Published in the Albany Times-Union.
With the 2014 World Cup completed, one of the undoubted highlights of this year’s tournament was the U.S. Men’s National Team’s valiant charge through the World Cup’s so-called “Group of Death.” During their World Cup stand, 20,000 people gathered in Chicago’s Grant Park, nearly 25 million followed the thrilling match against Portugal on television, and Americans were the largest group of traveling fans in Brazil. Soccer is popular in the U.S. and it’s here to stay.
And yet, conservative commentator Ann Coulter recently argued, in an op-ed widely shared on social media, that “soccer is not ‘catching on’ ” and “any growing interest in soccer can only be a sign of the nation’s moral decay.”
While Coulter’s absolutism (“No American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer”), hyperbole and venom are discrediting, hostility to soccer is nothing new on the political right with conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck sharing her sentiment.
Coulter’s op-ed does raise the question, why hate soccer?
Soccer haters, like Coulter, decry the sport for being “un-American,” a “soft sport” for the coddled children of suburban liberals, and an opportunity for hipsters to fetishize effete European culture.
But as journalist Franklin Foer observed in his 2004 book, ”How Soccer Explains the World,” it’s not really about soccer.
Soccer simply offers a new turf to play out the “culture wars” between cosmopolitanism and traditionalism. It is a divide, driven by globalization, between a relativist worldview that embraces diversity and global culture and an outlook that aims to maintain what they see as traditional American culture.
These two worldviews represent different responses to globalization that don’t always break neatly along political or class lines. An affluent Republican is as likely to have his kids enrolled in soccer as the lower-middle class liberal down the block. And a blue collar Democrat who sees his job as jeopardized by new immigrants might be just as hostile to soccer as your average Fox News viewer.
In a 2012 study, my colleague, Daniel Hawkins, and I conducted the first quantitative study of anti-soccer attitudes to better understand the phenomenon. Using a state survey of adult Nebraskans, we asked a number of questions about interest in soccer and attitudes about globalization.
The findings of our study largely support Foer’s argument that attitudes about globalization are the key driver of soccer hate.
The best predictor of anti-soccer attitudes was not political party, social class, education, nor income. Rather, anti-soccer attitudes were best explained by how respondents felt about whether “American culture is strengthened by values and traditions … [of] new immigrants.”
In a sense, soccer represents a double-threat — it’s European and Hispanic! — to those who feel threatened by the encroachment of cultural globalization. Coulter admits as much when she says, “If more ‘Americans’ are watching soccer today, it’s only because of the demographic switch effected by Teddy Kennedy’s 1965 immigration law.”
If Coulter and others use hostility to soccer to voice resentment toward immigrants and frustration over cultural change, fortunately, they don’t have much company. In our survey, even though interest in watching or playing soccer was relatively low, most respondents said that they would encourage their children to play soccer.
More importantly, fewer than 10 percent of survey respondents viewed soccer as “un-American.”
In a country, where soccer has been the leading youth participatory sports for more than three decades, where we have the best Women’s National Team in the world, and where many of our people have immigrated from nations with great love for the sport, soccer is truly part of America’s cultural fabric.
As we look ahead to the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup and 2018 Men’s World Cup, it’s important to remember that rooting for the U.S. team to win isn’t un-American; it’s downright patriotic.