Debating the Advantages of US Professional Sports Over International Soccer

In a recent post, I wrote that US pro sports have an important unappreciated advantage over international soccer. Unlike the latter, they are not organized in ways that fuel ethnic violence and provide prestige for oppressive regimes. Co-blogger David Post seems to concede my central point, but defends soccer anyway:

I think Ilya’s on to something here. What’s most interesting, to me, is that he describes this as an “advantage” of US sports. Another way to say what he’s saying: people around the world care about soccer in a way that is far deeper than the way most US fans care about their sports. It touches a much, much deeper chord, and, as a result, is much more bound up with all those things people care deeply about — religion, and politics, and honor, and the rest of it. I’ve said it before: soccer’s like life, and people care about it the way they care about their lives….. But to those of us who love soccer — all 2.75 billion or so of us — that’s not a bug, that’s a feature. Do US sports have an “advantage” because they lack this quality?? Depends how you measure these things. Ilya (like Jonathan Adler) has an unspoken theory of sport standing behind his comments: sports should take us away from the real world, it should provide us a respite from the ethnic tensions and religious divisions and political problems of the real world. I can see it — I just don’t share it. Sure, “promoting ethnic violence” and “providing propaganda fodder for repressive and corrupt governments” are bad things. But the way I see it, it’s a lot like love — many, many terrible things have happened over the centuries because of love, but “on balance” we’re better off for it…

The analogy to “love” doesn’t really work for me. We can’t have the beneficial aspects of love without accepting some of its negative consequences. By contrast, the US example shows that we can enjoy professional sports without linking it to nationalism, ethnic hostility, and propaganda for repressive regimes. Perhaps there is an extra level of additional enjoyment when sports is connected to these things. But I doubt it’s worth the cost, as measured in people killed in soccer riots, wars, and political repression. I would make the same point about love. Yes, love is great. But we nonetheless try to curb those aspects of it that lead to violence and oppression. For example, we punish jilted lovers who kill or harrass those who reject them. We don’t let them off merely because their actions are an understandable part of “life.”

Sports is like life, just as David says. And we should strive to accentuate the good in both, while eliminating the “many, many terrible things” as much as possible.

UPDATE: I also disagree with David’s view that the differences between international soccer and US pro sports have to do with the nature of the sports as such. Rather, they are consequences of the social and political organization of international soccer. If baseball or basketball were organized the same way, we would see similar results. Indeed, Fidel Castro’s regime has in fact tried to used baseball in much the same way that other dictatorships use soccer.

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