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Fair Play and Foul Times

Now is far too early to be writing about the upcoming Democratic party primary race, although we’re tempted to by a newly released Quinnipiac poll that shows many of the contenders currently well ahead of President Donald Trump in key states. Trump was waving around of piece of paper that he contended was a secret agreement he’d reached with Mexico, which reminded us of Sen. Joe McCarthy waving a piece of paper he contended was a list of all the communists working in the State Department, but better to let that play out before writing about it.
There was plenty of other news afoot, as usual, but two separate stories in the sports page caught our eye. Both had to do with sportsmanship, which is one of those old-fashioned values our conservative souls hate to see slipping away.
Although we’re too all-American to care much about soccer — or “football,” as the damned foreigners insist on calling it — we’ve been pleased to see that for some time now the American women’s team has been quite good. The American men’s team has achieved respectability, but the distaff national squad has been a dominant force, winning three World Cups and four Olympic gold medals and more than two dozen titles in other prestigious international tournaments. They started their defense of the World Cup championship on Tuesday beating Thailand by a score of 13 to 0, which prompted criticism in some quarters.
Soccer is such a low-scoring game that a three goal differential is considered a butt-kicking akin to the 60 to 6 scores that the big time college football teams routinely rack up in their early games against tune-up teams, so the record-setting 13 goal difference was considered an unsportsmanlike running up of the score intended to humiliate a clearly outmatched opponent. The team and its coach were unapologetic, however, and based on accounts of the game we figure they had nothing apologize for. Old-fashioned notions of gentlemanly and ladylike require that a team pull its starters once a game has been clearly won, even if it’s not yet halftime, which the American squad apparently did with a six goal lead or so. No coach can ask the substitutes to play less than their best during their time on the field in front of family and friends, however, and in this case the bench was also six or seven goals better than the Thai starters.
“To be respectful to opponents is to play hard against opponents,” U.S. Coach Jill Ellis said, which sounds about right to us. Ellis also noted that the team is playing for another world championship, adding that “I don’t find it my job to harness my players and rein them in.” Those substitutes will play some crucial minutes in the closer matches are sure to come, and Ellis is wise to keep them sharp. We do feel badly for those outmatched Thai players whose family and friends watched them endure a record-setting butt-kicking, and after our inept years on the playgrounds we can empathize, but our best advice is that they try to get better.
The other story came from the National Basketball Associations finals, where the powerhouse Golden State Warriors, the defending champions and winners of three of the last four playoffs, found themselves down by a seemingly insurmountable three games to one in the best of seven series against the underdog Toronto Raptors, who were in the finals for the first time in franchise history. One reason for the Warriors woes was that the supremely gifted small forward Kevin Durant, a recent most valuable player who was twice the the MVP of the finals, was on the bench with an injury. Durant either foolishly or courageously took to the court for the fifth game, depending on how you look at it, and although the Warriors won and are now down only three to two and have a chance of extending their dynasty he aggravated an achilles tendon in the efforts, and he wound be around for game six or a possible game seven and might even start next season on the bench.
As Durant was being carried off the court many of the Raptors fans loudly cheered the injury, and there’s no excuse for that. Canadians are typically very polite people, but the big sport up there is ice hockey, which doesn’t understand the concept of unnecessary roughness, so we weren’t entirely surprised. To their credit the American players who make up the Raptors’ roster chastised the cheering fans, and gave Durant respectful applause on his way to the hospital, and the team’s management also issued a “tweet” saying they don’t approve of anyone cheering a player’s injury. The Warriors had earlier apologized for one of its franchise owners who started a sideline fight with Raptors guard Kyle Lowry, and banned the fellow from the rest of the finals, so at least the league is taking an admirable stand on sportsmanship that shouldn’t be necessary.
Both stories are about mere games, but we think they illustrate a broader cultural decline that also infects our politics. On both sides of the political divide people want to run up the score, recognize no standards of unnecessary, and think it doesn’t matter how you play the game so long as you win. We hate to lose a game just as much as the next guy, but we’d hate even worse to lose the tradition of fair play by the fair rules.

