste that gift, but rather use it to keep this nation a free one, and to make this world a better place for everyone.