Roger Cohen, the “Two Footballs”, and False Dichotomies

Over at the New York Times, Roger Cohen has an Op-Ed contrasting football and football. I mean, Association football and American football. Or, rather, soccer and football. Roughly Cohen’s thesis is: soccer is all skill and art, football is all violent force and anti-finesse; America reveals its plebeian failure to appreciate soccer artistry by its obsession for football; no matter how much soccer is promoted or played, it is doomed in America. Roughly.

I’m inclined to think Cohen’s article is a classic piece of trollery, looking for hits in a slow news week (But is it really? The Palestinians and Israelis are talking about a new peace deal; fighting rages in Syria; Greek workers are striking; the ISI faces possible legal trouble in Pakistan; plenty of material for Cohen to turn his cool analytical lens on, so this bit of dabbling in sport is rather mysterious.) Cohen will, rather predictably, get taken to task in the Letters section. But I might as well start the party here.

Cohen commits a classic fallacy, common among a particular breed of sports fan, who might justifiably be accused of having missed the point: a superficial similarity between two sports does not entail a coherent comparison between the two. Should I, for instance, compare tennis to golf, because in both games there is a ball and an implement with which to strike the ball? So too, with football and soccer: yes, a ball is moved across the length of a field by a bunch of players, but that’s where the comparison should end. To continue further risks too much strawman construction and demolition.

The facile comparison of two radically dissimilar sports, which is bound to generate ludicrous generalizations, reveals nothing as much as ignorance of one of the sports being compared. I am used, for instance, to the pointless and endless comparisons between cricket and baseball, both of which I enjoy and take pleasure in. Those cricket and baseball fans that like both sports–and there are many, I assure you–watch on in bemusement as cudgels are taken up on behalf of sports which need neither defense or aggrandizement at the cost of the other.

Cohen, similarly, fires off well-worn cliches about football, imagining that in doing so, he is glorifying soccer by contrast; he does no such thing (ironically, the kind of jabs he directs at football have their counterpart in the ignorant rants made about soccer by the ignorant American fans Cohen derides.) More problematically, Cohen imagines that he is a harbinger of a greater cosmopolitanism to the hopelessly low-brow American sports landscape, bringing us news of sports played in distant lands that we would do well to focus our attention on, if only we could be bothered raising our knuckles off the ground.

But Cohen should know better: he started his article by telling us that Fox (FOX!) broadcast the Chelsea-Manchester United game live on Sunday.  The mavens at Fox, who have their fingers on America’s pulse, know something that Cohen doesn’t seem to: soccer is a big deal in the US. Not as big a deal as football, and it probably won’t ever be, but big enough to make silly any use of it as a rhetorical device in complaining about American insularity.

To do that, there is plenty of ammunition to be found elsewhere. A good journalist should be able to track it down.

8 thoughts on “Roger Cohen, the “Two Footballs”, and False Dichotomies

  1. Comparing footie and football because of the similarity in their names is indeed silly; the more interesting comparison in terms of form of competition to American football is, as Cohen essentially admits, rugby. But what I think Cohen is really after is the comparison between sporting pastimes, from the perspective of the audience: why, he wants to know (or thinks he knows), are so many in the world enthralled by the ‘beautiful game’ while the violently militaristic game of football dominates the American imagination? Who knows? Maybe it has something to do with the kinds of people who settled the northern territories of the New World (European cast-offs, essentially), and the circumstances they faced (its worth keeping in mind in this sort of discussion that the most violent and physical version of ice hockey has its origin and greatest defenders in Canada; the European version precludes the fighting and much of the brutal checking found in the NHL). Thanks for the post.

    1. There have been a lot of things written about why people play different sports, but to my knowledge the best, most systematic treatment is Global Games by Maarten von Bottenburg. The single best explanation for popularity therein was this sentence:

      “When choosing a sport you are not merely deciding between different forms of physical exertion and competition; you are also deciding between different groups of people.”

      It explains two things: how both footballs are rooted in the historical circumstances of their formation and growth and the societies they grew in; and why cosmopolitan Americans are drawn to soccer, as a means of asserting their cosmopolitan social selves, and rejection of a particular form of American nationalism.

      Which is not to say you can’t appreciate some sports more than others, divorced from their social context. Merely that if there is a sport without the hidden depths Samir speaks of, I haven’t looked at in sufficient depth to prove that is the case.

      1. Russ,

        Thanks for the comment (and good to see you here). I agree: it is quite difficult to explain fascination, at a personal or societal level, for a sport divorced from the “social context” you mention, and yet still, as the experiences of neophyte fans show, the “surfaces” of sports can attract and hold us in a variety of ways. Thanks for that reference – I wonder if you’ve provided it to me before!

  2. I appreciated reading this post, especially the bit about baseball and cricket. Neither sport needs to be attacked or defended, they’re both worthy contests with long traditions. As for the audience, well, we’re America the Exceptional — always a combination of insular and grandiose, we invent our own sports and we celebrate them with the greatest displays of wealth.

    1. Dara,

      Thanks – glad you liked the spirit of “Live and let live”. I think the exceptionalism at play definitely works in making sure the three games with the most local provenance – baseball, basketball and football – dominate the American landscape.

  3. Joe: Right-O. The correct comparison is with rugby. And I think the inquiry into how violence underwrites American football and as you point out, ice hockey is even more interesting. The militaristic language is a huge part of that – in a country where I’d suggest we have been largely insulated from the terrors of war. Hmm..an interesting idea for a follow-up post! Thanks for that.

  4. I think the lack of opportunities for commercial breaks is what prevents soccer and rugby from really catching on in the US.

    1. Ben,

      Good to see you here; thanks for the comment. Those commercial breaks are definitely the biggest downer about the NFL. It’s why I won’t go to a stadium to watch a game.

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