— Bud Norman

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Taking a Kick at Soccer

We know little about soccer, having grown up on wholesome American games that allow the use of hands, as God and Abner Doubleday intended, but even we knew that the sport’s international governing body is corrupt. It was therefor no surprise to hear that legal action is being taken against them, but we were a bit startled that it was America’s Department of Justice that is doing it.
The Federation Internationale de Football is not based in America, as the foreign name and its galling misuse of “football” would suggest, and so far as we can gather from numerous press reports none of its alleged crimes took place here. Authorities in Switzerland, where the organization is based, and where the alleged crimes seem to have allegedly occurred, and where the populace presumably cares more about soccer than do Americans, are also taking action, so it’s hard to see why America’s legal system should be bothered. All of the 14 FIFA official indicted on charges of racketeering, wire fraud, and money laundering conspiracy are from other other countries, there’s going to be a lot of fuss over extradition, it complicates foreign relations with the numerous countries involved to the point that we have to admit Vladimir Putin has a point when he calls it “another case of illegal extra-territorial implementation of American law,” and none of the bribes they’re said to have accepted for awarding international tournaments seem to have been paid by Americans, who won’t be hosting any FIFA tournaments in the near future in any case, so the only point seems to be cleaning up a sport that few Americans bother to watch.
The smart fellows over at the Powerline web site are avid soccer fans, which strikes us as odd given their usually sound political opinions and excellent taste in music, and they contend that the Department of Justice is still sore that FIFA awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar despite the long trip to Zurich and personal lobbying of former Attorney General Eric Holder. It won’t be the least bit surprising if it is eventually proved in court that the Qataris prevailed by means of millions of dollars of illegal bribes, as such things are a feature of Arab culture and there is no other plausible explanation for awarding the world’s most-watched sporting event to such a remote and backwards desert hellhole as Qatar. The country’s pledge to air-conditioned stadia large enough to accommodate a soccer field and many thousands of spectators in the 100-plus degree summers has already been reneged on, the tournament has thus been moved to winter during the middle of the seasons of the professional leagues that supply the players, and the Indian, Sri Lankan, and Bangladeshi laborers who have been imported to build the vast infrastructure that FIFA absurdly requires have died at the rate of one per day. Nor would we be surprised if this is all about Holder holding a grudge, as he always struck as that sort of guy.
Besides, the Obama administration was still smarting from its snub by the International Olympic Committee way back in ’09 when it award its games to Rio de Janeiro over of Chicago. Obama personally flew to Denmark to make the pitch, bringing along Oprah Winfrey, who might or might not be a big deal in Denmark, and giving a speech about how Chicago was his kind of town and recalling how “Nearly one year ago, on a clear November night, people from every corner of the world gathered in the city of Chicago or in front of their televisions to watch the results of the presidential election,” and basically suggested that having the Olympics culminate his eight years in office and welcome the world to his transformed America would give the games new meaning. All the press speculated that of course the deal was already done or no president would put his prestige on the line by making the trip, so when the Olympics went to an even more crime-ridden kleptocracy than Chicago it was the first bad press that the administration got after all the messianic treatment in ’08, and although the loss of the 2022 World Cup went entirely unnoticed we’re sure it still stung.
The blow to Obama’s and Holder’s egos notwithstanding, and despite the lucrative deals that Valerie Jarret’s Chicago buddies would have made preparing for the Olympics, and whatever deals might have been made for a World Cup, these are two games we’re glad America lost. These big international sporting events are lucrative to whatever network makes the sufficient bribes, and they transfix much of the world for a brief time, but they’re usually a severe burden on the communities that get stuck with them and the useless stadia they paid for. Even in soccer-mad Brazil there were riots in response to lavish sums that poverty-stricken country doled out to host the most recent World Cup, and the police are gearing up for more of the same during those ’16 Olympics that Chicago wanted. The only Olympics that we can recall proving profitable for a host was the ’02 winter games in Salt Lake City, and that was due to the organizational skills of Mitt Romney, which the public apparently found less impressive than that soaring “on a clear November night” rhetoric of Obama. The Olympics have lost much of their appeal since the end of the Cold War, not to mention all believable rumors about the IOC’s shenanigans, but they’re still a bigger deal to the real American sports fan than some FIFA contest with a bunch of foreigners kicking a ball around a “pitch” — we know that, too, along with with the corruption of the governing body — to a 1-0 score after some incalculable amount of time.
A country such as Qatar might decide that the millions in bribes and billions in soon-to-be-useless stadia and the daily deaths of Indians, Sri Lankans, and Bangladeshi is well worth the prestige of hosting a highly-rated sports event, along with all the hooligans that soccer somehow always attracts, no matter how remote the backwards hellhole, but we’d like to think the United States of America can still earn its international prestige elsewhere.

