Commentary Magazine


Topic: football

Storm Clouds and Baseball’s Humble Soul

There is a wonderful pair of scenes in the second episode of Aaron Sorkin’s criminally underappreciated TV series Sports Night, a fictionalized rendering of the production of nightly sports shows like ESPN’s SportsCenter. A young, newly hired producer, Jeremy Goodwin (played by Joshua Malina), is tasked with cutting his first highlight reel: he has to take a baseball game, fish out the best moments for that night’s show, and put them together in a reel of about thirty to forty seconds. On his first try, he hands in an eight-and-a-half minute reel. His explanation for it is one of the best expressions of what’s great about baseball, and the first riposte that comes to mind reading today’s somber knock on baseball’s future from the New Yorker’s Ben McGrath.

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There is a wonderful pair of scenes in the second episode of Aaron Sorkin’s criminally underappreciated TV series Sports Night, a fictionalized rendering of the production of nightly sports shows like ESPN’s SportsCenter. A young, newly hired producer, Jeremy Goodwin (played by Joshua Malina), is tasked with cutting his first highlight reel: he has to take a baseball game, fish out the best moments for that night’s show, and put them together in a reel of about thirty to forty seconds. On his first try, he hands in an eight-and-a-half minute reel. His explanation for it is one of the best expressions of what’s great about baseball, and the first riposte that comes to mind reading today’s somber knock on baseball’s future from the New Yorker’s Ben McGrath.

More specifically, Jeremy’s defense of his highlight reel is a concise rendering of the fact that what casual fans or non-fans hate about baseball, fans love. Casey McCall, one of the program’s co-anchors, tells Jeremy he needs to cut it. “I can’t imagine what I’d cut,” Jeremy says. Casey points out that Jeremy’s reel begins with the first batter in the first inning of the game–a player who grounded out. Casey tells Jeremy that they call such plays “routine ground balls” for a reason: when putting together a highlight reel, “let the word ‘routine’ serve as a danger sign.”

They then have the following exchange:

Jeremy: There’s nothing routine about it. Casey, the guy’s hitting .327 since the All-Star break, he’s drawn 22 walks in the leadoff position and he’s a threat to steal second every time you put him on. He fouled off seven pitches.

Casey: And you show each and every one of them.

Jeremy: You bet I do.

Casey: We usually just show the pitch that puts the ball into play.

Jeremy: But then you miss the battle.

But the real gem, for lifelong baseball fans, comes a couple of scenes later. Casey is going over the tape with Jeremy, trying to help him cut it down for the broadcast. They have this exchange, which sounds crazy to anybody who isn’t a baseball fan:

Casey: Okay this section here where the batter taps dirt off his shoe and spits four times…

Jeremy: We can’t cut that!

Casey: Jeremy!

Jeremy: No, the storm clouds are gathering.

Casey: (sighs) All right just out of curiosity, what voiceover would you have me write for this?

Jeremy: What’s wrong with ‘the storm clouds are gathering?’

Casey: The storm clouds aren’t gathering, he’s cleaning his shoe!

Jeremy: He’s breaking Carrera’s pitching rhythm.

Casey: The battle?

Jeremy: The battle.

“The storm clouds are gathering” remains the line that plays in my head any time someone complains about how long the game takes, how slow the action is. The mental chess match between pitcher and batter before every single pitch is where the game can be its most dramatic.

Just as what non-fans hate about baseball can be among the most engrossing aspects of the game for fans, so too what would seem to doom baseball’s popularity can be, for its many fans, what helps make the game so watchable. McGrath begins his dirge on “The Twilight of Baseball” by asking a simple question:

If Mike Trout walked into your neighborhood bar, would you recognize him? Let me rephrase: If the baseball player who is widely considered the best in the world—a once-in-a-generation talent, the greatest outfielder since Barry Bonds, the most accomplished twenty-two-year-old that the activity formerly known as the national pastime has ever known—bent elbows over a stool and ordered an I.P.A., would anyone notice?

McGrath goes on to paint a picture of a league of fading stars. League attendance appears to be doing fine, he says, but delve deeper into the numbers and you see a few teams carrying the revenue stream for the league. But that’s not really an accurate picture. Kansas City’s team has a winning record this year and attendance is up. Same is true of Seattle and Oakland. Houston’s having a terrible season and their attendance is up anyway. Additionally, revenue sharing means the success of some big-market teams benefits others, and so does their spending. Their success means mammoth television contracts and playoff revenue. The worst baseball teams as far as attendance still draw more fans per game than the majority of basketball teams despite playing twice as many games. Yes, that has to do with larger stadiums. But they have larger stadiums for a reason. And the popularity of minor league baseball is unlike that of any other sport, showing the game thrives away from the big cities and markets.

McGrath is a fan of baseball but also of hockey, so he is somewhat inured, he says, to the taunts of those who disdain a sport he loves. And yet, the pessimism presses on:

But the Trout conundrum strikes me as a significant milestone in baseball doomsaying—more problematic, say, than the demise of corporate slow-pitch leagues, which the Wall Street Journal recently foretold. When was the last time baseball’s reigning king was a cultural nonentity, someone you can’t even name-drop without a non-fan giving you a patronizing smile?

McGrath isn’t condemning baseball himself here; he’s a fan. But I am tempted to see this particular sign of decline as actually something to brag about–something, in fact, that is in baseball’s DNA. It’s true that the best players in a sport, especially of Trout’s quality, tend to be famous. They are superstars. But in baseball, that just strikes me as out of place.

Of the major sports, baseball is the one where a great player can thrive on a consistently mediocre team and it won’t seem out of place. You just can’t carry a team as an individual. There are nine batters, and nine fielders. One man can only do so much.

In basketball, one man can dominate; there are only five guys on the court on each side at a time. In hockey, a goalie can make all the difference. In football, everything revolves around the quarterback.

