Archive | June, 2010

Politicizing The Beautiful Game

24 Jun

photocredit: sshvelasco

In the end, it’s all about drama. The highs and lows of any human experience keep us hooked for more. Soccer is no different. The beautiful game is a waterfall of dopamine (the pleasure hormone), serotonin (the mood-modulating hormone), and cortisol (the stress hormone). It is, all by itself, an emotionally-taxing experience.

Soccer/futbol/balonpie is simple and complex all by itself. There are only 17 rules in futbol (compared to over 100 in basketball; 45 in major league baseball). The severity of the foul is based on a referee’s subjective opinion. Red, yellow, neither, it all depends on the man not measures. Knowing what an “offsides” looks like is more of an art than a science. Thousands of moving parts, in each player’s biomechanics, each team’s chess-like strategy, and each ball’s chanfle, seamlessly merge and make the game a fit for idealists and neurotics alike. Where else is a tie considered a victory, or a loss considered a national tragedy?

The United States does not have the rich soccer history many other countries possess. Outside of the World Cup, soccer only registers in the minds of die-hard American fans year-around. Can anyone honestly name the cities the Sounders, Wizards, and Revolution respectively call home? It’s encouraging to see such a throng of supporters currently in South Africa, donning George Washington outfits and draped in the flag while they toot their vuvuzelas. Maybe if the US squad makes a majestic run at the Cup the tide will roll in soccer’s favor at home. But for many, that is unsavory thought.

Many American progressives are intently watching the games unfold, but for a very peculiar reason: they fear a victorious US. Some go as far as feeling the US doesn’t deserve to win. We are not a soccer nation, they say. Rooting for the US during the World Cup is like rooting for the US during the Olympics–it’s just knee-jerk patriotism. If we win, we will only feed our superiority complex.

That’s the crux of many progressives’ uneasiness: America already has so much going for it, why not let Algeria or Slovenia or Ghana get some good news to share at home. They feel American exceptionalism is already so ingrained in our psyche that a victorious run in the world’s most watched tournament only fuels the fire. It will only give us another reason to show our muscle, flex it, and do it with a smug grin.

Fanatics celebrating the US squad’s amazing comeback against Slovenia, or Donovan’s goal from the heavens against Algeria should temper their joy–Slovenia is still only a young, growing country; Algeria a fragile African democracy. Celebration would be unseemly.

Why is it so hard to just root for the Americans? Progressives in America may have the right intention, but their fear of being patriotic runs completely against the nature of the game. All countries feel unquenchable pride in their squads. Each squad knows they not only represent their own talents, but their country’s honor. That is why teams like France, who seem to play for themselves rather than their country, receive the most ridicule from their own compatriots. The World Cup makes it OK to expect the world from your squad. It’s alright to cry in joy or anguish when the impossible happens. Loving the best soccer players your country can offer is the least you can do for athletes who are playing at the highest imaginable level.

Politicizing the beautiful game brings unnecessary baggage to the arena. The game is not meant to foster international conflict or peace, or be a political instrument for pride and supremacy. What the game actually represents in healthy and fervent competition and sportsmanship. It tells us that despite every other problem facing the world at the moment, we can still kick the ball around and have fun with each other.

Let’s keep it at that, and be proud of our boys. They have the future of a sport on their backs.


Learning from Teddy

12 Jun


Politics lends itself to caricature. The drama, the characters, the celebrity, all make the political arena primed for hyperbolic figures and clashes. Very few persons in our nation’s history fit this bill like Theodore Roosevelt.

Theodore (who abhorred being called “Teddy”) was a man so voluminous and extravagant that he was both complex and easily identifiable. He was a man who fought ferociously for the conservation of parks, forests, and species, but who also was an avid hunter and taxidermist. He had what many have labeled “war lust,” never flinching at the possibility of armed conflict, always in favor of flexing American muscle. Yet, he became one of history’s greatest diplomats, earning a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in negotiating a peaceful resolution to the Russo-Japanese War, the only sitting president to earn said prize until President Obama’s recent awarding. Roosevelt was equally comfortable leading cowboys and rough riders into battle in Cuba, as he was discussing corruption and reform with New York City’s political bosses.

Despite these and various other dualities that could only work for a man like Roosevelt, his image as a politico with shiny chomps and a puffing walk is standard. A man of largesse and lore, in more than one sense. When he was president, little boys would do push ups to emulate his large, burly build; he was known to shake an average of 50 hands per minute. Since his early days in the NY State Assembly, his frenetic energy was legendary. Even then his iconic image was clear: a natural politician that couldn’t wait to press the flesh.

America’s elected officials today are suffering a depth deficit. There is an overwhelming sense of glitz and superficiality in campaigns and posturing. In today’s politics, millions of dollars dumped into television ads, or headline-garnering vitriol spouted into microphones, are enough to make a public figure. In California and in Nevada, they are enough to make a viable candidate. The complexity that Roosevelt had behind his caricature is lost in today’s celeb-pols. Like Paris Hilton or the White House-crashing couple, style and self-promotion trump substance.

This is leading to an increasingly sour aftertaste in American voters. Movements like the Tea Party are a vehicle (albeit a meandering and often destructive one) of this sentiment. Washington culture is so ingrained that even an incoming president, with unprecedented goodwill, popularity, and expectations, met it like a brick wall. If Roosevelt were alive today, even his unlimited buoyancy would leave no more than a dent.

Relying on dollars and spin over honest debate and feasible proposals is widening the trust gap that exploded with Nixon’s Watergate scandal. Voters are suffering time and again from the crash that comes after a sugar rush. They are left with disappointment, and to many, a sense of betrayal.

Roosevelt might have been a political animal only suited for his time (although one has to wonder how a man of his feverish curiosity would’ve used the multi-armed, morphing social media tools available today). But his timeless philosophy on life extended into his politics: be honest with yourself first. His image was his own. He was true to his core, even when he was ridiculed for his antics. Whenever he won or lost an election–and he had his share of both–he never felt like he sold something other than himself. This may be why he ended up becoming one of the most popular and venerated figures in our history, even though there is a part of him to infuriate any side of the political spectrum.

In 1895, as the Police Board President of New York City, trying to dismantle corruption within the force, two reporters asked him whether his next move was the greatest national office in the land. His response encapsulated Roosevelt’s character quite well:

“Never, never you must never […] remind a man at work on a political job that he may be President. It almost always kills him politically. He loses his nerve; he can’t do his work; he gives up the very traits that are making him a possibility. I, for instance, I am going to do great things here, hard things that require courage, ability, work that I am capable of…But if I get to thinking of what it might lead to–“

He stopped mid-sentence, possibly because the idea of doing what was “sellable” to a higher office was a disgusting thought. Roosevelt was never a perfect man, and he never presented himself that way. Politicians today fear being disliked, or worse, overlooked. If they only followed a page from TR’s playbook, to be bold, honest, and fearless, they would improve not only their standing, but our politics.

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