Soccer vs. baseball

What can explain the American disinterest in soccer, the favorite sport of the rest of the world? I’m sure I don’t know.

O say can God bless America the beautiful

It was Little League day at AT&T Park yesterday, and when we got to the Giants game against the A’s it was already the fourth inning. (We’d spent the morning at Maker Faire.) So we missed the ritual singing of the national anthem at the beginning of the game.

I was therefore surprised when, at the beginning of the seventh inning stretch, fans were asked to stand and remove their hats for “God Bless America.” (My infrequent visits to the ballpark led me to expect only “Take Me Out To the Ballgame.”) The whole stadium dutifully complied as Kate Smith’s recorded voice echoed from the loudspeakers.

The whole stadium except for me, that is. I was disturbed that citizens would treat that song, patriotic though it is, with the same respect that is due the national anthem — which, for the record, is “The Star-Spangled Banner,” not “God Bless America.” For one thing, it diminishes the importance of the national anthem. But more importantly, it trains people to regard anything concerning national identity with unthinking veneration. A little patriotic pride is a fine thing, but the clearest lesson of history is that an excess of nationalism is poison.

Besides, neither of these is the best choice for a song that obliges its listeners to stand at respectful attention. “God Bless America” is merely a plea to God, with nothing in it about America per se other than that the singer lives there, gladly. “The Star-Spangled Banner” commemorates a battle and a flag, not a nation or its people or its ideals, and it’s notoriously difficult to sing to boot. But “America the Beautiful” is full of praise for our wonderful country, and it’s so easy to sing even a Muppet can do it.

In which I disrespect your favorite sports

Both of my sons are now Little League baseball players, and I’m thrilled. They are too. (In fact, Jonah is so happy playing baseball that at a recent practice, after he batted a base hit, the coach had to remind him to run to the base — not to skip.)

But Little League baseball is only a few months out of the year, so recently Andrea handed me information about signing up the kids for football in the fall. I immediately vetoed the idea. Andrea was surprised by my vehemence and challenged me on it.

I cited football’s greater likelihood and severity of injuries, but she found this unconvincing, insisting I quote actual statistics, which I didn’t have at hand. Pressing me further, she got me to admit that there’s more to my opposition than just injury statistics. This is the surprising statement that she eventually drew out of me:

“There’s something ugly at the heart of football.”

What?! she said. “Something… belligerent,” I tried weakly to elaborate. I said that, though I enjoy watching football, I didn’t want my kids playing it because of its fundamental unwholesomeness. “It’s not like baseball, the ‘thinking man’s game,’ which is civilized, noble.”

I don’t blame Andrea for thinking, at this point, that my statements about sports were getting wilder and wackier. I don’t often make bald assertions that I can’t substantiate when called upon to do so. But my strong opinions on this subject would not be denied.

“What about soccer?” she asked. “Soccer’s just stupid,” I said, and rightly so. “Good teamwork is nice to see, but mostly it’s just running back and forth and almost never scoring a goal” — in which respect it’s the cousin of basketball, which is the same thing but with too many goals.

After I got through offending most of the sports world, Andrea theorized it’s only because of the movies I’ve seen. There are baseball movies that I just love — Field of Dreams, The Natural, and A League of Their Own, among others — but I haven’t seen any good football or soccer movies. “What about Any Given Sunday or Jerry Maguire?” I countered — movies that were just OK. “Those are more about the business of football,” she said. “Behind the scenes. I’m talking about a movie about football itself.” I asked her to name some but she couldn’t.

Maybe there’s a reason there are a lot of emotionally resonant movies about baseball but not football or soccer, I said. Maybe on some level filmmakers know the same thing about sports that I do. The sport of football can’t be the hero of a movie. Only baseball is innately uplifting.