FD Guest Lecture: Roots Like Brutal Beards
Today's Guest Lecturer is Brian Phillips, the mind behind The Run of Play. Soccer enthusiasts no doubt already hail Brian and his work; if you don't know the first thing about the sport, be advised that RoP is the closest FD gets to a sister site. Or blood brothers across time and space. Earlier: The PED/NBA debate, and a chance to buy a few of my records.
Here's the contrast that's keeping me up at night: European soccer and the NBA both have racism problems, but they manifest themselves in almost exactly opposite ways. Obviously Europe and America are different societies, variables diverge, math unrolls like a carpet, and nothing can be said about the subject that looks strict in the light of science. But it's a problem I can't stop speculating about, particularly given that so much else about the two sports—Kobe is friends with Avram Grant!—seems to be sloshing in the belly of the same whale.
In the NBA, racism is a substrate, a sentence that only makes sense if you know the words' etymologies. It's something you can talk about, not something you have to talk about, which is why it's so insidious. It's part of the interpretive structure, a deniable anxiety in the atmosphere (Is it a little cold? No. Shiver.), a form of judgment whose assumptions are disconnected from the thought process of the people who pursue it. That is, the suavities of Donald Sterling aside, it's largely covert and unconscious; it stays vague, informing descriptive categories (the "intelligent" player vs. the "athletic" player) and the periodic outrage that inevitably breaks out in a league in which black players are tacitly perceived as dangerous to white fans. It's a fundamental component of the culture of the game, but it doesn't overwhelmingly or frequently run afoul of the swirling taboos that regulate the same forces in society.
Contrast that to soccer in Europe, where it's still not uncommon for fans to throw bananas on the pitch and coordinate monkey chants to taunt black players. This isn't a narrative of progress, in which the NBA has absorbed and begun to resolve conflicts still wild and at large in soccer, because, at least at the level of categorical interpretation, soccer almost certainly has less endemic racism than basketball. It's just that the expressions of racism (and its worldly twin, ethnic hatred) that do occur tend to be obliteratingly direct. Ajax fans in Holland have appropriated Jewish iconography in recognition of the fact that their stadium used to be located near a Jewish neighborhood in Amsterdam. Their opponents' fans hiss in unison to simulate the sound of the gas coming down at Auschwitz.
Which actually opens onto one of the likely reasons for the dichotomy. The agony that's soaked into the rock in soccer isn't race, as it is in the NBA, it's nationalism. In the NBA—let's widen that into American sports in general—the defining figures and moments are generally encoded in the history of race: you have Louis vs. Schmeling, the Jackie Robinson breakthrough, the Globetrotters, Ali and Bill Russell as divergent possibilities for the civil rights movement, Magic and Bird as the salvific dyad of the 80s, Iverson and the mainstream threat of hip-hop paired with the Spurs and the emergent disciplinarian cult of the bounce pass. In soccer, by contrast, you have a litany of nationalist conflict: Mussolini co-opting the 1934 World Cup, FC Barcelona as the posed flagbearing orphan girl of the Catalan resistance to Franco, the '64 European Nations' Cup final between the USSR and Spain as the late last battle between communism and fascism, Rangers and Celtic restaging the Irish Troubles in Glasgow every season, Ajax fans singing about the bombing of Rotterdam, Zidane and the '98 French World Cup team as the expiation of postcolonial resentment.
Unlike American racism, which can be seen as an internal social problem transformed by changing attitudes within one overarching culture, the history of European nationalism was decided by relatively recent battles between armies whose sources of legitimacy were external to one another. Thus, to forestall the unanswerable shame that attaches itself to overt expressions of prejudice in American sports (Rush Limbaugh on Donovan McNabb, even Shaq when Yao first came into the league), prejudice in soccer can fall back on the dim memory of concrete populist ideologies. That's not to say that the shirtless gentleman holding the corner of the "Filthy Gypsy" banner is a learned proponent of any identifiable right-wing philosophy, but there's at least a vaporous sense that attitudes like his loathing for Ibrahimović were not long ago articulated by governments and embraced by respectable people. Which is enough to give them a perverse air of community justification, even when all the institutional forces in the sport are consciously trying (again, much more emphatically than the NBA) to eradicate racism and sectarianism from the game.
Obviously, there are other, simpler factors at work as well—the lack of diversity in certain parts of Europe, the natural territorial rivalry of political entities in condensed space. But I think this internal/external dynamic is important, partly because it points to a psychological possibility for the future of the NBA. Up till now the Stern-powered drive to globalize the league has been felt by American fans as essentially a phenomenon of intake: the best players coming from other parts of the world to play in our league. We know from recent Olympics that the game is being played at a high level in a lot of other countries, and we know from T-Mac at the airport (and I wasn't paying attention, but I'm guessing nine million trend reports in the New York Times Magazine) that it's "getting big in China." And we can see that foreign players like Ginobili have influenced American players to some degree. But so far that feels more like a side story than like a power that will transform our own perception of the sport.
What if it does, though? In European soccer the talent-import channel is wide open: the best leagues in the world are all European, and there's deep business in buying up the youth of Africa and South America and caravaning them to the big clubs' academies. In the last couple of years Arsenal has actually fielded teams with no English players. But the global popularity of soccer has combined with modern media overload to create its own anxieties.
The English Premier League now has several times as many fans outside England as it does inside it. A league that belongs to one country but is ardently followed by dozens of others ceases, in a sense, to belong to anyone. Local meanings wash out of the game, which in some ways impairs its social function, and jealousies mount up on the periphery. It's possible to try to ignore that, but doing so has practical consequences in a world where elite leagues exist in multiple countries: Real Madrid's recent attempt to lure Manchester United's star winger Cristiano Ronaldo to Spain almost certainly took courage from the fact that the Portuguese player had been blithely caricatured as a villain by xenophobic English tabloids. So how do fans react when they realize that someone is always watching them? The forms of hostility in soccer have grim historic precedents, but they can also be seen as the overwhelmed fan's furious attempt to blot out the rest of the world.
If the NBA really does become a global league—and there are people in soccer who think it can't be stopped—then what becomes of our relationship to the sport when American history is no longer the orb at the center of the game?