But baseball is the ultimate team game. Sure, a dominating pitcher can shut down the opposing team–but that’s only once every five games. The rest of the season he’s not even on the field.

And there’s another aspect to Trout’s ability to blend in at the bar that speaks to baseball’s uniqueness. Hockey players have a look: the toothless grin under the long hair on a hulking frame (though toothlessness has dropped somewhat since the advent of the face mask). Basketball players tend to be a head taller than the rest of the population–easily recognizable. As for football, we say someone is “built like a linebacker” for a reason.

But baseball players are so … normal. At least in comparison to the other sports. No one “looks like a baseball player.” That’s not really true for the other major sports.

I won’t turn this into a rambling ode to What’s Great About Baseball (though I suspect it might be too late). But I thought it worthwhile to point out that Mike Trout’s relative anonymity speaks to the normalcy and humility that characterizes baseball more than any other major sport. It may not sell jerseys or even enough tickets for the league’s bottom line, but it’s a reason to love baseball and an indication not of the sport’s identity crisis but of its potential.

Is baseball in trouble? Perhaps the storm clouds are gathering. But that’s the best part.

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No, College Football Is Not Like the Tuskegee Study

In a remarkable opinion piece, Lewis Margolis, an associate professor of maternal and child health at UNC-Chapel Hill, and Gregory Margolis, a senior research assistant at the Brookings Institute, compare the participation of young people in football to the Tuskegee Study. The comparison is off-base, and the Margolises should stop making it.

The “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphillis in the Negro Male,” which began in 1932, is infamous. The U.S. Public Health Service told 399 syphilitic black men that they would get free treatment for “bad blood.” Instead, study participants, for the most part, received no treatment, even after penicillin’s efficacy in treating syphilis was established. The study was halted only in 1972 and only because of a public outcry. While historians defend the original intent of the research, few defend the continuation of the study or think that it would have continued had the subjects not been poor and black. Whatever the complexity of the case, “Tuskegee Study” and “racism” are synonymous in our political lexicon.

So when the Margolises say that the participation of young people in football has “unsettling similarities to the infamous ‘Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male’,” they mean that when young people are allowed to play football, in spite of our concerns about concussions and their long-term effects, that is because of our society’s unexamined racism.

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In a remarkable opinion piece, Lewis Margolis, an associate professor of maternal and child health at UNC-Chapel Hill, and Gregory Margolis, a senior research assistant at the Brookings Institute, compare the participation of young people in football to the Tuskegee Study. The comparison is off-base, and the Margolises should stop making it.

The “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphillis in the Negro Male,” which began in 1932, is infamous. The U.S. Public Health Service told 399 syphilitic black men that they would get free treatment for “bad blood.” Instead, study participants, for the most part, received no treatment, even after penicillin’s efficacy in treating syphilis was established. The study was halted only in 1972 and only because of a public outcry. While historians defend the original intent of the research, few defend the continuation of the study or think that it would have continued had the subjects not been poor and black. Whatever the complexity of the case, “Tuskegee Study” and “racism” are synonymous in our political lexicon.

So when the Margolises say that the participation of young people in football has “unsettling similarities to the infamous ‘Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male’,” they mean that when young people are allowed to play football, in spite of our concerns about concussions and their long-term effects, that is because of our society’s unexamined racism.

What evidence do they have to back up this astonishing claim? “African American males composed the largest segment of football players (45.8) percent” in 2009-10. Since African Americans constitute less than 13 percent of the population, “African-American football players face a disproportionate exposure to the risk of concussions and their consequences.” That’s it.

As the Margolises acknowledge, “concussion investigators are not knowingly misleading subjects to participate” in football. Moreover, they point us to the data, which show that whites in 2009-10 composed the second largest segment of football players, at 45.1 percent. College football would be like the Tuskegee Study, if the Tuskegee Study had recruited and left untreated almost as many white participants as black participants. Since every participant in the Tuskegee Study was black, the Margolises’ claim that there are “unsettling similarities” between youth football and the Tuskegee experiment is false. Since the Margolises presumably understand the moral weight of the Tuskegee Study, the claim is also irresponsible.

But it gets worse. The data the Margolises cite is not about football in general. It is about Division I football. In my college’s own Division III, Caucasians are 75.7 percent of the players, African Americans only 16.7 percent. Since whites are only about 63 percent of the population, whites face a disproportionate exposure to the risk of concussions in Division III. Yet the risk of concussion in Division III may be greater than it is in Division I. The Margolises’ story, weak even if limited solely to Division I athletes, completely falls apart when the other divisions are taken into account.

As a parent and long-time physical coward, I am inclined to heed warnings against getting one’s children involved in youth football. Moreover, I think it is worth wondering along with the Margolises whether “African-American communities have the information they need and deserve to consider and consent to this risk for their sons,” though I doubt very many parents, white or black, however well-informed, will keep their children out of the Division I programs that the Margolises are most concerned about. However that may be, inflammatory and insupportable comparisons to the Tuskegee Study do nothing to protect young athletes.

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Past His Prime

Like Michael Phelps, who breaks a record nearly every time he dives into the pool, Obama sets records almost every day. Sunday was no different. He has a new high mark for disapproval at Realclearpolitics.com, at 51.2 percent, and a new low, at 44.5 percent. And a new record spread, at 6.7 points.

To carry out the sports analogy, he now acts like an aging athlete with only memories of past glories to keep his spirits up. The Washington Post observes that “without Obama on the ballot this year, his grass-roots network is a shadow of its former self. And with just five weeks before the midterm elections, Obama’s political advisers acknowledge that transferring the goodwill he cultivated over a historic presidential bid to an array of other Democrats has proved difficult.” Umm, it’s also proved difficult for him to retain that goodwill. Ah, well, they’ll always have Iowa.

