Soccer: gnawing at the fragile psyche of the American sports punditocracy (rant)

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Teeth gnash at flecks of grey matter prompting paranoid spittle to fly as negative nonsense spuriously spouts forth…the beauty, excitement and rightful attention paid to the Women’s World Cup has brought them to the brink.

Witness this past Sunday after the miraculous end of the grinding, hair-raising, emotional marathon that was the U.S. v. Brazil World Cup Quarterfinal match on a last second equaliser that’s cobra strike suddenness and importance was rivaled only by the art with which it was constructed – archetypal American sports journo hack nonpareil John Feinsten could be found on Washington Post Live, practicing a particular form of American neurosis, I like to call Preemptive Pettiness ™.  Here’s the transcript of that masterpiece of condescenscion:

Feinstein: I was watching CC Sabathia.

Carter: Ok, great, that’s awesome.

Wise: Really?

Feinstein: Yeah, because it’s a real sport.

Wise: Stop.

Carter: Are you serious? Stop. Don’t.

Feinstein: I’ve said this before.

Wise: That’s chauvinist.

Feinstein: No, I feel the same way about men’s soccer. You cannot call something….

Carter: Oh, stop.

Feinstein: Can I finish my sentence?

Carter: No.

Feinstein: You can’t call something a real sport if you don’t decide it by playing the sport. If you ended Stanley Cup….

Carter: So it’s just penalty kicks?

Feinstein: Yes.

Carter: Nooooo.

Where to even begin…Let’s start with his pathetic dismissive “Soccer!? What is this soccer you speak of?  I was doing something vitally unique and important. (ie. watching an overweight guy stand on a pile of dirt and throw a ball.)  Leave aside for a moment the fact that Sabathia will pitch more than 30 times this summer – whereas the Women’s World Cup, powered on these shores by a narrow, navel-gazing U.S. centric narrative (something hacks usually devour) of redemption, happens every 4 years – C.C. Sabbathia is an athletic marvel only in the minds of doughy, middle-aged white men nationwide.  He is the ultimate object of projection/patron saint of the pudgy, uniformly unathletic sports writer guild.  The emphatic invocation of Sabathia is instructive for myriad reasons and offers a key insight into the wounded, paranoid psyche of writers of Feinstein’ era.  Even Feinstein’s blunt, desperate tone drips with panic: I WAS WATCHING C.C. SABATHIA! Weren’t you?  Weren’t you? Why weren’t you watching? WHY?”…starts wailing and pounding his fists on the ground.

Here's who you should've been watching

People like Feinstein, Jim Rome, George Will et.al hate and fear soccer so much because their beloved baseball is basically dwindling down to the bare bottom, burning embers of a dull toothless blaze no matter how they much bellow and bluster.  Franklin Foer and others have noticed the intrinsic, irrational link between baseball and soccer’s biggest, loudest most gleeful detractors in the United States.  They fear, rightfully so, that baseball may die-off drastically and disappear from the front pages when they do, as there will be no one left to mythologize massively unmythical people like Alex Rodriguez and Roger Clemens.  I can already hear them gathering outside my window, the gale force goblins shrieking “But Baseball is MORE popular then EVER.  TOTAL Attendance has NEVER been HIGHER. WHAT ME WORRY. …DON’T LOOK behind that CURTAIN.”  Pundits and major league brass chant those things with such fierce, to-the-letter-uniformity and repetitiveness that to me it seems blatant that part of the reason for its militant repetition is so that the people uttering it actually keep believing it themselves as they seek to pound and promulgate their slogans into the public psyche.

First, Major League Baseball’s season is filled with over a thousand games and even if every game drew around 8,000 people a night the total attendance number at the end will always look large and overly impressive, which is, of course, why they always yell about it from the top of their lungs.  But the reality of it is anytime I ever accidentally see some MLB highlights, unless the game is being played in New York, Boston, Chicago or St. Louis, the sheer amount of empty seats in MLB parks are far more eye-catching and interesting than anything taking place on the field.  If you ever see a Florida Marlins highlight, it’s actually a challenge locating the spectators.   I spent a few hallucinatory minutes last summer actually pondering whether the Marlins were playing to an empty house.  But as long as that total attendance number stays relatively high, which it always will due to the sheer overkill length and breadth of baseball’s season, they can ignore the pictures of semi-deserted ballparks screamed through the highlights every night and assert that the game is still as popular as ever.

The second and final reason (there really doesn’t need to be another after the Ivan Drago-esuq brutality contained in the following) that the bluster of MLB brass and outmoded, anachronistic sports journo hacks is increasingly empty and exceedingly panic laced comes from an article called “How Would You Fix the World Series” that Tom Verducci wrote for Sports Illustrated a few years back where he made the astonishing and hilariously kryptonic (to the aforementioned pundit shrieks and Jedi-Mind Tricks) assertion that Fox pushed back the start times of their World Series games because they and their affiliates did better business at 7:30pm with 15 year-old re-runs of Seinfeld.  Game almost over, Feinstein et.al.   It should be noted that Verducci is not immune to practicing the Jedi-Mind Tricks inherent in convincing people that baseball is in FINE shape.  Here he is outlining the embarrassing comparative carnage in the wake of the TV ratings debacle that was the 2008 World Series:

“MORE PEOPLE watched the NBA Finals, according to Nielsen ratings, than the World Series, the first time that had happened since a popular fellow named Michael Jordan was winning the last of his championships in 1998. More people—29% more—watched a football game between Penn State and Ohio State than the rain-delayed Game 3, which was the least-watched World Series game on record. Overall World Series viewership dropped 17% from the previous worst-rated Series (2006, St. Louis versus Detroit), 21% from last year (Boston versus Colorado) and 47% from the high-water mark of Fox Series telecasts since 2000 (2004, Boston versus St. Louis). The World Series audience has been cut by more than half since the expanded playoff format began in 1995.”

