Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Is Soccer More American than Football?

When I was a boy, my grandfather, who fought in Europe in World War II, told me that the U.S. won largely because of the G.I.'s ability to think on his feet, to make due with what he had, to take personal initiative and get the job done. I was told that the Germans, on the other hand, were so encumbered by their strict hierarchy and their blind obedience to orders that when the command chain (or the supply chain) broke down, they couldn't cope.

While I think the G.I. winning with bubble gum and shoe polish, a la McGyver, is largely a myth, the story nevertheless embodies a certain valued American trait, namely the ability to creatively improvise, to think on one's feet, to get the job done.

Which brings me to football and soccer.

Football, as we discussed before, because of the rules allowing for unlimited substitutions, favors extreme specialization. Players rotate in and out based on plays called by coaches and coordinators and then are given a specific assignment on each play. With the exception of the quarterback (who has a list of options to run through on pass plays), other players do what they are told with only limited options (depending on coverage a receiver may cut his route off, or go deep; a lineman may block high or low; but these are extremely limited and well-defined parameters). Whether a defense blitzes or drops back into coverage is entirely dictated by the chain of command sitting in booths overhead or standing on the sidelines. Football is a sport where labor is constantly overseen by management. Seen in this light, football lacks the kind of spontaneous innovation G.I.s and Americans pride themselves on.

Soccer on the other hand (that evil Socialist sport), by the simple fact that players are forced into playing offense and defense, breeds a sort of spontaneous improvisation that should make Americans proud. Given that there are few breaks in the action, it is hard for coaches to have the kind of play by play micromanagement that exists in football, so soccer players have a bit more freedom to experiment and create.

Here is an example from last weekend's MLS Cup Final.

If we think of America as a corporate nation, where labor should do what the manager in the panopticon tells it to do, then Football is as American as turkey on Thanksgiving. But if America is more about creativity and improvisation, maybe we really should embrace the European game... in order to be more American.

Happy Thanksgiving. Enjoy the football and apple pie.

Franklin Foer Lecture Online

If you missed it, the Kennedy Center at Brigham Young University has made Franklin Foer's very interesting and entertaining lecture on soccer and globalization available online. You can watch it here.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

BYU to Upgrade Weight Room

With their loss to Utah on Saturday, the BYU football team has earned themselves some sweet new weight room equipment for next season (thanks to the deal that spreads Utah's $17 million BCS payout among all conference teams).

BYU's NewsNet quotes an associate athletic director of finance who explained, "The money [likely over $1 million/school] would be used in a variety of different ways . . . Facilities, equipment and" ... (drum roll while I hope he says, "books for students in financial difficulty, new weight machines for the faculty, scholarships for students from economically depressed parts of the world... but instead he says) ... "and salaries [what the!..]. Mostly the funds would augment what the athletic department does, which is take care of the student-athletes and provide them with every opportunity to succeed at the highest level." Oh well, we can dream....

Dear football team, please donate your old stuff to the faculty weight room (where we have 30 year-old equipment). If you do, I promise to sing the fight song every time I work out and pledge to be extra nice to football players in my classes. And please set up a BCS scholarship fund for students who come from impoverished parts of the world... turn the football hay into something needy students could sink their teeth into.

A Genuine Sports Academic: Alfred Aboya

On November 5th, ESPN senior college b-ball beat writer Andy Katz did a feature story on one of my former students at UCLA, Alfred Aboya (Read Here). If anyone epitomizes sports meeting academics, it's Alfred. Last Spring, in my section of Advanced Writing on Contemporary French Culture, writing in a foreign language (he's from Cameroon and was writing in English), he pulled an "A" for the course while helping the Bruins to a Pac-10 title and his THIRD straight Final Four. Now a grad student at UCLA, Alfred has goals of returning to the Final Four and winning an NCAA title, as well as preparing for a career in foreign policy after his basketball days are through. Even if you smirk at the term "college-athlete," there are those who live up to it.

What's more, he had the highest output of his career last night (22pts, 8 boards), with a couple of mean dunks against poor Southern Illinois in a big Bruins victory. (See Highlights Here!)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Soccer and Globalization: Manchester United/ New York Yankees “SuperClub”

In the wake of Frank Foer’s visit to BYU this week, I felt it might be worthwhile to use my first Sports Academic post (Thanks, Corry!) to revisit one of the most glaring examples of sports and globalization in recent history: the New York Yankees/Manchester United “SuperClub” pact of 2001. Orchestrated by none other than George Steinbrenner (who else?), this historical merger, the most lucrative in the history of sports, basically added up to revenue sharing and streamlined marketing between the two largest, richest clubs in professional sports.