Meanwhile, he is playing in minor league venues:

President Obama will swoop into the heartland this week in a high-stakes bid to boost enthusiasm for Democrats by reigniting the coalition of young and minority voters who were critical to his success two years ago. … So on Tuesday in Madison, Obama will stage the first in a series of rallies on college campuses designed to persuade what some call his “surge” voters — the roughly 15 million Americans who voted for the first time in 2008 – to return to the polls this fall.

Five weeks to the election and he is still working on getting minority voters and college kids to turn out for him!? I can tell you, college kids are not going to turn out en masse for a midterm election. The Obama girls, the rock videos — where have they all gone? The Post trips down memory lane:

The students on this leafy, generally liberal campus once constituted one of the strongest battalions in Obama’s grass-roots army. Two years later, the political dynamic has changed. Across campus, stickers, signs or chalkings for any politician are scarce. The laundromat where Obama’s young volunteers once staged late-night phone banks and planned bus trips to neighboring Iowa has gone out of business. And some students who say they voted for Obama in 2008 now say they don’t even know who’s on the ballot this fall.

Now the kids are all about football and grades:

On Saturday, student organizers waved signs outside Camp Randall Stadium as thousands of fans filed out of the football game. The Badgers won in a rout, and the young Democrats tried to break through the excitement of the game with perhaps a more exciting announcement: “President Obama on campus Tuesday!”

Some fans gave thumbs up or yelled “Go, Obama!” Others responded disapprovingly, as in “How’s that hope and change working out for you?” Hundreds more walked past in their red-and-white gear without paying any attention.

One student, showing her flair for the art of understatement, intones that “the euphoria has dimmed down.” Well, that’s one way of putting it.

Like Michael Phelps, who breaks a record nearly every time he dives into the pool, Obama sets records almost every day. Sunday was no different. He has a new high mark for disapproval at Realclearpolitics.com, at 51.2 percent, and a new low, at 44.5 percent. And a new record spread, at 6.7 points.

To carry out the sports analogy, he now acts like an aging athlete with only memories of past glories to keep his spirits up. The Washington Post observes that “without Obama on the ballot this year, his grass-roots network is a shadow of its former self. And with just five weeks before the midterm elections, Obama’s political advisers acknowledge that transferring the goodwill he cultivated over a historic presidential bid to an array of other Democrats has proved difficult.” Umm, it’s also proved difficult for him to retain that goodwill. Ah, well, they’ll always have Iowa.

Meanwhile, he is playing in minor league venues:

President Obama will swoop into the heartland this week in a high-stakes bid to boost enthusiasm for Democrats by reigniting the coalition of young and minority voters who were critical to his success two years ago. … So on Tuesday in Madison, Obama will stage the first in a series of rallies on college campuses designed to persuade what some call his “surge” voters — the roughly 15 million Americans who voted for the first time in 2008 – to return to the polls this fall.

Five weeks to the election and he is still working on getting minority voters and college kids to turn out for him!? I can tell you, college kids are not going to turn out en masse for a midterm election. The Obama girls, the rock videos — where have they all gone? The Post trips down memory lane:

The students on this leafy, generally liberal campus once constituted one of the strongest battalions in Obama’s grass-roots army. Two years later, the political dynamic has changed. Across campus, stickers, signs or chalkings for any politician are scarce. The laundromat where Obama’s young volunteers once staged late-night phone banks and planned bus trips to neighboring Iowa has gone out of business. And some students who say they voted for Obama in 2008 now say they don’t even know who’s on the ballot this fall.

Now the kids are all about football and grades:

On Saturday, student organizers waved signs outside Camp Randall Stadium as thousands of fans filed out of the football game. The Badgers won in a rout, and the young Democrats tried to break through the excitement of the game with perhaps a more exciting announcement: “President Obama on campus Tuesday!”

Some fans gave thumbs up or yelled “Go, Obama!” Others responded disapprovingly, as in “How’s that hope and change working out for you?” Hundreds more walked past in their red-and-white gear without paying any attention.

One student, showing her flair for the art of understatement, intones that “the euphoria has dimmed down.” Well, that’s one way of putting it.

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The World Cup and American Exceptionalism

Jonathan, it took me a while to read your response to my response to your response — I am watching football!

Far from me the thought that a game of football is anything more than a game of football.

For those who like football, the World Cup is the most epic tournament of all — the concentration of talent on the pitch and intensity of the emotions around the pitch is unprecedented. You either like it or not, of course, but to question the wisdom of club team versus national team is besides the point. It’s been like that since 1930, and nobody wants to change it, because it is simply an exciting spectacle that hundreds of millions of people around the world wait for and watch religiously every four years.

America has not been privy to this extravagance for a long time — but look at the U.S. team. Before the World Cup came to the United States, the U.S. only moonlighted with semi-professional teams that would suffer basketball-score defeats. Since then, the American team has been steadily rising. It now plays in the big league. It is a remarkable accomplishment.

Are there political implications to the game? There should be none, whatsoever — although there was a war once because of a match. But the fans — and their passions — attest to a deep-seated sentiment of national pride, which in turn explains the popularity of the World Cup contest. The way that victory and defeat is taken is another testament to the power of nationalist feelings and patriotic pride — and all the better that it is expressed through peaceful enthusiasm and playful banter against adversaries, especially the old ones.

The interesting point is another one, and has little to do with the use of the flag by governments. If tyrannies ever tried to exploit the game for their own aggrandizement, they did not accomplish much. In recent decades, the only country I can think of that won a World Cup and was a dictatorship was Argentina in 1978 (Maggie Thatcher took care of them, eventually). And Communism never produced a winner — ideology always stands in the way of complex game strategies, bouts of individual creativeness, and the need to adjust quickly.

