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American “exceptionalism” and the beautiful game

Regardless of what happens in today’s U.S.-Germany match, we can expect more heated discussion of whether soccer will ever really catch on here.

Granted, that may already be changing. Sunday’s U.S.-Portugal match netted over 25 million viewers, well above the average for the last NBA finals or World Series. More and more of each new generation of American kids are brought up in the game, a trend likely to continue as football’s concussion crisis pushes parents to opt-out of that sport. And as my colleague David Post notes in a wonderful analysis over at Volokh, the growth of interest in the beautiful game has been phenomenal over the past two decades.

Yet, as Post observes, “we will not engage in a sustained bout of national soul-searching and self-doubt if our team does poorly.” Italy, France, England, Argentina, Brazil…not so much. Post is undoubtedly correct here. But why? There are some stock explanations, none of which quite hold water for me.

First is the lack of scoring in soccer. Yes, one can often watch an entire match and not see a single goal, or see only one goal. Some say this makes soccer boring.

But does such a preference make Americans unique? Other globally popular sports, including cricket, and basketball, and rugby, involve quite a bit of scoring. Americans also seem perfectly capable of appreciating—even loving—sports that don’t involve high scoring. We love baseball and ice hockey, both of which can involve relatively low scores, though of course 0-0 is very rare in either. We love NASCAR, in which mechanically identical cars drive in circles and rarely even pass one another; yes, NASCAR involves plenty of strategy, and crashes, but much of the appeal is in its nuances–like soccer. Perhaps most importantly, Americans also watch…fishing. Need I say more?

Second, and slightly more illuminating, are theories about soccer and American legal culture. The classic here is William Pizzi’s wonderful “Soccer, Football and Trial Systems,” which compares American football’s rules and the American rules of criminal procedure. As Pizzi observes, “our trial system reflects many of the cultural values encoded in the rules and traditions of professional football: the worship of proceduralism, the attempt to rationalize every aspect of the decision-making process, the distrust of spontaneous action, the heavy preference for managerial control over participants, and, above all, the daunting complexity of the rules that such a system requires.”

This is compelling, since there does indeed feel like something uniquely American in the NFL’s never-ending dialectic of violence and regulation. The NFL has even instituted a multi-stage appellate process within games to ensure that referees get things right. I personally can’t stand the way this fractures the pace of football games, but I’m weird.

Yet this explanation, too, isn’t totally satisfying. Formula 1, another massively popular global sport that hasn’t quite caught on in the U.S., has pretty complicated rules around engine and car construction. Instant replay is catching on in other global sports, including tennis and even soccer.

Furthermore, even if true, both...

Via Concurring Opinions

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