The Devil's Playground

Blame BuffloSoldier for this post, wherein I spend WAY too much time thinking about an unthinking soccer critic. Your fellow posters took it apart here. American Conservative (as linked to on the P&CE thread) rebutted it here. And a wonderfully paraphrased version here. Thank you, Canada, we owe you one.

So Webb has already been stuffed and mounted. But there's still something we can learn from this. When a mainstream sportswriter takes on soccer, it's one thing. One predictable thing, one tedious thing, one thing that reveals a desperation for attention. But nevertheless, one thing.

This, on the other hand, is Stephen H. Webb. Why would a professor of religion and philosophy take it upon himself to denounce soccer?

One theory is that he's kidding. It wouldn't be the first time:

But he doesn't strike me as someone who tends to joke around about America's moral decline. He ain't no Dave Barry, in other words.

But if so, American Conservative and Spectator, not exactly hippie communes, bought into it hook line and sinker. If Webb is going for comedy, he succeeds, but on a cosmically unintentional level. Examples:

And so forth.

Another theory is that he's crazy. Wikipedia again:

This was a silly idea when Pete Townshend came up with it, and Webb is unlikely to write "Who's Next."

But he touches on a couple of things that are now-tedious tropes among anti-soccer idioterati. One is the foreignness of the sport - yes, the NASL was terribly, terribly exotic, we get it. The other is an absolute insistence on judging the game as played by their children.

Webb blames conservative suburbia for giving in to a leftist sport for the sake of convenience. Webb has almost certainly never heard of Phil Anschutz, and I wonder what Webb's reaction would be on hearing that, were it not for the resources and commitment of this extremely rich and very serious cultural conservative, professional soccer would have died eight years ago.*

Of all the countries, leaders, presidents, dictators and demagogues who have tried to politicize soccer to promote their agendas, the only place where the link between politics and soccer is taken for granted is the United States - the place where, arguably, it's the least true in the world. It's like Webb is arguing "Life can't exist underwater" in the middle of the Long Beach Aquarium.

Americans forcing soccer into awkward political slots has a long and cherished history. Dick Young in the 70's famously said that soccer was a Communist sport - problem is, Communist countries tended to kind of stink at the game. (If you're establishing a government based on how well you want your soccer team to perform, democracy works okay. But if you really want to win World Cups, try a fascist military dictatorship.) It's not rational to believe in soccer as inherently left-wing. So where is all this really coming from?

I think I figured out why this sort of thing bothered me more than the typical "They never score and they players are all foreign" approach. Webb is forced to care about the sport because of his children, and resents it. Has Webb never thought of buying his daughters a basketball or a saxophone or something? The professor has expressed deep interests in both basketball and music, yet he is forced to while away weekends while his children play soccer.

If I were to write about how musical theater is a dead art form because my daughter was completely unbelievable as a singing carrot in "Nutrimania!", I certainly wouldn't be published in a magazine about philosophy and religion. But soccer is forever being judged by its least experienced and least skilled practitioners (well, okay, apart from Kevin Goldthwaite). Would you judge Christianity by Dr. Webb's writings? Because you probably shouldn't, I'm guessing.

Maybe it's not soccer he hates. Maybe it's parenthood. If in the next few years I come to bitterly resent what my daughters enjoy, I will consider myself very sad and unfortuante indeed.

It could be more benign. Perhaps watching your kids do something makes you hate it. Or maybe soccer gets lumped in with the crappy stuff kids in general inflict on their parents.


*Well, okay, the USL. Reasonable minds may differ, but I believe the USL in a post-MLS world would be professional soccer in the same way that "Spare change?" is professional oratory.

**On the other hand,

Grover is awesome. ******** Elmo, man.