Before hastily assuming this is another Yankee-hater post on the “Evil Empire” of Steinbrenner, let me preface my comments in saying that I have a strong historical affinity and love for the Yankees (for reasons I mentioned in my “Love Letter to Baseball” in my comments on Corry’s "Baseball's Demise II" post on my birthday). My reasons for resurrecting this beast of a deal nearly eight years later is to highlight the impact it’s had on sports in the global scene. Not only did Steinbrenner’s plan include televising ManU matches on his YES network, it would send Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter to Old Trafford for a British Tour, bring David Beckham and Fabien Barthez to Yankees Stadium for a US Tour AND, perhaps most significantly, capitalize on marketing by posting the one’s insignia in the other’s stadium and selling their trans-Atlantic counterpart’s merchandise in each team stores.

What did this mean to sports? If we’re talking championships, very little—the Yankees have only won one AL pennant (2003) and NO world series since the merger; ManU continued their dominance in the Premier League but took time in claiming an FA Cup (2004), League Cup (2006) or UEFA Championship (2008). As far as marketing goes, that’s another story: both teams have greatly enjoyed the spike in their stock and revenues that allowed them to buy the biggest names in their respective sports. In 2002-2003, Steinbrenner was able to bring Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield and some guy they call A-Rod to a team that already had Roger Clemens, Derek Jeter, etc. Immediately following the merger, ManU broke the national transfer record THREE times consecutively with the purchase of Ruud Van Nistelroov, the Argentine Juan Sebastien Verón and Rio Ferdinand—adding them to a team that already had Beckham and Barthez. In essence, it made both teams—the richest in their respective sports—even richer and, ultimately, immune to any potential salary caps or luxury taxes. What’s more? It made great strides to making ManU and the Yankees international teams.

Steinbrenner has since retired from baseball and passed the team to his inept son Hank (C’mon, Joba as a starter???). American impresario Malcolm Glazer managed to buy the majority of United stocks in 2005, much to the dismay and chagrin of the ManU faithful. Yet, the teams continue to buy the big-ticket stars (Christiano Ronaldo, Johnny Damon, Nick Swisher) and continue to lead the league in revenue, payroll and global markets. Yesterday, at the Frank Foer Q&A, I was sitting in front of an American student with a ManU sweatshirt AND jersey... in Provo. And, I defy you to spend an hour near the Tube station at Piccadilly Circus without seeing the iconic white NY on a field of navy on the crown of an average Englishman.

Sports are a global commodity—as big as McDonalds, Coca Cola, Nokia or Ikea. Barcelona just sold out to corporate sponsors. Franck Ribéry’s Bayern Munich jersey has a giant T-Mobile logo on it. Soccer, this organically-grown, grassroots, beautiful game of tribal warfare, has succumbed, as Foer so eloquently wrote, to the capital market of globalization. Alas, the pitch has seen the end of a José Bové approach to selling cultural exceptionalism. Indeed, soccer is not Roquefort.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

More on Obama and the BCS

Scott sends me this link from Slate magazine that looks (almost) seriously at Obama's desire to see college football adopt a playoff system:

My opinion is this... Instead of a wish of a presidential sports fan or an attempt to push for "change" that would meet with near universal approval, I see it as a symbolic gesture on Obama's part, an attempt to connect with a broad swath of the American electorate that could potentially feel alienated by an Obama presidency.

In the waning days of the presidential campaign, the McCain camp attacked Obama as socialist, even (gasp) European! By showing he cares about a playoff system that gives everyone a chance (well, the top 8 teams anyway) and that he likes football--the sporting world's equivalent of red meat--Mr. Obama reassures middle-America that he is both a good capitalist and a good American.

The BCS, after all, is like a state-run economy where the powers-that-be determine the marketplace and select who can do business in it. Under a playoff system, the most competitive team wins, with only limited "state" intervention (less than $700 billion, anyway).

And football is now more American than either baseball or basketball (both of which have practitioners and fans overseas). As long as Mr. Obama avoids showing an interest in soccer (that evil socialist sport), he should maintain his popularity in the American sports world.

The NCAA responded to Obama's proposal by saying their "constituencies" are satisfied with the BCS system and plan to maintain it. It is telling that in's article about this mini-controversy, they cite University of Texas coach Mack Brown as being a "big fan of Obama's idea." By attacking the BCS, Obama, who wants to govern the entire country (not just the blue states), is extending his popularity in the college-football-crazed-South, an area where McCain fared extremely well in the election.

Maybe Obama is right: there are no red states and no blue states after all; just a lot of anti-BCS states....

Monday, November 17, 2008

Franklin Foer Lecture

For those of you checking this blog from Utah, please come to a lecture by Franklin Foer, editor at the New Republic and author of a recent book on sports and politics entitled, How Soccer Explains the World: An (Unlikely) Theory of Globalization. The lecture will take place Wednesday (Nov 19) at 3PM on the Brigham Young University campus in the JSB auditorium.