The interesting point is that it is often in those enlightened societies that reject patriotism as outdated and pernicious on philosophical grounds — Western Europe being a primary location, the newsroom of NPR a secondary one — that the World Cup unleashes patriotism in a way that no other sport competition in the world ever does, not even the Olympics. This raises an interesting question, first and foremost for those left-wing promoters of flower power who think nationalism is both pernicious and on the wane. The World Cup awakens the sentiment where leftists think there is none left (or there should not be, i.e., even in their own newsroom). And that, to me, is a good thing — it highlights the fallacy of the post-national, postmodern worldview, especially because all it takes is 22 men in shorts chasing a football to demonstrate this fine point of political philosophy.

As for the U.S., my point is even less ambitious. To see it join the big league as a serious contender to me is refreshing not because a victory for the United States (unlikely this time, by the way) would bring pride and prestige to democracy, or because of what it may or may not demonstrate about American nationalism or America’s sudden abandonment of its exceptionalism. In fact, I think it proves American exceptionalism. Given how late America comes to football and how quickly it rises from obscurity to success, it would be yet another sign of certain characteristics that make America so unique. It would prove how fast and successful America is in mastering all things foreign and seamlessly integrating them in its own unique national fabric; it would offer yet another proof of immigrants becoming the standard bearers of American patriotism — just look at who plays for the national team and you’ll see my point; and of sport being a ticket for them into the pantheon of all American heroes.

All in all a good thing — and one that a club-team international competition with the LA Galaxy beating the Muloudia Club d’Alger is not likely to engender.

Jonathan, it took me a while to read your response to my response to your response — I am watching football!

Far from me the thought that a game of football is anything more than a game of football.

For those who like football, the World Cup is the most epic tournament of all — the concentration of talent on the pitch and intensity of the emotions around the pitch is unprecedented. You either like it or not, of course, but to question the wisdom of club team versus national team is besides the point. It’s been like that since 1930, and nobody wants to change it, because it is simply an exciting spectacle that hundreds of millions of people around the world wait for and watch religiously every four years.

America has not been privy to this extravagance for a long time — but look at the U.S. team. Before the World Cup came to the United States, the U.S. only moonlighted with semi-professional teams that would suffer basketball-score defeats. Since then, the American team has been steadily rising. It now plays in the big league. It is a remarkable accomplishment.

Are there political implications to the game? There should be none, whatsoever — although there was a war once because of a match. But the fans — and their passions — attest to a deep-seated sentiment of national pride, which in turn explains the popularity of the World Cup contest. The way that victory and defeat is taken is another testament to the power of nationalist feelings and patriotic pride — and all the better that it is expressed through peaceful enthusiasm and playful banter against adversaries, especially the old ones.

The interesting point is another one, and has little to do with the use of the flag by governments. If tyrannies ever tried to exploit the game for their own aggrandizement, they did not accomplish much. In recent decades, the only country I can think of that won a World Cup and was a dictatorship was Argentina in 1978 (Maggie Thatcher took care of them, eventually). And Communism never produced a winner — ideology always stands in the way of complex game strategies, bouts of individual creativeness, and the need to adjust quickly.

The interesting point is that it is often in those enlightened societies that reject patriotism as outdated and pernicious on philosophical grounds — Western Europe being a primary location, the newsroom of NPR a secondary one — that the World Cup unleashes patriotism in a way that no other sport competition in the world ever does, not even the Olympics. This raises an interesting question, first and foremost for those left-wing promoters of flower power who think nationalism is both pernicious and on the wane. The World Cup awakens the sentiment where leftists think there is none left (or there should not be, i.e., even in their own newsroom). And that, to me, is a good thing — it highlights the fallacy of the post-national, postmodern worldview, especially because all it takes is 22 men in shorts chasing a football to demonstrate this fine point of political philosophy.

As for the U.S., my point is even less ambitious. To see it join the big league as a serious contender to me is refreshing not because a victory for the United States (unlikely this time, by the way) would bring pride and prestige to democracy, or because of what it may or may not demonstrate about American nationalism or America’s sudden abandonment of its exceptionalism. In fact, I think it proves American exceptionalism. Given how late America comes to football and how quickly it rises from obscurity to success, it would be yet another sign of certain characteristics that make America so unique. It would prove how fast and successful America is in mastering all things foreign and seamlessly integrating them in its own unique national fabric; it would offer yet another proof of immigrants becoming the standard bearers of American patriotism — just look at who plays for the national team and you’ll see my point; and of sport being a ticket for them into the pantheon of all American heroes.

All in all a good thing — and one that a club-team international competition with the LA Galaxy beating the Muloudia Club d’Alger is not likely to engender.

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RE: RE: RE: Leftist Soccer Agony: U.S. Victory Equals Jingoism

Although as a kid I preferred soccer to any other sport, it was because sports were mandatory, and I could see a soccer ball without wearing my glasses. Frankly, I hated all sports as a child because, as my brother put it, with more accuracy than filial devotion, I have “the hand-eye coordination of a blind snake.” I don’t think I have watched an hour of soccer (or, as my friend James Taranto calls it, “metric football”) since. Still, like the denizens of NPR, I instinctively rejoiced when the U.S. defeated Algeria. Why? Because, like them, I am an American.

Emanuele Ottolenghi writes, “Since I am sane, I can only explain their outburst of national pride as evidence that their false conscience is their commitment to internationalism — a silly ideological pose whose fallacy just a game of soccer (football) can expose.”

I think their problem is their failure to understand human nature and its pervasive, ineradicable influence over human affairs. The left, lusting to social-engineer a better world, conveniently dismisses human nature as merely an artifact of the society in which people live. Change society, argued Marx and his heirs, and you change human nature; perfect society, and you perfect humankind. In other words, humans are mere tabula rasas to be written on by the all-wise liberal elite.

But that just isn’t so. Human nature, like gravity, is always in operation. No one would walk off a cliff without expecting to die, but liberals argue that aspects of human nature can be merely waved aside. Then a soccer player half a world away puts a ball into a net, and liberals give the lie to their own argument by cheering wildly — an instinctive display of the tribal loyalty they feel but refuse to recognize for ideological reasons.

