Trollope’s Eighth Chapter: On Soccer

Though what comes to immediate attention when considering an “American sport” may be more typically assumed American pastimes such as football and basketball, soccer is just as deserving of analytical reflection as an American sport in my mind. To assess that it is the most American sport would be both foolish and untrue of a sport that has hitherto failed to derail the  domination of baseball, basketball, and American football. In fact, what is more likely associated between soccer the sport and the American is not the latter’s sheer prowess in the former but the disastrously dippy debate about the name given to the sport aforementioned in America. Walk south across the Texan border, or gallantly swim across either one of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, and the American will find himself perplexed by the “Football” that lacks both helmets and downs. Professor Stefan Szymanski of Michigan analyzed in detail how the term “soccer” crept into the American’s daily lexicon and concluded that it was in fact Britons from Cambridge, and their infamous – and heinous, no doubt! – proclivity to add “-er” after sports’s names as they did when calling rugby football “rugger”, that concocted the term “Soccer” as an abbreviation from “Association Football”, as soccer was referred to in England at the time. We can therefore conclude that both terms are indeed valid and to most degrees interchangeable, but it is here I accentuate again, that in any case at all, the violent argument over this terminology is tantamount to buffoonery. But alas, I digress. Though other sports dominate the American psyche, I will present an argument that soccer is just as culturally significant to the American as an “American sport”.

Pigeonholing any sport into a distinct category necessitates identification of the criteria of the category thereof. A national sport, in this case an American sport, as I understand it, must thence revolve around one unique and pivotal criterion: ubiquity. Be it cricket in the outskirts of Mumbai, rugby in the Polynesian lands of the Maori, or sailing in the Anguillan Isles, these sports share one central pattern, that a large number participate in it, and that the rest either eagerly follow its developments or acknowledge its significance to some degree. From the highest echelons of society to its most feeble strata, it is discussed and analysed. We can from now on conclude such sports to be, in utmost succinctness, ubiquitous.

It is obvious to the anyone living in America and sponging its unique culture, that sports like American football are, with no doubt attached, ubiquitous in America. However, and this may surprise some, it is indeed the case that soccer is played by more Americans than American football. A recent study indicated that “30 percent of American households contained someone playing soccer. The only game that comes close to that massive number is baseball”. Even as early as 1984, more colleges participated in soccer than they did in football. These facts are, in all ways imaginable, startling. Some may point to American football having limited availability for participation, what with the expensive – and in the eyes of many hardcore rugby enthusiasts, superfluous! – padding and equipment and other financial and logistical limitations as an explanation to this phenomenon. The same can be said of basketball and baseball  that require a uniformly elevated basket and a specific batting object and ball respectively. Here is where I must concede that these are in fact fair arguments to make, emphasizing that soccer demands only a ball and two goalposts for some sort of proper participation. This does not, however, negate the fact that even with all the perceived superiority of “All American” sports over Association football in the New World, it is baffling that the latter is played more here by locals in any context and qualification at all!

It is here that I must stress, if it has not become already boringly obvious, the point that ubiquity in making an American sport “American” is not merely about high viewership. It is about deep-rooted cultural significance in a given society. It may be about participation, discussion, analysis, or mere spectatorship. After all, it is not necessity for the people of Anguilla to watch television when a sailing program airs in order for them to aptly consider sailing their national sport. It is however, the historical and sociological significance of sailing in Anguilla that coerces even the most unwilling of Anguillans to know of the nuances of in the sailing trade.

It is here that I humbly argue that in America there is in fact this level of ubiquity in soccer. Some may initially disagree with this point, but if given some consideration, I do believe that the American will in fact agree that soccer does have a culturally penetrative trait in America. However, I must present a caveat here, that other “All American” sports are widely watched, especially during festivities, and soccer is most definitely dwarfed by these sports on those grounds – hitherto soccer has garnered a record viewership of 29 million as opposed to the American football’s 111 million. It is indeed the case however that soccer enters its own niche in American culture. From the universally understood phrase describing suburban mothers in support of their children’s athletic interests, “Soccer Moms”, to how the names of Mia Hamm, David Beckham, and Jurgen Klinsmann have crept onto the household dinner table, it is here I will present my conclusion, the point of this essay. Though professional soccer is not as spectated or embraced as say, American football, to the average American, it is still ever-present in popular culture and daily activity. As indicated by the facts mentioned, Americans love to watch American football and baseball, and though the Major League Soccer (MLS) games aren’t as widely watched, they prefer to play soccer instead of watch it, two extremely distinct niches, but culturally equally significant.

Hence we can say soccer is, in every imaginable sense of the phrase, an American sport.

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2 comments

  1. nicolesigmon · October 27, 2014

    I really like what you’re saying, but to me I think the reason soccer isn’t seen as being an “American” sport isn’t necessarily because of its low viewership, but because most American’s that I know that follow soccer follow European soccer, not MLS. Worldwide, the MLS is commonly viewed as being at a lower skill level than European soccer. European soccer is seen as being more competitive and at a higher level than American soccer, and this is why I feel soccer isn’t deemed an “American” sport by many. I know a lot of Americans, myself included, that are massive soccer fans. But the overall trend amongst us is that we’re all fans of European soccer teams, not MLS teams. The only way I think soccer could really become a mainstream “American” sport is if the MLS ups its ante and reaches the level of skill needed to be competitive that you find in the Premier League or La Liga.

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    • azaryff · October 28, 2014

      I agree with your latter point, MLS soccer has sort of developed a reputation as a place people go to retire with big bucks and play not-so-highly-demanding matches. Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane, Tim Cahill, and David Beckham are examples of players making big money moves to the MLS having passed their peaks in their careers. And if the MLS were to suddenly jolt itself into the standards of the top five European leagues, then there is absolutely no reason to NOT consider soccer an American sport.

      However, currently – and this is my point – we shouldn’t really need to look at MLS viewership even though it’s low, because soccer is significant to Americans differently from how football is significant to Americans. Americans love playing soccer, and this in itself is a niche in American culture and society that is so significant that we can, considering the statistics I’ve cited, consider soccer an “American sport”. Thanks for responding!

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