Thursday, June 17, 2004

Sports-Related Intolerance

I'll often hear people, sitting on barstools, trying to compare things. Often they try to compare things that shouldn't be compared - things like beer and wine or apples and oranges. Recently I've heard lots of people trying to compare American Football and Soccer.
Before I go any further, I must disclaim that I'm an American and a huge fan of American Football. I've also developed a healthy respect for Soccer, a game played professionally around the world.

I did a little research (actually just reading other people's research) and have determined that:

  • People have played with balls or something like balls since (nearly) the beginning of time.

  • In 1633, a game like football was played in North America.

  • In 1846, the British army was used to break up an unruly game of village football between the Derbyshire parishes of All Saint's and St Peters on Shrovetide Tuesday. Over the next 20 years, public schools and elite universities transformed football from a chaotic rural pastime into the game we know.

  • In 1869, the first intercollegiate football game was played by Princeton and Rutgers, though it was essentially a soccer match. Soccer-style football did not appeal to Harvard students. They preferred rugby-style football, and they managed in 1876 to persuade their chief athletic competitors, Yale and Princeton, to adopt rugby-style football as well.

  • I found a good paper, titled "American Exceptionalism: Soccer and American Football", written by Ivan Waddington and Martin Roderick from the Centre for Research into Sport and Society (University of Leicester). Here are two excerpts:


    Similar problems arise with the explanations offered by Mason and Sugden for the relative failure of soccer to take root in the United States. Their argument, as we noted above, is couched in terms of baseball "getting in first". However, this argument ignores the fact that the Americans did take up football in a big way, though it was not, of course, the Association game which they took up. During the 1870s, most American colleges played a game based on the rugby version of football but, as is well known, the Americans subsequently developed from this game their own, distinctively American version of football in the form of the grid iron game. A properly sociological analysis, rather than suggesting that soccer did not develop because baseball "got in first", would seek to explain why it was that, in the first place, the Americans opted for a game based on the rugby rather than the soccer version of football and why, having done so, they then developed that game in ways which took it further and further away from rugby, resulting in the distinctively American version of football. Some of these questions are taken up, and some tentative solutions offered, in the remainder of this paper.

    The two most popular sports in the United States today, at least at the senior/professional level, are of course baseball and American football. The latter is derived from the rugby code of football which, like soccer, has its modern roots in the nineteenth century English public school system. Baseball, on the other hand, developed in the early nineteenth century in New England and is probably descended from an ancient English game called "rounders", which also involves running between bases of the type found in baseball. However, a distinguishing and very important quality of both baseball and American football is that, notwithstanding the fact that both sports resemble games which had earlier been played in Europe, baseball and American football draw upon and express - or at least, and no less importantly, are commonly believed to draw upon and express - a set of values and characteristics which are uniquely American.


    There is one other respect in which, in terms of Guttmann's criteria, American football may be said to be a particularly modern game, and it is also a further respect in which it may be said to be particularly American. We refer here to the high level of quantification which is characteristic of football. Although, as Guttmann notes, the stress on teamwork is rather greater in the case of football than it is in the case of baseball, for example, so that it is difficult to attribute the result of a game to the actions of a single player, there are nevertheless numerous opportunities for the compilation of statistics in football. Thus football statistics routinely include information on yards per carry, total passing yardage, total running yardage and so forth. Books on successful teams invariably include won/lost records and team standings, while biographies of outstanding players provide lists of individual records, making it possible to compare the records of different players. Although the structure of the game probably allows for less quantification than is the case in baseball, where the process has been taken to extremes - and in this way, suggests Guttmann (1978, p.219), football may be less modern than is baseball - it is nevertheless the case that football, like baseball, involves a relatively high degree of quantification, and this, it might be noted, appears to be not only a general index of modernity, but also a particular obsession with American sports fans.

    In this paper, we have examined some of the social sources of American exceptionalism in sport, and the way in which the Americans took the rugby code of football and developed from it their own nationally distinct game. It would, however, be quite wrong to imagine that soccer has never been played in the United States for, as we saw previously, the United States entered a team in the World Cup competition a full twenty years before England did so. Moreover, in the last two decades, there have been a number of attempts to establish the game as a professional sport in America, and in recent years the game has grown rapidly in popularity as a participant sport, though it remains relatively underdeveloped as a spectator sport and at the professional level.

    However, in 1994, the United States hosted the soccer World Cup Finals. Claims were made in terms of new World Cup records being set in relation to tickets sold and cumulative audience figures, and one of the tangible legacies from this World Cup has been the creation of a new professional league. Some people associated with soccer in the United States clearly feel the World Cup has provided the basis for a rebirth of professional soccer in America. Thus Alan Rothenburg, President of the United States Soccer Federation, was moved to state that "Before long, soccer will take its rightful place among baseball, basketball, football and hockey, as the fifth professional sport in America" (Newsline, July 1994, p.2). It will indeed be interesting to see to what extent the situation changes as a result of this development.
    So, to summarize, American Football is not Soccer. We shouldn't try to compare them. They are both old. They both have distinct cultures. They both involve professional (as well as amateur) athletes. They both are very succesful in terms of fan support and entertainment. Let's try to appreciate each other's ball-related sports!

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