Lesson in Paradox: Sport in America

Courtesy: Reuters

“Golden Graham seals famous victory” reads the byline of an ESPN article remembering Swansea City’s somewhat surprising win over Arsenal on the weekend. Famous, because ten years ago Swansea were relegated to the Third Division (now Football League Two), 80 some-odd spots below where Arsenal sits now. What’s more, the same year the club was sold for £1 to its own managing director. Process that: ten years ago, a club currently near the pinnacle of the most important sport in the UK was worth less than my rec soccer team is worth right now[1]. It’s as if my NCAA Division Three alma mater’s basketball team had made it to the NBA and just defeated the Boston Celtics by a comfortable margin. OK, it’s not that simple. Swansea City were incorporated before most professional American teams of any sport (1912) and had a loyal if small band of supporters willing to pay money for tickets and apparel. But you see my point: there’s something romantic about the fact that essentially any club that is officially a member of the Football League system (about 7,000 of them) can ascend British sport’s highest peak.

It’s why Football Manager destroys the career mode for any other sport-themed game ever. In the Madden Franchise, you play with your favorite team, win the Super Bowl, Offensive and Defensive MVPs, send 12 guys to the Pro Bowl, then do it all over again the next year with a different team. Yawn. At least in the NCAA Football series you could play with a team like Ball State or Ball So Hard University and work your way up to a National Championship. Since I started following the Prem, I’ve found the static nature of professional sports to be suffocating. The complexity of Football Manager, on the other hand, is daunting. If you play the game how it’s supposed to be played (not like fellow O87 writer Eric Betts), you’d need to plot and plan for hundreds of hours to see Nuneaton Borough beat Juventus in the Champions League Final. Unquestionably an uber-rewarding feat. Maybe once you accomplish that, you can quit playing. Or you could do it again in a completely different league with quasi-different rules. For me, it’s like the difference between Settlers of Catan and Tic-Tac-Toe.

Courtesy: guardian.co.uk

Let’s not kid ourselves. In many ways, the Premier League is just as static as the NFL/NBA/MLB. Parity hardly exists. The fate of your club depends either on a long period of success stretching from the beginning of the Premier League in 1992 allowing you to build a large stadium and a large fan base (Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal) or getting bought out by an oil magnate with bottomless pockets (Chelsea, Man City), two things out of reach for 99.9% of the clubs in the Football League. Certainly as far as trophies and European competitions are concerned, there is a severely limited number of teams who will (for the foreseeable future) be able to compete for trophies. But professional sport in America is set in a relatively unbreakable concrete cast. Save for intermittent expansion (based not on results, but the financial feasibility of an owner and city to support a team), we’ve seen the same crew at it in the big four professional sports for the last 20 years.

Clearly no one cares that much. Why else do TV networks spend absurd gobs of money for the right to televise matches? It’s not like residents of Alabama (a state without a professional sport team) picket Roger Gooddell’s offices to allow Birmingham to have its own pro team. Alabamans, along with Mississippians, Idahoans, Iowans and all those other pro-team-less states have found other outlets for their sport passions[2]. But don’t you think it’s a touch ironic that in a country that has always prided itself on the ability to be socially mobile, one of the largest sectors of our culture is just the opposite of that[3]? What’s worse, we’re upstaged by a country whose socio-political roots lie in a concretely stratified system; the very same country we rebelled against in order to break free of the restraints of such a stratified system?

Courtesy: vintagesportshoppe.com

Long ago, professional baseball and English football were not so different. In the late 19th century, the two sports (a pond’s throw away from each other) harbored hundreds of clubs under several different types and sizes of professional leagues. Their nascence saw integral differences between the two arise to turn them into very different final products. In America, it seems as if the optimistic capitalism of the roaring twenties got in the way, seeing the owners of the most competitive clubs in the two largest leagues (the American and the National) strive to protect their interests by consolidating power and establishing a closed circuit of money (through national media distributing scores and highlights to fans of the game around the country). Whereas the growth of the two largest leagues in America saw the other ones choked off into non-existence or relative anonymity (there are a few very old baseball leagues in existence today), the various English football leagues continued to coexist in a relatively healthy exchange until the 1960s, when the Football Association decided to combine most of them into a coherent system where every team could in theory play each other. The real difference seems to be the extent to which each culture was motivated by socialized thought at the time: in America, the reign of a more or less free market capitalism saw the teams with the means rise to the top and ensure they stayed there; in England, a higher power intervened to wrap everyone together under the same umbrella where they (at the very least) retained their ability to be mobile (promotion/relegation), even if they were held in place by the external forces of money and number of supporters.

I’ll weigh in: I’d love to see a promotion/relegation system implemented in any American sport. I am neither the first person to call for this, nor remotely optimistic it will ever happen. No owner of any professional American team would allow a system to be put in place, regardless of the high ideal of democracy and parity, that would allow the potential for their business to take as massive a financial hit as what happens to relegated teams in the UK. Boy it’d be fun though. Most pieces I’ve read on the subject rightly tout the fact that with promotion and relegation, we’d never again be forced to sit through the Dolphins/Colts/Rams all sleepwalking through the final seven weeks of a season. Each of those teams would be fiercely struggling against each other to ensure they wouldn’t be relegated to a lower league. Those games, in many ways, would be as exciting as the ones determining who gets into the playoffs. Of course, we largely lack the infrastructure for that. It’s not like Birmingham, Alabama has a remotely credible football team that could be more or less immediately inserted into a tiered-league system. There are other football leagues around (the United Football League, for example), but what’s the point of going any further. It’s never going to happen.

Courtesy: imdb.com

And that defeatism is what’s so paradoxical for me. If there were an eighth deadly sin of America, defeatism would be it. Optimism motivates the majority of all our cultural outputs, especially in sport. I’ve previously talked about how many of our sports movies are underdog tales. Imagine a movie featuring a gritty band of misfits (starring Ryan Gosling as the ne’er-do-well former star high school QB that nobody believes in and Liam Neeson as the drunk, over-the-hill former Super Bowl winner trainer/coach who will do anything to regain his former heights) who play football in Birmingham beating the Cowboys in the Super Bowl. Hollywood studios, you can email me your best offer to our O87 email address.

[1] For your information, we pay about $700 to play at Silverbacks stadium.

[2] The occasional professional sport fan in all of these states usually cheer for the closest team, if at all.

[3] The American Dream. Ever heard of it?

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