War is an aspect not only of human nature but, as Reuters reported the other day, anthropoid nature, as well. The instinct to aggrandize at the expense of our neighbors lies very deep in our bones, indeed. The young of all species that play instinctively play in ways that will make them more successful as adults. (Ever see a kitten sneak up and pounce on a litter mate? He’s honing skills needed to hunt.) With human children, especially boys (pace, Title 9), that means we play war games. It’s just that today we call them team sports.

War has become far less common than it was in the days of hunting and gathering. (It is still endemic in the world’s few remaining hunting-and-gathering societies, such as in the highlands of New Guinea.) But we have sublimated the instinct into a vast new industry called professional sports. American football is probably the most obviously warlike of all sports, involving the conquest of territory, strategy, tactics, surprise, intense teamwork, etc. But all team sports — and games like chess — are basically war by other means, an outlet for the instinct to beat up our neighbors, which is far more positive (and wealth-producing) in the modern world than war itself. It’s a beautiful example — if one that developed without conscious thought — of what Sir Francis Bacon meant when he wrote that “to be commanded, nature must first be obeyed.”

We are the end product of 3.5 billion years of evolution, and that evolution has produced one of the most intensely social animals on the planet. We thus not only feel an instinctive loyalty to ourselves and our families (especially our lineal descendants and ancestors) but to our social unit as well. Nearly 10, 000 years ago, that was a small tribe of probably no more than 50. Today, the tribe of Americans numbers 300 million. But the instinct to tribal loyalty remains quite unchanged. The NPR employees just proved it.

Although as a kid I preferred soccer to any other sport, it was because sports were mandatory, and I could see a soccer ball without wearing my glasses. Frankly, I hated all sports as a child because, as my brother put it, with more accuracy than filial devotion, I have “the hand-eye coordination of a blind snake.” I don’t think I have watched an hour of soccer (or, as my friend James Taranto calls it, “metric football”) since. Still, like the denizens of NPR, I instinctively rejoiced when the U.S. defeated Algeria. Why? Because, like them, I am an American.

Emanuele Ottolenghi writes, “Since I am sane, I can only explain their outburst of national pride as evidence that their false conscience is their commitment to internationalism — a silly ideological pose whose fallacy just a game of soccer (football) can expose.”

I think their problem is their failure to understand human nature and its pervasive, ineradicable influence over human affairs. The left, lusting to social-engineer a better world, conveniently dismisses human nature as merely an artifact of the society in which people live. Change society, argued Marx and his heirs, and you change human nature; perfect society, and you perfect humankind. In other words, humans are mere tabula rasas to be written on by the all-wise liberal elite.

But that just isn’t so. Human nature, like gravity, is always in operation. No one would walk off a cliff without expecting to die, but liberals argue that aspects of human nature can be merely waved aside. Then a soccer player half a world away puts a ball into a net, and liberals give the lie to their own argument by cheering wildly — an instinctive display of the tribal loyalty they feel but refuse to recognize for ideological reasons.

War is an aspect not only of human nature but, as Reuters reported the other day, anthropoid nature, as well. The instinct to aggrandize at the expense of our neighbors lies very deep in our bones, indeed. The young of all species that play instinctively play in ways that will make them more successful as adults. (Ever see a kitten sneak up and pounce on a litter mate? He’s honing skills needed to hunt.) With human children, especially boys (pace, Title 9), that means we play war games. It’s just that today we call them team sports.

War has become far less common than it was in the days of hunting and gathering. (It is still endemic in the world’s few remaining hunting-and-gathering societies, such as in the highlands of New Guinea.) But we have sublimated the instinct into a vast new industry called professional sports. American football is probably the most obviously warlike of all sports, involving the conquest of territory, strategy, tactics, surprise, intense teamwork, etc. But all team sports — and games like chess — are basically war by other means, an outlet for the instinct to beat up our neighbors, which is far more positive (and wealth-producing) in the modern world than war itself. It’s a beautiful example — if one that developed without conscious thought — of what Sir Francis Bacon meant when he wrote that “to be commanded, nature must first be obeyed.”

We are the end product of 3.5 billion years of evolution, and that evolution has produced one of the most intensely social animals on the planet. We thus not only feel an instinctive loyalty to ourselves and our families (especially our lineal descendants and ancestors) but to our social unit as well. Nearly 10, 000 years ago, that was a small tribe of probably no more than 50. Today, the tribe of Americans numbers 300 million. But the instinct to tribal loyalty remains quite unchanged. The NPR employees just proved it.

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RE: RE: Leftist Soccer Agony: U.S. Victory Equals Jingoism

Emanuele, I understand your enthusiasm for the sport the rest of the world calls football, but I’m a little confused by your argument that the World Cup is good because it allows liberal NPR-types who run down their own countries the rest of the year to engage in a little meaningless nationalist chest-beating. That may provide us with an interesting irony, but it can’t be considered commendable. Confusing sports with politics is bad regardless of whether it is done by totalitarians or democrats, and that is why I insist that wrapping national sports teams in the flag is sheer humbug. While Americans are, unfortunately, as vulnerable to the appeal of sports globaloney, such as the Olympics, as anyone else, for the most part, we much prefer our own team sports to international competitions, and that is all the better. Keeping those flags and nationalist sentiments, which are so easily and wrongly manipulated by tyrannies, out of the realm of sport is much to be preferred.

If, as you suggest, the success of the U.S. team in the World Cup will discourage those who root for American decline in the world, then so much the better. Let the foes of the United States tremble, whether the reason be substantial or not. But the notion you advance, that the possibility of future American dominance in soccer (a sport in which it has lagged behind principally because most Americans don’t care much about it) will illustrate the greatness of the American character, is, while flattering to our vanity, just as much of a humbug as the idea that Eastern-bloc dominance in other sports during the Cold War illustrated the superiority of communism.

