Thursday, April 17, 2008

Mixing Sports and Politics

Here I do not mean mixing sport and politics but looking for the echoes of political philosophy into sport. Fred Schwartz in The National Review has an interesting little essay on which professional sport is the most consistent with conservative principles. For a variety of reasons, he argues for baseball. Is he right?

While his arguments dwell on attire, immigration policy and the like, I think the strongest argument for baseball as the quintessentially conservative game has to do with the evolution – of which there has been surprisingly little since integration – of the game. The fundamental fact about baseball, which differentiates it in my view from other sports, is that the choices managers and players face are essentially the same now as they have ever been. The rules are the same (other team sports are constantly tinkering with theirs) as they were decades ago, as are the strategic choices – hit-and-run or not, take a pitch or two with a fleet runner on first, etc. – as they were at the dawn of the live-ball era. The only real on-field innovation that I am aware of in the thirty-plus years of my fandom is the development of specialized relief pitching. A baseball fan teleported from the 1920s would find the players bigger and more global, but would recognize the game itself. This is not true for most sports, which have a constant flow of coaching innovations (the 46 defense, the dribble-drive offense, and so on). If conservatism means respect for traditions of the game themselves, baseball clearly contrasts with football, basketball and hockey, all the more so given the veneration for its past that is such a part of baseball. Only in baseball do we get the overwrought, teary-eyed nostalgia of a Roger Kahn, Bob Costas or George Will.

In contrast, I have become persuaded by some recent reading that American football has a whiff of the fascist motif about it. The charismatic leader, in the form of the fiery coach or trusted quarterback (a position with no analogue in the other team sports), plays a much bigger role in football than elsewhere. There is no football equivalent of the post-ideological, leader-led drive toward the common purpose that Jonah Goldberg argues is the essence of fascism, but the martial elements and mass-rally motif of a typical football crowd are still, a reasonable person would I hope agree, suggestive.

But if conservatism means American conservatism, with its critical component of decentralized cultural evolution, then as much as I hate to say it, the ultimate conservative (or perhaps, more accurately, libertarian) sport is soccer. In soccer it is players, not coaches, who do much of the innovating, through the creation of the soccer kick, bicycle kick, etc. This is a way of extending the range of human possibilities, just as techno-libertarians such as the types over at Reason admire. The Brazilian Leonidas, inventor of the bicycle kick, is to sports what Steven Jobs is to technology. And as in most strains of libertarianism there is one paramount rule – no force or fraud – and little else to restrain anything else humans might try. So too with soccer, where “do not use your hands” is the only overarching commandment; within this constraint, most everything else is legal.

None of this has anything to do with which sport is better. I like American football just fine (make of that what you will), and like a lot of Americans, I don’t much care for soccer. Indeed, one of the reasons Americans may dislike it is that we prefer to invent our own sports. I don’t pick my friends according to their politics, nor do I pick movies or sports by their abstractly argumentative political characteristics. But soccer (and American football and basketball) will be significantly different twenty years from now from what they are now, and I find that an attractive characteristic.


Blogger Joshua said...

Unfortunately, soccer is also notorious for any number of non-American-conservative qualities, such as hooliganism and a certain level of tolerance for corruption (albeit one which varies from country to country). Also, one of the most common criticisms of soccer, especially from this side of the Atlantic, is that games are far more prone to turn on game official decisions (particularly offsides calls and yellow/red cards, and to a lesser degree awarding free kicks or penalties) than in other team sports. Such a disproportionate role for authority in the outcome doesn't strike me as very libertarian or very American.

As a side note, the recent growth in popularity of soccer as a spectator sport in the US, particularly in leagues and events with no American presence, is one major example of the globalization of culture, which I give primary credit/blame for the slow death of the Westphalian model. (As you may be aware, this year ESPN is televising the entire Euro 2008 tournament in America - and paid top dollar for the rights to do so, as I understand - even though the U.S. national team obviously will not be taking part. In the world of as little as fifteen years ago, before the evolution of the Internet and other global media made it possible to follow any given team, sport or event from anywhere on the planet, such a move would have been pure insanity. Those days are clearly over.)

12:20 AM  
Blogger Evan said...

I talk about the violence in the essay linked in the post; I agree that it is a major turnoff for Americans. The importance of officials, I think, comes from the fact that scoring and cards are so rare. But the importance of the referee is partly a function of the size of the rulebook; I have always assumed that relative to, for example, American football (a very complex game), the referee in the grand scheme of things has less influence.

Your point about soccer as cultural globalization and hence source of instability is interesting (and in character :)), although baseball and basketball are globalizing too. (David Stern wants to have a Euro division in the NBA, apparently.) So I am not sure it is fair to blame soccer particularly for that. The existence of global communications media makes it inevitable that some sport or sports will perform this role.

1:36 PM  

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