— Bud Norman

Let the World Keep Its Cup

Some fellow on the radio tells us that the United States’ soccer squad has been eliminated from the World Cup competition by a team from some country called Belgium. Being properly patriotic sports rooters we were disappointed to hear it, especially as Belgians are apparently some sort of Europeans, and it’s always embarrassing to lose to those guys in anything, but we must confess some relief that the nation’s attention can once again be diverted from our pressing economic and political problems by baseball.
Go ahead and watch soccer if you want to, as we are of a libertarian bent and therefore tolerate all kinds of cultural rot, but as a mindless distraction from the world’s woes we much prefer baseball this time of year. This prejudice might well be proof of what old-fashioned fuddy-duddies we’ve become in our middle age, as well as the nativist xenophobia and heterosexist preoccupation with phallic symbols and all that stuff that is so typical of people with our right-wing political views, but we make no apologies. We’re Americans, damn it, and prefer an American game.
We’re Americans of a certain age, too, which we means grew up playing sports other than soccer and haven’t failed at the game nearly enough to appreciate the talents of those who play it well. Soccer fans have tried to convince us of the aesthetically-pleasing athleticism and subtle strategies that they swear are involved in the seemingly random meanderings of the players, but we remain unconvinced. Despite our best efforts at objectivity, we find the sport suspect for several reasons.
You can’t use your hands in soccer, for one thing, and this strikes us as an offense against both God and sport. We used to suspect that soccer was a communist plot to keep America’s youth from hurling hand grenades against the invading Russky hordes, and although soccer seems to have outlasted the Soviet Union and we can’t think of any other plausible conspirators it still strikes us as damned suspicious.
All those foreigners in the game are troublesome, too. Soccer fans seem to regard the overwhelming presence of foreigners in the sport as proof of its worthiness, and will wax poetic about the “world’s game” and cite their affinity for the game as evidence of how very cosmopolitan they are, but we are unimpressed by their claims of being citizens of the world. When the world ratifies a constitution that guarantees our rights of freedom of speech and bearing arms and not having soldiers quartered in our homes we will consider renouncing our American citizenship and embracing a game that doesn’t allow the use of hands, but at the moment the world seems downright hostile to these ideals and unhealthily willing to forego the use of hands.
Nor does the rest of the world seem any more civilized than the average American baseball, basketball, or football fans. The stadia where the National Football League conducts its brutal contests are famous for the fisticuffs and boorish behavior that pervade the stands, but the most face-painted fans there are a veritable PGA gallery compared to the hooligans that predominate at soccer games. Even the Oakland Raiders don’t have such a grisly death toll as soccer, and their fans are more well-behaved than the hooligans who populate the seats at soccer games around the world. Racists taunts are reportedly common at soccer games, by both players and fans, but rarely heard at American sporting events where almost everyone has a rooting interest in a competitor of another race. One of the more intriguing side stories of the World Cup was about the Mexican fans’ traditional chant of “puto” against a certain hated foes, which we’re told translates as “homosexual prostitute” and is intended as a most hateful epithet, and it was fun hearing the politically correct press reconcile its revulsion for anything homophobic with its indulgence for anything foreign.
Such exquisite sensitivities seem an essential part of soccer’s appeal, and another reason we’re indifferent to the game. When soccer first became a part of the American sporting scene it was through the American Youth Soccer Organization, and all the bumper stickers that adorned the minivans hauling the kiddies to the little league “pitch” promised that “Everyone plays.” This is taking egalitarianism too far, as even the most carefully raised youngster intuitively understands that playing time should be earned by superior performances, but has an understandable appeal to the doting modern mom. Those “soccer moms,” so assiduously courted by Democratic candidates for the past many election cycles, also seemed to prefer soccer to baseball because it didn’t involve the supposedly soul-crushing failure involved in a sport where even the best major league teams will lose 60 games a season and the most skilled batters fail to get a hit more than 60 percent of the time. Soccer is a fairly rough sport, judging by all the melodramatic flopping that the players indulge in whenever they make contact with a momentarily outstretched limb, but we can’t imagine that it inures a kid to life’s inevitable failures the way an 0-for-4 day at the plate does.
Go ahead and watch soccer if you want to, though, and we’ll hope you enjoy it. Perhaps you’ll notice that aesthetically-pleasing athleticism and those subtle strategies we keep hearing about, and we really wouldn’t want to deny the satisfaction. None of the teams will be wearing “USA” on their jerseys, but feel free to root for any country that isn’t currently at war with us. The Wichita Wingnuts have a home stand coming up, though, so we’ll be down at the ballpark watching men use their hands.

— Bud Norman