Indeed, the best example of this was the “miracle on ice,” when an underdog bunch of American college ice-hockey players defeated the mighty professionals of the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics. As an American hockey fan, I was thrilled by it. But the widely believed notion that it was an illustration of American greatness or, heaven help us, that it helped win the Cold War, is sheer hyperbole. It was an amazing upset — but just a hockey game. The players on the Soviet hockey team were just athletes in red uniforms, not off-duty Gulag prison guards or KGB agents being bested by all-American G.I. Joes. The outcome had nothing to do with the triumph of American values any more than the numerous defeats inflicted on American squads at other times by that magnificent Soviet team portrayed the preeminence of the totalitarian ideology of their masters in the Kremlin.

While I wish the American team well in the subsequent rounds of the World Cup and encourage our friends around the world — who care more about this game than most of us here do — to root for them if they like, let us not make the mistake of confusing sports with politics or national character. Love of country has many admirable as well as distasteful manifestations. But good or bad, it has nothing to do with soccer or any other sport.

Emanuele, I understand your enthusiasm for the sport the rest of the world calls football, but I’m a little confused by your argument that the World Cup is good because it allows liberal NPR-types who run down their own countries the rest of the year to engage in a little meaningless nationalist chest-beating. That may provide us with an interesting irony, but it can’t be considered commendable. Confusing sports with politics is bad regardless of whether it is done by totalitarians or democrats, and that is why I insist that wrapping national sports teams in the flag is sheer humbug. While Americans are, unfortunately, as vulnerable to the appeal of sports globaloney, such as the Olympics, as anyone else, for the most part, we much prefer our own team sports to international competitions, and that is all the better. Keeping those flags and nationalist sentiments, which are so easily and wrongly manipulated by tyrannies, out of the realm of sport is much to be preferred.

If, as you suggest, the success of the U.S. team in the World Cup will discourage those who root for American decline in the world, then so much the better. Let the foes of the United States tremble, whether the reason be substantial or not. But the notion you advance, that the possibility of future American dominance in soccer (a sport in which it has lagged behind principally because most Americans don’t care much about it) will illustrate the greatness of the American character, is, while flattering to our vanity, just as much of a humbug as the idea that Eastern-bloc dominance in other sports during the Cold War illustrated the superiority of communism.

Indeed, the best example of this was the “miracle on ice,” when an underdog bunch of American college ice-hockey players defeated the mighty professionals of the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics. As an American hockey fan, I was thrilled by it. But the widely believed notion that it was an illustration of American greatness or, heaven help us, that it helped win the Cold War, is sheer hyperbole. It was an amazing upset — but just a hockey game. The players on the Soviet hockey team were just athletes in red uniforms, not off-duty Gulag prison guards or KGB agents being bested by all-American G.I. Joes. The outcome had nothing to do with the triumph of American values any more than the numerous defeats inflicted on American squads at other times by that magnificent Soviet team portrayed the preeminence of the totalitarian ideology of their masters in the Kremlin.

While I wish the American team well in the subsequent rounds of the World Cup and encourage our friends around the world — who care more about this game than most of us here do — to root for them if they like, let us not make the mistake of confusing sports with politics or national character. Love of country has many admirable as well as distasteful manifestations. But good or bad, it has nothing to do with soccer or any other sport.

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RE: Leftist Soccer Agony: U.S. Victory Equals Jingoism

For once, I need to strike a discordant note with my colleague Jonathan Tobin about soccer (or, as most of us call it, football). The real irony of the entire NPR newsroom bursting in enthusiastic cheers as the U.S. team scores is not about US exceptionalism vs. Third Worldism and a UN-driven mentality. This is what the World Cup is about: it is the triumph of primordial nationalist allegiances over the internationalist blah-blah of the NPR newsroom (and all their traveling companions across the enlightened liberal world). If I were a Marxist, I’d attribute their enthusiasm to false conscience; since I am sane, I can only explain their outburst of national pride as evidence that their false conscience is their commitment to internationalism — a silly ideological pose whose fallacy just a game of soccer (football) can expose.

Just think about it — the first World Cup tournament took place in 1930 — the height of nationalistic jingoism in world history. Until the tournament had to be suspended because of a world war, the World Cup saw three tournaments — one in South America (not the beacon of democracy at the time) and two in Europe — in Italy and in France. Benito Mussolini took enormous satisfaction at the sight of his team winning twice in a row. Since then, the biggest soccer (football) event in the world is the World Cup — a competition between national teams that brings out the wildest and most primitive form of national allegiance one can imagine, especially among all those feckless UN fans, liberal internationalists, postmodern “let’s make love not war” crowds who scorn nationalism every single day of the four years in between one cup and the next as the root of all evils. And then, as if by magic, they dump their self-righteous moral indignation against the flag and all it stands for to wrap themselves in it with pride, joy, and not uncommonly with silly paints on their faces and all matters of bizarre and fashion-challenged clothing. Just to say they stand during the month of the World Cup for everything they loathe the rest of the time.

Just think about it — the French national team leaves in shame after it implodes due to ferocious disagreements with the coach and an abysmal performance on the pitch. France’s lead player is immediately received by the president of the republic, Nicholas Sarkozy, while the coach and the team are crucified in the press. Not by the president of the national football federation — by the president of the republic! Winners are bestowed medals, titles, national recognition, and, in cases like Pele (Brazil), Roger Milla (Cameroon), Platini (France), Beckenbauer (Germany), and Paolo Rossi (Italy,) they reach iconic status as national heroes.

All this is the quintessential expression of nationalism — that spent force Europe has turned its back to, the Third World has rhetorically fought against as the ultimate manifestation of imperialist aggression, and the NPR newsroom presumably blames for most global ills — starting, no doubt, with Israel (special dispensation to Palestinian nationalism notwithstanding).

