An Underappreciated Advantage of American Professional Sports Over International Soccer

This month, as two years ago, we have an interesting coincidence of a Celtics-Lakers NBA finals and a major international soccer tournament. In 2008, I wrote a post on the subject that I think is still relevant today:

The conjunction of the Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals and the European Soccer Championship [this year, the World Cup] led me to reflect on two important advantage of US pro sports over international soccer: soccer often promotes nationalist and ethnic violence and provides propaganda fodder for repressive or corrupt governments, while US pro sports (with extremely rare exceptions) do not.

European and Latin American soccer rivalries are commonly linked to nationalistic and ethnic antagonisms (e.g. – England vs. Germany, England vs. Ireland, Germany vs. Poland, etc.). Even the fan bases of teams in internal national soccer leagues often break down along ethnic lines. This conjunction of sports rivalries and nationalistic/ethnic rivalries often leads to violence. The most notorious example is the 1969 “Soccer War” between El Salvador and Honduras – a conflict which might have been funny except for the fact that 2000 people were killed and tens of thousands displaced from their homes. And there are many lesser cases of riots and other violence resulting from soccer games.

Many European and especially Latin American soccer teams are also closely associated with governments. This often allows repressive and corrupt regimes to obtain propaganda benefits from the teams’ victories. For example, the repressive Brazilian and Argentinian military governments of the 1970s increased their public support as a result of their national teams’ World Cup victories in 1970 and 1978. In Europe, Mussolini, Franco, and the communist government of the Soviet Union derived similar benefits from their teams’ successes. On a lesser scale, incompetent or corrupt local governments in Europe sometimes benefit from the victories of local clubs.

In the United States, by contrast, pro sports rivalries are based on geographic divisions that have little or no connection to deeper social antagonisms over race, religion, or political ideology. As a result, even the most heated US sports rivalries, such as the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, rarely result in violence between fans of opposing teams – and never in the form of the large-scale soccer riots that we sometimes see in Europe, Asia, and Latin America…. The key difference is that there is no broader Boston-New York conflict that goes beyond the sports rivalry…..

And because US sports teams have relatively few associations with government (with the important exception of indefensible government subsidies for sports stadiums), politicians don’t benefit from their victories….

I’m not saying that there is anything intrinsically wrong with soccer as a sport. I enjoy baseball and basketball much more than soccer, but that is purely a matter of personal preference. Nor am I saying that Europeans and Latin Americans shouldn’t root for their soccer teams. The problem is not soccer as such, but the social and political organization of the sport in much of the world.

US pro sports leagues are sometimes criticized for failing to engage the deeper loyalties of fans as much as soccer does in other countries. On balance, it’s actually a good thing that they don’t.

Simon Kuper’s book Soccer Against the Enemy: How the World’s Most Popular Sport Starts and Fuels Revolutions and Keeps Dictators in Power is a good discussion of the interconnections between soccer, repressive regimes, and harmful nationalism. Kuper could have made his case even stronger had he given greater consideration to the propagandistic exploitation of international sports by communist regimes, which was on an even larger scale than that by right-wing dictators.

I don’t object to soccer fans wanting to enjoy the World Cup. I might even watch a game or two myself. But I’m going to spend the lion’s share of my sports-watching time this month chanting “Beat LA.” It’s less likely to be taken literally than some of the soccer slogans are.

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