Sounds pretty grim, yet closer to the reality that most people not writing daily columns about the Yankees recognize.  Yet astonishingly Verducci channels his inner Obi-Wan and tells us this isn’t the devastating proof of baseball’s rapid descent into obsolescence we were looking for in the very next sentence which reads: “Is baseball in trouble? Not even close. On the contrary”

That’s the type of space-time continuum bending, logic defying wizardry they employ when reality intrudes as it does ever more frequently.  Baseball’s salvation in this country will be in its general popularity with America’s growing Caribbean and Latino population, but if and when they get bored with it, not having had the opportunity to internalize the century of myth-making and folklore around the game, it will recede even further into the background.  Also, these children play video games, too, and I firmly believe that rapid fire, ever-more sophisticated, quick cut video games, symptomatic of the hyper-digitized, instantaneous environment that the millenial generation in America has grown up within, has helped erode and diminish baseball’s appeal–its slowness ever more alien to children used to staggering levels of stimulation and instant gratification.

The narrative that soccer is not and will never be big here is as empty and riddled with holes as the narrative that baseball is stronger than ever.  The MLS is (really) thriving and expanding, particularly in the Pacific Northwest.  The US national teams are growing ever more prominent and influential.  The EPL is registering great ratings on FSC, which prompted ESPN to obtain broadcast rights.  I spent Boxing Day in a bar on the South Side of Pittsburgh filled with Premiere League addicts.  La Liga is gathering momentum and again ESPN is there, slowly but surely integrating the Primera into their growing soccer coverage.  I went to a packed, rowdy bar in Silver Spring, MD to watch the Champions League final between Barca and United where the room was evenly split in allegiance between the two global behemoths.  My experience is nowhere near unique as the pundits would have you believe.

Yet the Feinsteins of the world ignore not one but two strands of objective reality as they downplay and denigrate soccer’s strength in America.  The latest, most galling example of this disconnect is SI’s decision not to put the Women’s National Team on their cover after their heart-stopping victory against Brazil in favor of Derek Jeter getting his 3000th hit.  This disconnect functions on a few separate levels — the first is the fact that the prestige of the 3000 hit milestone lives on largely and almost exclusively in the bubble of the sports punditocracy and they insist, again, by the sheer belligerence of their repetition that YOU should and must value it in the same manner they do.  Other than the genuine excitement of the guy who caught the ball, I’ve not heard ONE single person talk about Jeter’s milestone as a baseball achievement (the fan’s decision to not sell the ball was indeed a hot topic) that was not paid to do so on television or radio, and I live in a large, metropolitan city and work at university that represents a huge cross-section of American society.  Crickets.  Yet all anybody could talk about on the Metro, at lunch, after meetings etc. was Abby Wambach’s goal.  I heard more people talk about Marta than Jeter’s hit, but SI decided to stay in their bubble and bludgeon people with something they didn’t seem to really want.

But what really drives people like Feinstein and Rome to redlining levels of trite and spite while practicing their Preemptive Pettiness is no matter how much they rant and rail against the Beautiful Game–deep down inside they know that kids in their neighborhood are already far more likely to be pretending they are Lionel Messi, Chicharito and Landon Donovan than Alex Rodriguez, C.C. Sabathia and Ryan Howard when they play outside after school.

U.S. Women’s Soccer legends Brandi Chastain and Mia Hamm, who Michael Wilbon referred to as “perhaps the most important athlete of the past 15 years,” have already established themselves as heroes and role models for female athletes in America further solidifying soccer’s foothold here, while this current team is smashing even more barriers and gaining hearts, minds and respect as athletes with no qualifiers needed and I apologize for not writing about them to the degree that they fully deserve in this post.  I had to get this off my chest.  More on the World Cup finals soon.

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About dennisseese

This blog is and will be written by 2 passionate, recently converted fans of the world's game, football, or soccer as it's known to Americans. We will be writing primarily about European club soccer and we hope for this site to be a living compendium of informed fandom as we seek to learn and appreciate more about the legacies, rivalries and cultural significance of the 'Beautiful Game."
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One Response to Soccer: gnawing at the fragile psyche of the American sports punditocracy (rant)

  1. Keith J. says:

    Well put! I am in awe by your mastery of words that truly sum up where are country stands in regards to the uprising of soccer. And I agree with your take on the decline of Baseball in today’s time. In the advent of our younger generation’s thirst for more in a sport (such as action, thrill, and excitement) we have finally caught up with the rest of the World and are realizing the awesome world of Soccer! I commend you on your very well written article and look forward to seeing more of your work on the world cup. Finally, as my good friends in Naples, Italy say, “FORZA NAPOLI!”. Long live MARADONA!!!!

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