Like virtually any two influential social institutions, sport and academia have a knotty and multi-faceted relationship. Despite popular assumptions that jocks and nerds inhabit mutually incomprehensible cultural worlds, there is a long tradition of academic attempts to grapple with the social significance of sport, and sociology boasts a thriving subfield devoted to the subject. However, these academics’ engagements with sport are most often carried out in the context of their roles as scholars, rather than as “sports fans” per se. Indeed, the very identity of the sports fan, rooted as it is in the word fanatic, seems difficult to reconcile with academic commitments to question dogmatic assumptions and pay heed to empirical evidence. What empirical evidence could possibly exist to suggest that the devotion of attention and emotional investment to sports teams, particularly perennial losers like baseball’s Seattle Mariners or hockey’s St. Louis Blues, yields anything other than anguish and a monumental waste of time, money, and energy? At least a life spent following the New York Yankees reaps the psychological reward of basking in the glory of championships at the rate of about two a decade.
Nevertheless, I can’t help noticing a conspicuous exception to this academic reluctance to engage in fandom when it comes to soccer. The recent Euro 2012 tournament was another reminder of the genuine excitement many of my academic friends and acquaintances have for the sport. I’m far from the first person to notice the affinity between the highly educated and the “beautiful game” (though every time I see that phrase applied to soccer, I am forced to conclude that the user has been cruelly denied the opportunity to witness the exquisite splendor of a fast break by the UNC basketball team). In his 2004 book How Soccer Explains the World, Franklin Foer looks at soccer as a front in the culture wars. Soccer fans, at least in the United States, are a worldly, cosmopolitan lot, while its detractors tend to be downscale believers in American exceptionalism whose distrust of globalization in general shines through in their dislike of soccer and of those who suggest that America take a cue from the rest of the world and embrace it. It isn’t hard to pick out which side of that divide academics would want to line up on.
So it’s not without some serious cognitive dissonance that I announce to the world that I, an aspiring academic, a dutiful liberal, don’t particularly care for soccer. I love football (as it is defined by Americans outside the ivory tower), basketball, and hockey and the North Carolina-based teams that play them, I love baseball even though North Carolina doesn’t have a major league team, and I love the basketball team at my alma mater of UNC Chapel Hill, but I just can’t muster enthusiasm for the sport that the rest of the world – and, more importantly for the social capital of a graduate student, the apparent majority of sports fans in academia – adores.
Realizing the sort of company one keeps by virtue of a disinterest in soccer is enough to provoke a near existential crisis in a young academic. Foer’s book describes some of the more vociferous members of this rogue’s gallery. Witness, for instance, the appalling homophobia of sports radio shock jock Jim Rome, whom Foer quotes as saying “My son is not playing soccer. I will hand him ice skates and a shimmering sequined blouse before I hand him a soccer ball,” or the peculiar style of patriotism practiced by NFL quarterback-turned Congressman Jack Kemp, who argued against an American bid to host the 1994 World Cup by proclaiming “I think it is important for all those young out there, who someday hope to play real football, where you throw it and kick it and run with it and put in in your hands, a distinction should be made that football is democratic, capitalism, whereas soccer is a European socialist [sport].”
And so if these are stakes, whose side am I on? I used to believe that my hatred of the Atlanta Falcons was enough to solidify my understanding of myself as a fundamentally good and decent person with a bright future. (Didn’t Max Weber call hating the Falcons the most commonly accepted sign of eternal salvation among people who couldn’t commit to the Protestant work ethic? Everyone needs a Plan B.) Now I realize I must expand my horizons. I must make a change. And so I resolve now that as part of my broader system of preparation for a career in academia, I will apply the same level of dedication and diligence that I commit to studying for comprehensive exams and writing articles for publication toward acquiring a taste for soccer. After all, if I ever have to make a good social impression at a reception following a job talk, I’ve begun to resign myself to the fact that no one is going to want to hear about the offensive line play of the Carolina Panthers. But Ronaldo, on the other hand…
<Turns on soccer game. Two minutes pass.>
Then again, forget it. I’ll just go back to studying for comps.