Sports are what men talk about when they really want to talk. Or at least that seems to be the case for many men, whose emotional lives are played out on big screen TVs and twenty-four hour media coverage of everything athletic. Whether it’s the suburbs, cities, or small towns, if you want to get personal with another man, you share commiserations about the home team over a communion of wings and beer.
I like to think about things, anything, really, including sports, but I don’t much care for the endlessly changing and elaborately trivial details of teams, coaches, and players cycling through their lengthening seasons. But I have made my peace with twenty-first century masculinity in America. I fake it. I read just enough of the sports section to mumble my way through a few beers, abiding my time until I can gently turn the conversation toward more pressing (and to me, interesting) matters.
Like why soccer is so un-American. I first started spouting off about soccer when I noticed, years ago, just how many of my students played the game. At the time, my oldest child was hardly beyond her toddler years when we were practically forced to enroll her in a youth league. It was the kiddie equivalent to the Selective Service System, a suburban conscription for the purpose of good social order on the weekends. The players were too young to pass with any skill, so the games were like mobile group hugs. But my older kids, the ones in my college classes, took it so seriously that I had to respond.
And I did so with humor. I teased my students about the decadent existential despair of the game, the way it tips the advantage toward the defense, which was symptomatic, I argued, of a European culture in decline. I told them that the Bible praises God’s might hands and arms but not his feet. I said that the monotonous back-and-forth movement made me sea-sick.
They laughed at my jokes, though it is possible they laughed harder than they should have because I was in charge of their grades. Anyway, I turned my observations into an established routine that I trotted out every year, and eventually into a couple of articles (here and here).
The hate mail I received was overwhelming. By that time my daughter was at that age where nothing I said was funny, though we both got a laugh out of many of the emails I shared with her. For some reason that I never figured out, several of the less censorious emails called me a pirate. We agreed that American soccer fans have thin skins because their sport is relatively new and gets no respect, at least with the wings and beer crowd.
The more I thought about it, though, the more I wondered why my soccer articles got more passionate ridicule, denunciation, and yes, argument than anything I’d written about theology. This must be what it was like, I mused, to live in the age of the great heretics and reformers, when religion really mattered. People knew the rules of the theological game and whether someone was playing it well. And if they thought you were challenging those rules, you could start a storm of protest.
For the record, I like soccer just as much as I like the Midwestern landscape, which is actually quite a lot. I grew up and still live in the Midwest and have no need of oceans and mountains to stimulate my geographical imagination. The long country roads with their gentle turns and slight elevations provide just enough challenge to keep my eyes focused on what lies ahead. And the visual nuances of the countryside are so subtle that they redefine the meaning of the sublime. The clouds are my mountains and the endless fields of corn and soybeans my oceans. The multiple gradations of green are alone enough to dazzle the mind’s perception of color. The rich soil and the small, old but well-kept homes speak of hard work passed through the generations without sudden changes or unexpected disruptions. I can drive for hours with the radio off without getting bored.
When I made the connection between Midwestern landscape and soccer, I began appreciating the game. The lack of spectacle makes Midwestern land hard to describe and its beauty hard to defend. I wish soccer fans had the thicker skins of winter hardened Midwesterners, who don’t expect, and don’t care, if the coastal elites look down on our domain. Football is like the mountains, rising up to block your way, and basketball is like the ocean, with each wave an impressive shot at the shore. Soccer, however, is like a corn field.
I told this to my son, who plays on a travel team, and he was not amused. “Dad,” he said, “nothing happens around here.” I told him that the harder you look, the more you will see. The light flickers on corn fields like angels dancing on a thousand pins.
You can measure what a country takes seriously by what it doesn’t joke about. We talk about sports but we don’t joke about it much. Sports are too important to joke about because it is where so many men put their hearts. Politics are divisive and the economy too depressing. Musical knowledge has become the legal intellectual property of the young. Religion is too personal, or complicated, or otherworldly, or bound up with the drudgery of duty that also includes yard work and oil changes. None of the guys I know has time to watch movies, or if they do, they don’t find them worthy of attentive analysis. We talk about our kids but don’t want to brag too much. We love our wives so much that we keep the genre of jokes about the burden of being married to a minimum. The only sport any of us play is golf, and there is only so much you can say about a swing that never improves. That leaves the teams on the screen, and at this time of year, that means the World Cup.
When I start in with my usual harangue, my friends tell me to keep it down.
“You’ll get us kicked out of here,” they say. “Why don’t you talk about something else, something that’s not controversial?”
“Like what?” I ask.
“Religion,” they say.
Stephen H. Webb is a columnist for First Things. He is the author most recently of Mormon Christianity.