Monthly Archives: July 2011

Soccer: Forever the Redheaded Stepchild of American Sport ?

Every few years the World Cup generates a blip on the radar screen of American sport. The blip beeps louder if either the men’s or women’s team makes a run in the tournament.  Then the conversation often turns to why the most popular sport in the world does not have the following in America that the “Big Three” of football, basketball and baseball enjoy?

Theories abound.

Lack of scoring, confusion and ignorance of the rules, the players positions and purpose, the time clock (referees are allowed to extend or shorten the game at their discretion), matches ending in a tie (we Americans are all about winners and losers), and most offensive to soccer purists, “it’s boring.”

This last complaint no doubt linked to the others.

But there is one other reason:  Money.

Let’s start with the men.  Our best adult male athletes do not usually play soccer.  Why?

Money.

Sure, millions of kids fourteen and under play in recreational and competitive leagues.  But many also play football, basketball and baseball.  Once they hit junior high and high school many focus on a specific sport and soccer is often a casualty, especially for the most talented athletes.

Why?

Money.

If a kid is an elite athlete with legitimate prospects of playing professionally, where should he allocate the most precious resource any of us have, his time?  To a sport like soccer that pays little compared to the “Big Three” and receives scant attention from the American media and the general public with a corresponding lack of endorsement dollars? A sport, that should they try to play overseas, is filled with outstanding players from hundreds of countries vying for the same roster spot? Certainly MLB and the NBA have more international players than ever, but for an American player, thanks to the foreign leagues, this cuts both ways  The NFL, of course, is almost exclusively American.

Look at it this way.  An above average Division I U.S. college basketball player who has no chance of making the NBA can find a spot in an overseas league, with an apartment, car allowance and a decent salary.  Baseball players not ready for the majors go into the minor leagues or play in Mexico, Central America, or Asia.  Football players who miss out on the NFL, have the CFL and Arena ball.

An above average Division I U.S. college soccer player is going to have a difficult time finding such gigs.

So what about the women? Why do they excel in the World Cup, winning two titles and finishing second this year.  How do we explain that?

Money.

Or lack thereof.

Other than tennis, auto racing, and beach volleyball,  I cannot think of many sports that pay the top women as much as they do their male counterparts.  WNBA, no way.  Golf? LPGA is constantly struggling for sponsors.  Perhaps track and field, maybe the X Game sports. But the bottom line is most women’s sports do not have the TV deals or advertising support that men enjoy, particularly the “Big Three.”

As the saying goes, when you got nothin’ you got nothin’ to lose, so why not play the sport you love the most?  The best women athletes in the U.S. do not need to walk away from soccer in junior high and high school to focus on the “Big Three” because, as of now, they are off-limits to them.  Perhaps some day there may be a mixing, but it is difficult to visualize such a scenario any time soon.

Another consideration for men and women is the availability of college scholarships.  There are 310 Division I colleges who offer soccer scholarships to women.  For men it’s 197, far fewer than basketball or baseball.  While there are fewer Division I football teams, each offers up to 63 scholarships.  So even if a young woman is not a future world-class player, a free ride to college in soccer is more of a possibility for her than a man.  Considering college can be a six-figure expense, we are back to where we started.

Money.

All this may be why, in combination with Title IX in the seventies and the explosion of youth soccer, America has produced great women soccer players and teams.  Unlike the men, our best female athletes are on the field.

But even the success of the women’s teams has not translated into wide-spread enthusiasm among Americans for soccer.  As long as the “Big Three” reign supreme, it never will.  Why?

I think you can hazard a guess.

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Filed under July 2011, Soccer

Tiger Woods, Schopenhauer and Transcendence Lost

As of this writing, Tiger Woods has not returned to tournament play since leg injuries felled him in the spring.  When he does, he will have a new caddy, Stevie Williams gone.  Though Williams may not like it,  he is replaceable.  What is not easy to replace is lost confidence.  The type that allows a golfer to strike a ball flush, no doubt in mid-swing, no flutter in the putter.  A purely hit golf ball a moment of transcendence.  The repetition of that act in front of millions, within the pressure cooker of major championship golf while bearing the mantel of overwhelming favorite, a sustained transcendence on the order of genius.

That is what Tiger Woods achieved for a decade.  From his 1997 Masters victory to the 2008 U.S. Open, Tiger lived up to the hype.  Only a few athletes (Michael Jordan, Jack Nicklaus, Wayne Gretsky, Bill Russell, come to mind) met and exceeded expectations for so long.  Tiger rose to the occasion, shocking us the few times he did not.  Tiger with the third round lead was money.  He did not crack.

Despite the obvious physical abilities, his mind set Tiger apart.  Many PGA players have solid all-round games that put them in position to win, but none closed the deal like Tiger.  It was not lack of physical ability that stopped Phil Mickelson from winning his first major.  He too often wilted when he needed to bloom.  Jerking drives into the rough, missing short putts, errors born from mental pressure.  Tiger seldom did such things and if he did, recovered on the next shot,  seemingly oblivious to the pressure, focused on the task at hand.  To paraphrase Dan Jenkins thoughts on Nicklaus in his prime, Tiger may not have been the greatest ever tee-to-green, but if your life depended on a guy draining a slippery sloped twenty-foot putt,  pick Tiger.

Arthur Schopenhauer, if you are not familiar with him, was a 19th century philosopher who argued in his book The World as Will and Idea that artistic “genius is the capacity to maintain oneself in the state of pure perception.”  That is, genius is immersed in the action, “divesting oneself of one’s own personality for a time” and becoming “pure knowing subject…not merely at moments, but for long enough, and with consciousness enough, to enable one to reproduce by deliberate art what has thus been apprehended.”  Schopenhauer believed the creation of music was the highest form of “aesthetic perception as a mode of transcendence,” great composers occupying an intellectual realm the rest of us cannot attain.  We can, however, join them temporarily when we listen to the music, i.e. lose ourselves in a song and achieve a moment of transcendence.

From an athletic perspective, Tiger Woods achieved transcendence, a “pure knowing subject,” reproducing “by deliberate art” a golf game which is unattainable to ninety-nine-point-nine percent of humanity. To see him in his prime on the final nine of a major, eyes tracking a well-struck putt, stalking toward the cup where the ball inevitably disappeared, was to see a man immersed in his craft, composing athletic genius.

Hackers, like me, have moments when we flush a 7-iron on a short par 3 and drop it next to the flag.  We get glimpses of transcendence, as with music, but we cannot sustain it.  Nor can most golfers, even professionals.

The shock now, for those who remember his magical decade, is that Tiger is like most golfers, his athletic compositions no longer genius.

Of course, there is a physical aspect to athletics absent from music.  Beethoven, deaf, produced works of genius.  Tiger Woods, with a bum knee, cannot swing a club.  Even after an athlete’s injury heals, there is a time period where they may not trust their body.  Where there is doubt when a driver needs to be ripped three-hundred yards down the middle.  How much of Tiger’s demise can be attributed to physical problems, I do not know.  Lee Trevino said if Tiger does not stop snapping his left knee on follow through, his days as a top golfer are over.  I defer to such experts.

Others say Karma did Tiger in, his personal behavior coming home to roost.  Again, I cannot say.

What is clear, however, is that as long as Tiger’s mind is cluttered with doubts, whether from diminished physical abilities or personal problems, he will not be the golfer he was.  He may win some tournaments, maybe another major, but he will be just another golfer.

Transcendence lost.

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Filed under Golf, July 2011, Philosophy