Whether national team sport, as opposed to club sport, is “sheer humbug” is of course a matter of taste. But there is no escaping the fact that most international competitions in all sports (with the few possible exceptions of cycling, skiing, tennis, and the martial arts, which are very individualistic disciplines) attract far more attention and excitement than club sports. And that the U.S. has never sat alone and apart, isolated and removed by its exceptionalism, in such disparate disciplines as basketball, volleyball, water polo, and the likes, not to mention athletics, where in all tournaments that count, it is the national flag that matters, and not some local team or training gym.

Watching the US team join the big ones in soccer (football) should mean something else altogether (and should disturb all the useful idiots that root for American decline in the world); it means that even in a sport where America always lagged behind and ranked far below, we may see a time where American DOMINANCE takes over the world of soccer (football) as well. For this is one aspect of the exceptionalism of America — the ability to lead, excel, and triumph against the odds, to master foreign things, perfect them, and make them its own, without jingoism, chauvinism, or the cultural baggage that nationalism can have elsewhere. Three cheers for the U.S. team then — and a prayer that, before long, America’s players will conquer the heights of what once was a quintessentially European form of proud expression of national prowess.

For once, I need to strike a discordant note with my colleague Jonathan Tobin about soccer (or, as most of us call it, football). The real irony of the entire NPR newsroom bursting in enthusiastic cheers as the U.S. team scores is not about US exceptionalism vs. Third Worldism and a UN-driven mentality. This is what the World Cup is about: it is the triumph of primordial nationalist allegiances over the internationalist blah-blah of the NPR newsroom (and all their traveling companions across the enlightened liberal world). If I were a Marxist, I’d attribute their enthusiasm to false conscience; since I am sane, I can only explain their outburst of national pride as evidence that their false conscience is their commitment to internationalism — a silly ideological pose whose fallacy just a game of soccer (football) can expose.

Just think about it — the first World Cup tournament took place in 1930 — the height of nationalistic jingoism in world history. Until the tournament had to be suspended because of a world war, the World Cup saw three tournaments — one in South America (not the beacon of democracy at the time) and two in Europe — in Italy and in France. Benito Mussolini took enormous satisfaction at the sight of his team winning twice in a row. Since then, the biggest soccer (football) event in the world is the World Cup — a competition between national teams that brings out the wildest and most primitive form of national allegiance one can imagine, especially among all those feckless UN fans, liberal internationalists, postmodern “let’s make love not war” crowds who scorn nationalism every single day of the four years in between one cup and the next as the root of all evils. And then, as if by magic, they dump their self-righteous moral indignation against the flag and all it stands for to wrap themselves in it with pride, joy, and not uncommonly with silly paints on their faces and all matters of bizarre and fashion-challenged clothing. Just to say they stand during the month of the World Cup for everything they loathe the rest of the time.

Just think about it — the French national team leaves in shame after it implodes due to ferocious disagreements with the coach and an abysmal performance on the pitch. France’s lead player is immediately received by the president of the republic, Nicholas Sarkozy, while the coach and the team are crucified in the press. Not by the president of the national football federation — by the president of the republic! Winners are bestowed medals, titles, national recognition, and, in cases like Pele (Brazil), Roger Milla (Cameroon), Platini (France), Beckenbauer (Germany), and Paolo Rossi (Italy,) they reach iconic status as national heroes.

All this is the quintessential expression of nationalism — that spent force Europe has turned its back to, the Third World has rhetorically fought against as the ultimate manifestation of imperialist aggression, and the NPR newsroom presumably blames for most global ills — starting, no doubt, with Israel (special dispensation to Palestinian nationalism notwithstanding).

Whether national team sport, as opposed to club sport, is “sheer humbug” is of course a matter of taste. But there is no escaping the fact that most international competitions in all sports (with the few possible exceptions of cycling, skiing, tennis, and the martial arts, which are very individualistic disciplines) attract far more attention and excitement than club sports. And that the U.S. has never sat alone and apart, isolated and removed by its exceptionalism, in such disparate disciplines as basketball, volleyball, water polo, and the likes, not to mention athletics, where in all tournaments that count, it is the national flag that matters, and not some local team or training gym.

Watching the US team join the big ones in soccer (football) should mean something else altogether (and should disturb all the useful idiots that root for American decline in the world); it means that even in a sport where America always lagged behind and ranked far below, we may see a time where American DOMINANCE takes over the world of soccer (football) as well. For this is one aspect of the exceptionalism of America — the ability to lead, excel, and triumph against the odds, to master foreign things, perfect them, and make them its own, without jingoism, chauvinism, or the cultural baggage that nationalism can have elsewhere. Three cheers for the U.S. team then — and a prayer that, before long, America’s players will conquer the heights of what once was a quintessentially European form of proud expression of national prowess.

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Potemkin Futbol

Truth has it all over fiction. Sports photographers captured a poignant moment at the Brazil–North Korea match in Tuesday’s World Cup play, when North Korea’s star striker, Jong Tae-Se, stood with tears in his eyes as his national anthem was played and a tiny contingent of fans cheered wildly. The New York Times’s Rob Hughes, answering the call of sentiment, reported that the match helped “bridge the world’s divides” and urged “everyone [to move] away from the notion that the isolation of half of the Korean Peninsula makes its citizens and players somehow inferior.”

No trip back to the manufactured atmosphere of Cold War–era sporting events would be complete without some kind of deceptive show put on by the Marxist side. And this incident requited expectations: it turns out that the 100 North Korean fans vigorously waving their flags last night in the bleachers in Ellis Park were Chinese actors, hired by China to play North Korean fans.

China didn’t qualify for the 2010 World Cup. According to a Chinese TV news anchor who’s now in Johannesburg covering the tournament, “Chinese fans will stand for the Asian teams.” South Korea and Japan are also competing for the World Cup this year, but the TV anchor’s additional comments clarify why China is standing for one Asian team in particular:

… 60 years ago, China’s military forces valiantly crossed the Yalu River to fight alongside the North Koreans against their enemies.

