Monday, June 25, 2012

Flip-Flopping on Soccer in America

Today, I had my first chance to watch some of the Euro2012 soccer matches.  When the stakes are high and national pride is on the line, soccer is a joy to watch.  The game is perfectly set up to build drama, test players' nerves, and (best of all) limit television commercial breaks.  Further, soccer does not face the headwinds that other major sports are facing, specifically player concussions and rampant steroid/performance enhancing drug problems.

In the US, professional soccer is clearly a second-class sport.  Unless the national team is making waves in the World Cup, the game is an afterthought.  Die-hard soccer fans cannot fathom how their game only captures the interest of Americans during the World Cup, though there are no shortage of theories:

1. Soccer is considered a foreign sport and we are drawn to more "American" sports.  Rightly or wrongly, this is a hurdle that the sport must overcome.  It has been my experience that American soccer fans are considered "elitist" unless they are immigrants or are first generation American. Meanwhile, soccer is played by a huge percentage of American youths and an even bigger percentage of kids around the world.  So, to follow the logic, you're an elitist if you follow the least elitist sport in the world unless you can prove that you are not, in fact, socially elite.  Americans are awesome sometimes.

2. Americans don't follow soccer because we just aren't very good at it.   I think there's an argument here, too.  We are spoiled by our professional leagues.  The NHL pulls in the best players from Canada and Russia; the NBA grabs the best European players; Major League Baseball attracts the most talented players from the Dominican and Central America; and the NFL employs the finest... um... Samoans. Our best national players need to go to Europe to experience playing against the best competition, giving the impression that American soccer is an inferior product.    

3. Soccer is boring.  No, it isn't. 

4. Too much flopping.  To me, this is the smoking gun. "Flopping" in soccer parlance is the art of dramatically throwing oneself on the ground and writhing in staged agony in an attempt to have a foul assessed on the opposition (typically to draw a penalty shot or a free kick). This is taken to point of absurdity, as players are put on stretchers and carried off the field screaming in agony, only to hop off the stretcher and immediately return to the game with no ill-effects.

American sports fans simply refuse to accept this. We revere athletes that play through injuries, conceal physical pain and never use an injury as an excuse (see Reed, Willis and Strug, Kerri).

As an example, the NBA has been rigorously defending its players against accusations of players flopping in the playoffs. In the recent past, basketball players from Europe and South America have been labeled unsportsmanlike for embellishing fouls. True or not, the insinuation is that players from "soccer countries" are not as physically or mentally tough as their American counterparts.     

European Floption

Americans like to project the image we want onto our athletes: tough, fair and honorable. Flopping represents everything we claim to disdain in our athletes.

If we collectively looked in a mirror (convex would be best), we would see that while we claim to reject flopping, we actually embrace it in other sports and in our every day lives.

American sports fans love when their team wins, of course, but only slightly less enjoyable is making excuses when their team loses- especially when a bad officiating call is to blame. To deride flopping is to rebel against controversy and complaining, which is the very essence of being a sports fan.

The flop is also a cultural norm. Our new favorite past-time (Reality Television) is all about the flop. You say something that might possibly be considered vaguely disrespectful to a non-specific person or persons and, boom, you have an episode of the Kardashians, the Jersey Shore or the entire Bravo! network.

Our politicians are world-class floppers, treating every offhanded comment and gesture as an personal insult and a condemnation of at least one major voting constituency. This is how innocuous comments turn into a "War on Women," a "War on Marriage," or a "War on Algebra" (give it a few months). As 2012 is an election year, expect the flopping to reach epic proportions as we get closer to November. Every time Obama or Romney expresses an opinion, expect to see the opposition writhing on the ground crying foul.

Eventually, I believe that soccer's appeal will take hold in the States. The catalyst may be an extremely strong showing in the World Cup by the American team, a crisis in one of the major US sports, or the entrance of an American team into one of the top European leagues (a New York team in the English Premier League, anyone?). I have no idea when this will happen, but I know that certain media members and fans will be unhappy. These folks will complain about the dramatics, moan about the perceived lack of sportsmanship, and decry the eroding of the American sports ideal... in other words, they'll flop like Americans:

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