In the book, Foer uses soccer as a sort of conduit that allows him to access the unspoken ethos of (among other groups) Serbian gangsters, Scottish Catholics, and American Republicans. Though he would probably bristle at me qualifying it this way, soccer becomes, for Foer, a tool to tap into global society's id.

Please come for a free session on the analyst's couch with Mr. Foer this Wednesday.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

To BYU Football Team: Throw the Game!

College Football Quiz:

Why should BYU let the University of Utah beat them next weekend?

A) Money. BYU, even with the loss, will earn a reputable bowl bid. A bid with a payout almost big enough to cover their costs (though as reported here, most teams lose money when they go to non-BCS bowl games). But if the U of U wins they will almost certainly be invited to a BCS bowl. This is great news for BYU because the big bucks Utah would earn are shared with the other teams in the Mountain West--in 2004, when the U went to the Fiesta Bowl, BYU made an estimated 1 million for sitting at home.

B) If they publicly let it be known they intend to throw the game, it would put the BCS and the NCAA in the awkward position of acknowledging their system needs revamping to allow conference champions a chance to make it to the big show, even with a loss. If BYU wins, they would be conference champions (please correct me BYU fans if I'm wrong on that) but would still likely lose money going to a post-season game under the current bowl system. And Utah, too, would likely be invited to a second-tier game. If every conference champ had a guaranteed ticket to a top-tier bowl game (or to a playoff and a chance to play their way in), every team would try to win every game.

C) A & B.

D) They shouldn't lose but should do the morally upright thing--try and win--remembering that little Johnny's hopes are riding on their shoulders (along with the hopes of Little Caesars, KSL, Hogi Yogi, Les Schwab, Deseret First Credit Union, Zion's Bank, Omniture, and many other local fans).

Please leave your answer in a comment. All responses are due by game time. Absolutely no late work will be accepted.

Update: an article in BYU's NewsNet reports that the payout for a BCS bowl would be in the 17 million range and an accountant with the athletic department is quoted as saying that the money would all go back into the football and athletic programs. After they throw the game, they should contribute to the university's mission by giving some of that money to the library, or better yet to a general scholarship fund for students with financial need.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Sports and Social Responsibility

At last week's conference of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport (NASSS) in Denver, Richard King (current NASSS president, best known for his work on representations of Native Americans) delivered a fascinating message on sports, consumerism, and social responsibility. As part of his presentation he offered examples of culture jamming and showed anti-branding artwork, before wondering aloud how effective campaigns and artwork can be in raising awareness of corporate excesses, especially when anti-corporate works of art often end up becoming objects of consumption themselves.

Here are some questions to consider: What is the moral obligation of athletes who make millions in sponsorship deals from corporations who subcontract their labor to factories where employees are paid below a liveable wage (how do they live then, you ask? a lot of overtime)? How should fans respond to the vast corporate involvement in professional AND "amateur" sports? How could fans, professional athletes and teams put pressure on sponsors to assure they are acting in a socially responsible manner? Or is this even possible given that so much of a league's revenue comes from apparel sales and corporate sponsorships (in other words, have they completely lost their autonomy)?

"Branded Head" by Hank Willis Thomas
source: (a website about an exhibit of branded art held at my alma mater, The University of Illinois)

This work of art (among other things) equates corporate branding with the literal branding imposed on African American slaves and suggests that Nike continues to propagate a certain form of racism via their labor practices and their marketing strategies.



source: Hartford Courant, 2005

Friday, November 7, 2008

Obama Comes out in Favor of College Football Playoff

Since I received the same link from two different readers, I better put it up. It is a humorous article by Dan Wetzel about Barack Obama's support of a playoff in college football and about how he could have gotten sports fans behind him in the primaries, particularly in the South, by appealing directly to college football fans:

So let me hear from the pro-BCS people...

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Baseball's Demise (?) Part Two

During the World Series, I noticed that Fox opened their coverage of the games with a short video retrospective--narrated by Michael Douglas with quotes read by Barack Obama and John McCain (below)--touting all the game's greatest moment. Of course it gave me goosebumps, because I'm a sucker for that kind of thing. But the transition to the actual game (played in a dome) seemed a bit abrupt.

A few posts ago I suggested that baseball was suffering from a number of life-threatening problems. Another may be found in the disconnect between Major League Baseball's nostalgic idealization of its pastoral past and the current realities of the game (steroids, strikes, $, etc.). These unseemly aspects always existed but remained largely hidden until the publication of Jim Bouton's Ball Four (1970). Admittedly the disconnect exists in any marketing scheme (commercial, political, athletic, etc.), but it may be even wider--and more obvious--in baseball than in most fields given baseball's very public failures of late.

Is baseball too blatantly tied to its past? Or is its past MLB's only hope for survival? Does baseball have a future as anything but a museum sport for old cranks like me?