June 28, 2018
                   No. 223
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Does Sport Reflect Societal Values?

Are you watching the World Cup (of football/soccer)? It’s capturing the imagination of much of the world, the game being the most widely played sport on the planet.

I’m not that big a fan of the sport, but become one for a month every four years, and occasionally in between, especially when our country is up against another. Nationalism kicks in then.

The game, itself intrigues me, mostly for what it says about the contrast between America and the rest of the world.

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While it is a growing sport here, it has always lagged far behind the more popular Western sports: football, baseball, hockey, and basketball.

But on the rest of the planet, it’s by far the most widely followed.

The contrasts between “the beautiful game” (as soccer is sometimes nick-named), and American sports are stark, sitting at almost opposite ends of the team sports spectrum.

The contrast is evident the moment you turn on the TV. All the announcers have foreign accents—English, Irish, Scottish—and many of the expressions are not typically North American. That seems to be the case even when you watch the MLS, the major North American league. Are there no competent Canadian and American announcers? Or is it just a part of the culture of the game?

But it’s not just announcing or the culture around the sport, it’s the game itself that contrasts greatly to the major North American sports.

In soccer, play is a continuous flow, while in our major sports, it is always interrupted. There are almost no whistles in soccer. And, even when there are, the clock keeps running. The major North American sports stop and start, stop and start, stop and start. Strategy is prepared at each interruption. That’s especially true of Football and Baseball. But it’s becoming ever more true in hockey and basketball, too. Especially basketball. More and more time-outs have been added to the game, mostly used simply to advance the ball further down the court without taking time off the clock.

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The more interruptions, the better, it seems: time-outs have been added in recent years to football and even curling. 
Even in those sports that are similar, American football vs. rugby, for example, or baseball vs. cricket, the North American versions are always more broken up than the more international versions.
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There is also the complexity of the game that contrasts. Give a kid a ball and they can play soccer.

But for our sports you tend to need paraphernalia: for hockey, you need ice, pucks, sticks, equipment and, in much of the world, buildings; for football, a larger, smoother, soft field; for basketball, a hoop on a stand and a hard, smooth surface; for baseball, a ball, a bat and bases. It’s just not as easy as soccer. Which, it seems to me, is why soccer is much more easily embraced in developing countries. And, ease of embrace by kids, surely, is the most significant factor in its popularity and growth.

It’s not only the complexity of the equipment and field requirements, though. It’s the complexity of the rules. North Americans tend to thrive on ever-increasing rules complexity while the rest of the world thrives on simplicity (though, I do admit, the offside rule in soccer is as baffling as the US political system.) Football is the clearest example, though hockey and basketball seem to be getting increasingly complex, as well. 

But here’s the contrast that really intrigues me and makes me ponder whether it expresses deeper societal values, and that is the meticulous precision of the application of rules and procedures. Consider penalties. In Soccer, it’s a yellow card, or a red card, and they’re shown at the discretion of the one referee. In football, by contrast, there are dozens of different infractions, adjudicated by about seven different officials, even though there are about the same number of players on the field. In hockey, the list seems to grow and become ever more precisely defined. And in baseball, an official is required at every base.

There are endless reviews of infractions and scoring plays, especially in hockey and football, but only minimally so in soccer. In North America, you simply have to make sure to get it absolutely accurate! The rest of the world seems more relaxed about officials’ discretion.

Then there is the precision of timing. In hockey and basketball, tenths of seconds will be reviewed. In soccer, should there have been too much delay during the game, several minutes will be added to the playing time, the smallest increment being a full minute, and that is only a minimum; the referee will ultimately decide when to end the game. And, it’s considered fair (enough).

When it comes to our sports, maximum complexity, exactitude, strategic planning, and highly technical adjudication, with their accepted interruptions, seem to govern the American psyche. By contrast, simplicity, fluidity, indistinctness, and discretion mark much of the rest of the world?

I wonder: Does that contrast between our most popular sports reflect something larger about our world views and societal values?

Sometimes I think it does. What do you think?