Sixty years on, we cheer for their football team and hope they will go far.

These aren’t comments a Chinese TV personality can make without government approval. America may have common interests with China in a variety of situations, but we’ve been deceiving ourselves for too long that such commonality exists when it comes to the disposition of the Korean peninsula. In significant ways, it’s still 1950 in Beijing. What China wants is a viable North Korea that can withstand attempts at unifying the Koreas under a U.S.-friendly government. China can wait for a propitious time to foster reunification to its own advantage; the key under current conditions is to prevent the Kim regime from collapsing.

In light of North Korea’s torpedoing of the South Korean ship in March, the Chinese endorsement at the World Cup is very pointed. It’s also classic state-socialist stage management — if with a twist this time, China having straightforwardly announced what it’s doing back in May. China’s apparent sense that such signals will be either missed or shrugged off by the U.S. has deepened considerably with the Obama presidency. Asians are less obtuse in this regard, however, and they are the target audience.

Brazil defeated North Korea 2-1, incidentally — a creditable showing by the North Koreans against the world’s top-ranked team.

Truth has it all over fiction. Sports photographers captured a poignant moment at the Brazil–North Korea match in Tuesday’s World Cup play, when North Korea’s star striker, Jong Tae-Se, stood with tears in his eyes as his national anthem was played and a tiny contingent of fans cheered wildly. The New York Times’s Rob Hughes, answering the call of sentiment, reported that the match helped “bridge the world’s divides” and urged “everyone [to move] away from the notion that the isolation of half of the Korean Peninsula makes its citizens and players somehow inferior.”

No trip back to the manufactured atmosphere of Cold War–era sporting events would be complete without some kind of deceptive show put on by the Marxist side. And this incident requited expectations: it turns out that the 100 North Korean fans vigorously waving their flags last night in the bleachers in Ellis Park were Chinese actors, hired by China to play North Korean fans.

China didn’t qualify for the 2010 World Cup. According to a Chinese TV news anchor who’s now in Johannesburg covering the tournament, “Chinese fans will stand for the Asian teams.” South Korea and Japan are also competing for the World Cup this year, but the TV anchor’s additional comments clarify why China is standing for one Asian team in particular:

… 60 years ago, China’s military forces valiantly crossed the Yalu River to fight alongside the North Koreans against their enemies.

Sixty years on, we cheer for their football team and hope they will go far.

These aren’t comments a Chinese TV personality can make without government approval. America may have common interests with China in a variety of situations, but we’ve been deceiving ourselves for too long that such commonality exists when it comes to the disposition of the Korean peninsula. In significant ways, it’s still 1950 in Beijing. What China wants is a viable North Korea that can withstand attempts at unifying the Koreas under a U.S.-friendly government. China can wait for a propitious time to foster reunification to its own advantage; the key under current conditions is to prevent the Kim regime from collapsing.

In light of North Korea’s torpedoing of the South Korean ship in March, the Chinese endorsement at the World Cup is very pointed. It’s also classic state-socialist stage management — if with a twist this time, China having straightforwardly announced what it’s doing back in May. China’s apparent sense that such signals will be either missed or shrugged off by the U.S. has deepened considerably with the Obama presidency. Asians are less obtuse in this regard, however, and they are the target audience.

Brazil defeated North Korea 2-1, incidentally — a creditable showing by the North Koreans against the world’s top-ranked team.

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A-Rod Nation

Max Boot, contentions contributor, told us on Saturday that his unfulfilled passion is sports writing. So is mine.

In his post he revealed his devotion to an inferior sport, football. I, on the other hand, follow the national pastime. Max might disagree about the relative merits of our two sports, but he has to admit that this past Saturday, the baseball news was far more interesting than whatever may have happened in the gridiron world.

Saturday night, in my old hometown of San Diego, Barry Bonds launched a 91-mile-an-hour fastball into the left-center stands of Petco Park. By doing so, the left fielder of the San Francisco Giants tied Hammerin’ Hank Aaron’s record for most career home runs, the most hallowed mark in American sport. As he rounded the bases, fans booed and held up uncomplimentary signs. The commissioner of baseball, in the stands at the time, stood grim-faced with his hands in his pockets.

Read More

Max Boot, contentions contributor, told us on Saturday that his unfulfilled passion is sports writing. So is mine.

In his post he revealed his devotion to an inferior sport, football. I, on the other hand, follow the national pastime. Max might disagree about the relative merits of our two sports, but he has to admit that this past Saturday, the baseball news was far more interesting than whatever may have happened in the gridiron world.

Saturday night, in my old hometown of San Diego, Barry Bonds launched a 91-mile-an-hour fastball into the left-center stands of Petco Park. By doing so, the left fielder of the San Francisco Giants tied Hammerin’ Hank Aaron’s record for most career home runs, the most hallowed mark in American sport. As he rounded the bases, fans booed and held up uncomplimentary signs. The commissioner of baseball, in the stands at the time, stood grim-faced with his hands in his pockets.

The unenthusiastic crowd reaction was both predictable and understandable. Allegations of steroid use have dogged the slugger. Barry Bonds will never outlive the perception that he cheated his way into the record book, and except in the Bay Area, he is considered an embarrassment to baseball.

Because this is contentions, let me put Bonds’s disgrace into broader perspective. On the same day that Bonds tied Aaron, A-Rod, sometimes known as Alex Rodriguez, became the youngest player in major league history to hit 500 homers. When the Yankee third baseman breaks Bonds’s mark—some say he will even surpass 800 home runs—he will help rub out the stain of steroid use that has tainted his sport. In these times when many think our global position is in decline, let’s not forget that America’s greatest attribute is not its strength, but its capacity for self-renewal. We are a nation of A-Rods.

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