03 July 2010

My World Cup loyalties tend to center on whether I have most recently read a book by an author from a particular country. Now there's only one non-European team, Uruguay, so it's Benedetti and Onetti vs. the History of the Novel, except that they would probably root for the history of the novel.

During the tournament there are inevitably articles speculating why the US favors American football rather than “soccer.” I'm inclined to think that allegiances to sport are contingent on the physical size of the upper class, and countries where the upper class is physically smaller are going to favor a sport where smaller people can excel. American football is descended from rugby, a sport where large men push each other around, and, in England, the upper classes insulate themselves from a possible challenge from lower class men through the distinction of Rugby Union and Rugby League, just as British crew maintains its hierarchy by giving last year's winners a head start. Rugby is popular amongst the German upper class while soccer is apparently the working class sport. Americans in the mid-19th Century were some three inches taller than Germans on average, even though the country's full of German blood by way of England or not. American football introduced more law enforcement and incessant discussion, and my attempts to stop watching it have been unsuccessful. Basketball (which I used to watch but have managed – cross my fingers – to kick) is likewise a sport that favors the tall. Baseball favors the tall in certain instances (pitching, first base, etc.) but the fact that it is easier for shorter players to overcome this accounts for it being the US's most popular athletic export, winning over Latin America and East Asia.*

After Jim Crow the question of whether to integrate the sports came into play, and after much resistance, white people let black people play, leading to the worldwide phenomenon of the black basketball star. Rush Limbaugh tries to discourage the black quarterback (which led to my pulling for McNabb and the Eagles and the ensuing addiction) because the idea that the team is best managed by a white administrator-athlete enables people of that mindset to maintain their competitive disposition. People in Blue States have moved on to playing soccer, presumably to escape the perception of immanent physical injury associated with football, leading to Republican concerns in 1996 that the Democratic lead was attributed to “soccer Moms,” while people in Red States stick to the gridiron. Also, immigrants from countries of shorter people tended to concentrate in the Northeast and in California, and the shorter people were more likely to play soccer and vote Democratic.

With professional sports came the Team Owner. In horse racing, the owner of the horse is understood to be the protagonist, which allows the sport to maintain the favor of a certain culture. The oil man Jerry Jones was recently voted one of the most hated figures in football despite running the team rather effectively and wanting feverishly to win, taking over the mantle of baseball's retired defense contractor George Steinbrenner. The fans enter into a difficult emotional relationship with this protagonist: they resent their enormous net worth more than the simple snob with a good salary as well as their power and lack of accountability, but still share the owner's aspirations to win and invest their self-image in the success of the team, which symbolizes the success of the region's economic base.

*I remember shooting hoops in a small Mexican town with an African-American surfer from California, concerned that a game would ensue and that I had only brought sandals with me on this day trip. The school got out and all the local kids ran up to him, completely ignoring me, begging him to teach them basketball.

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