Advanced industrial democracies have much in common, but they differ greatly when it comes to their culture of sports. University of Michigan professor Andrei Markovits came to New York University's Deutsches Haus this week to compare how the world's most advanced societies engage in sports culture.
Deutsches Haus director Kathrin Di-Paola conceded that some had asked her why she was holding a program on soccer. She offered a panoply of explanations, including an academic one: The subject, she said, had the potential to reveal deep structures of societies. She also said Germany, which this year is hosting the World Cup, was in a way "hosting the world." Examining soccer, she added, was a way to study part of German popular culture.
Mr. Markovits is personally well-suited to compare Europe and America. Born in Romania, he lived in Austria before earning advanced degrees at Columbia University.With fellow political scientist Stephen Hellerman, Mr. Markovits co-authored "Offside: Soccer & American Exceptionalism" (Princeton University Press).
Mr. Markovits said he was not surprised that Ms. DiPaola had to "kind of justify her choice of having a talk on soccer." Major sports are often taboo in elite American universities. The subject, he said, is "a commercialized form of culture, which my colleagues do not see as a legitimate area of research."
As an aside, he spoke of his efforts to start a serious journal of sports and politics.The endeavor has been hampered, he said, by the difficulty of getting firstrate political scientists on the editorial board, because sports is "simply not acceptable discourse"among many in the academy.
He proceeded to discuss why soccer has not attracted the consistently wide week-to-week following that baseball, football, basketball, and, to a more limited extent, hockey, have in America. He dismissed the notion that Americans don't care for soccer because they have short attention spans and need lots of scoring: Americans go to baseball games, which are not short and often low-scoring.
His principal explanation is that by the time soccer reached America, the American sports space was occupied. In Britain and America between 1860 and 1920, he said, a modern sports space developed along with a whole culture of consumers, producers, teams, and discourses all tied to the development of modern mass societies. Soccer has not penetrated American discourse and spectatorship in just the same way the National Football League, even with tremendous marketing, has failed to make a dent in Europe, he said.
He probed historical reasons for the success of these major sports. He said baseball defeated cricket in America due to the former's Britishness. Likewise, on these shores, soccer is perceived as a foreign sport, whereas baseball is seen as a "pristinely immaculate American game."
To see the influence of baseball in America, one need only look at the abundance of baseball expressions in American English, Mr. Markovits said. Just how big is soccer in Europe? Mr. Markovits gave a remarkable example: The Irish Parliament debated reversing its night and day hours to correspond with Japan during the World Cup competition there in 2002.
Furthermore, discourse about baseball and soccer is independent of class: It forms a common bond between people, no matter where you find yourself. Major sports like baseball and football, Mr. Markovits explained, were started by upper-middle-class gentlemen for whom winning was something gauche: "What starts as an avocation for rich kids becomes the vocation or profession of the working class." For example, he researched the backgrounds of World Cup players in 1998 and found that doctors and lawyers were not prevalent in their parentage. Soccer, like the army, he said, allowed upward mobility.
In Mr. Markovits's view, an American World Cup victory would be a necessary - but not sufficient - condition for soccer to gain a wide following in America.The World Cup could, he said, catapult soccer to a new level of acceptance, but only perhaps to the sort of level that hockey enjoys.