Few understand sports in the United States like NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul Jabbar. The legendary big man played for 20 years in one of the world’s most physically demanding professional sports leagues. He was a member of six NBA championship teams and earned NBA Most Valuable Player awards six times as well.
His signature shot—the Skyhook—was a deadly hook shot for which there was no defense. The 7’2” giant would put up an uncannily accurate, yet graceful shot while everyone else watched helplessly.
When a legend like this weighs in on a sports topic, his gravitas makes his opinion worth considering and in explaining why soccer hasn’t wildfired through America like it has in the rest of the world, he nails it:
Finally, soccer doesn’t fully express the American ethos as powerfully as our other popular sports. We are a country of pioneers, explorers, and contrarians who only need someone to say it can’t be done to fire us up to prove otherwise. As a result, we like to see extraordinary effort rewarded. The low scoring in soccer frustrates this American impulse. We also celebrate rugged individualism, the democratic ideal that anybody from any background can become a sports hero. We like to see heroes rise, buoyed by their teammates, but still expressing their own supreme individual skills. Certainly soccer has its celebrated stars, from Pele to Beckham, but those skills seem muted on TV where we’re often looking at small figures on a large field and therefore these feats appear less impressive than they really are. In football, basketball, baseball, and hockey, team effort is rewarded with points and individual greatness is as instant and immediate as a one-handed snagged football pass, a three-pointer from the corner, stealing home base, or a [slap]-shot of the puck into the goal.
Read the whole thing here. He’s absolutely right.
I am no “soccer hater.” All of my kids have played the sport, and two of them were on teams that won league championships. I am familiar with the rules of the game. And when any team wearing the red white and blue steps onto a field of competition, I’m right there chanting “USA! USA!”
But like a large percentage of Americans, I am altogether unimpressed with the game at the professional level. It’s therefore not hatred of soccer that explains its relative lack of popularity in this country. It’s antipathy. We just don’t care, and we don’t care for the reasons Kareem articulates so well in his op-ed at Time.
This line of thought tends to escape the talking heads on sports radio and television. They can’t seem to understand why so many Americans are uninterested in a sport that is loved elsewhere on the planet.
In her typically sarcastic, provocative manner, Anne Coulter explains the antipathy more harshly. But I think she nails a snarky skyhook with this:
You can't use your hands in soccer. (Thus eliminating the danger of having to catch a fly ball.) What sets man apart from the lesser beasts, besides a soul, is that we have opposable thumbs. Our hands can hold things. Here's a great idea: Let's create a game where you're not allowed to use them!
Not only are you not able to use your hands, doing so results in a penalty. Do it inside “the box” and it results in a penalty kick, pitting a representative of the offended team against the goalkeeper in a one-on-one situation. Now that’s something Americans can take a modicum of interest in.
Many disinterested Americans don’t care about soccer because of this aspect of the game, and it’s probably sub-conscious. We built this country using our hands, and we’ve defended it using our hands. I’m typing this post with my hands. You get the idea.
While that’s probably part of the issue, I think the driving force in American antipathy towards soccer is best captured in the quote from Kareem’s essay, wherein he describes us as “pioneers, explorers, and contrarians who only need someone to say it can’t be done to fire us up to prove otherwise.”
In all of the other sports that we love so much in this country, it is the chance for individual achievement—combined with the risk of individual failure—that captivates us and makes us watch on television and sell-out stadiums. We like to see teamwork, but we like to see teams of exceptional individuals who are taking exceptional risks in displaying their exceptional talents. That’s excitement for Americans.
That’s missing in Soccer.
Being told otherwise by talking heads and those who hail from the left of the political spectrum isn’t going to change the fabric of America. We like what we like because of who we are. Pointy-headed elites telling us what we should like isn’t going to move the needle very much;, the rest of the world be damned.