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October 1998
Volume 16, Number 10

Capitalism and American Sports
by Michael Levin

The world has just finished what, for Americans, is the curious spectacle of the Soccer World Cup. Every four years since the 1930s teams representing 32 countries have met (in a different venue each time) to decide who is best. Much of Europe, South America, and Africa come to a halt during the three weeks of Cup play.

You can't argue with success. The popularity of soccer in so many parts of the world means that it gives a great number of people what they want, and no friend of freedom will criticize such wants as "wrong." Still, Americans look on all this passion with bemusement. Soccer bores them, invincibly.

The systematic difference between the rest of the world and us can't just be coincidence. Why does a game that drives others into a frenzy, that in many countries is bound up with national pride, put Americans to sleep? And, come to think of it, why does the great American triumvirate of football, baseball, and basketball excite relatively little interest overseas?

The obvious but superficial answer is that in soccer there is almost no scoring. The games last 90 minutes, but scores of 1-0 are common; matches in which both teams together achieve more than five goals are rare; a 5-2 game would be the equivalent of a 16-7 blowout in baseball. Soccer is 90 minutes of guys in green shirts kicking the ball down the field until they lose control to the guys in blue shirts, who kick it back up the field until they lose control...until somebody is too aggressive and a penalty shot wins the game 1-0.

Most cultural critics would probably blame America's preference for high-scoring games on its short attention span. You know the incantation: too much TV, especially MTV, has turned us into thrill-seeking morons. That's why we like movies with explosions better than Masterpiece Theater.

This is all wrong. Americans don't take to games which, played properly, make scoring impossible. Our passion for football, basketball, and baseball action stems from the pleasure we take in achievement, the successful completion of plans, and freedom.

To understand American sports preferences, you have to understand why there is so little scoring in soccer, and the reason is simple: soccer players are trying to do what is virtually impossible. It is awfully hard, while running, to kick a ball across grass to someone else so accurately that he can control it without breaking stride at the same time that eleven other guys are trying to interfere. Soccer, in other words, is a long series of busted plays, plans that don't work, and failures of execution.

The tactics and plays that constitute football, basketball, and baseball, by contrast, are feasible. Here's the plan: I stand here, you run there, I throw you the ball, and you put it in the basket. With practice, well-coordinated athletes can do that sort of thing consistently. A good batter can hit major league pitching safely 30 percent of the time. Our major sports balance running and strength with manual skills, and the hand--this is not big news here--is more dexterous than the foot. A great deal of the cerebellum is dedicated to controlling hand muscles, but use of the hand in soccer is illegal. No wonder the game seems brainless.

Spectators of American sports not only get to see plays succeed, they can watch these successes build to achievements on a larger scale. A touchdown drive is more than one completed pass or wide sweep for good yardage; it requires a dozen well-executed plays strung together. A half-dozen hits in succession plus some daring base-running create a big inning. There is nothing comparable to these cumulative developments in soccer. American sports honor the successful completion of elaborate plans, whereas soccer glorifies Sisyphean frustration.

As another result of this cumulativity, each game has an overall structure, the state of play at one time depending on what has happened earlier. Here is a full description of the state of play in a typical soccer game: a striker is handling the ball at midfield with the score tied. Most soccer games are interchangeable; why not skip the game altogether, declare the score 1-1, and give everyone a penalty kick? In baseball, the hitter looks at a 3-1 pitch with the score 7-3 against his team--in the bottom of the eighth with one out, two men on, and the opposing pitcher tiring. American games have a coherence that, for all of the Old World's supposedly greater sophistication, soccer lacks.

One feature of baseball in particular deserves notice. Unlike soccer or hockey--or football or basketball --the prime mover in baseball, the batter, is not trying to put a projectile in a preassigned basket or net or end zone. Beyond hoping the ball stays in the vast extent of fair territory, he has no idea where it will go, and neither do the fielders. (Bunts and the hit-and-run, where the batter does try to control the ball, are rare.) This injects a unique element of unpredictability and open possibility.

More than in basketball or football, and incomparably more than in soccer, every one of the hundreds of thousands of major and minor league games that have been played has been new. Every game is a series of previously unencountered situations. This is the hallmark, really, of the free-market economy, bursting with inventions and novel approaches, of nineteenth-century America, when baseball as we know it was invented.

Not that American sports are perfect. For one thing, too many Americans are spectators only, watching them instead of deriving the benefits of actually engaging in some form of exercise. Much worse is the constant meddling of the government to ruin what we do have. Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, mandating "sex equity"--read: equal funding--for sports in colleges that receive federal money, however indirectly, has in many places meant the end of the (male) wrestling team so that coeds can giggle their way through field hockey.

And let's not forget the demise of the reserve clause, courtesy of labor arbitration. For a century, from 1879 until the mid-1970s, baseball club owners alone decided where their employees played. If his employer wanted to trade a player, he had to go. More important, the player's typically one-year employment contract contained a "reserve" clause by which he waived his right to negotiate with other teams. When his contract came up for renewal the next year, the player had to accept what his old team offered, or leave the game. He could not sell his skills to the highest bidder because he wasn't allowed to take bids.

While this system was often compared to indentured servitude, no owner used physical force or threats thereof to make any player sign on. Ball clubs were private property, this is how the owners wanted things, and to be part of their system you had to play by their rules. Most players were so thrilled to be major leaguers that they didn't much mind the system, and it had the advantage of keeping rosters stable. This in turn intensified fan loyalty; the fabled Brooklyn Dodgers of the early postwar years had virtually the same lineup for a decade.

Then, in cases involving Curt Flood, Andy Messersmith, and Dave MacNally, a federal arbitrator decided that, as a corollary of the "civil rights" movement, owners could not make (i.e., ask) players to bind themselves with the reserve clause. The resulting "free agency" has led to astronomical contracts, a reduction in team loyalty, and prima donnas whose off-hours antics are as newsworthy as their athletic performance. So far, this has not alienated the fans completely.

These unfortunate interventions aside, American sports remain the most interesting and varied in the world. Even more, they continue to represent the can-do spirit, cooperation in pursuit of complex goals, and expectation of achievement that once made the U.S. the ornament of the world.

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Michael Levin is professor of philosophy at the City University of New York.


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