Soccer vs American Sports, part 5: Does taking the hands out of play make a sport inferior?

Posted on July 31, 2010


During the 2002 World Cup, Allen Barra, a great American sports writer (and acclaimed reviewer of books in general) published an infamous anti-soccer rant. The target of the rant was an alleged “swarm of soccer nerds and bullies reminding us how backward and provincial we [good ol’ American sports fans] are for not appreciating soccer enough.” The rant itself is partly an ad hominem attack on these mostly unnamed nerds and bullies who

“want in their heart of hearts…to eliminate baseball, football, and basketball… And with good reason: They are the ones who couldn’t play those sports growing up, the ones who got chosen last or not at all in the pickup games. To them, soccer is ‘democratic’ because it eliminates the swiftest and the most powerful and takes for its physical standard the average European male. In other words, the average soccer nerd’s own height and weight.”

Like most such arguments — which attack the person holding the position, rather than on the position itself — this would not be worth taking seriously. And to a certain degree it is advanced partly in jest by Barra himself. [Click on the button below to read more…] But the diatribe does also sketch or hint at a few arguments that are meant to suggest that soccer is inferior as a sport, or as a source for a sport spectator’s experience, to the big three American sports. (It is elsewhere clear that Barra doesn’t like hockey either.) Most of these will not look compelling for an informed soccer fan, to say the least. Now I do think we should be able to make reasonable arguments of this general type. That is, we should be able to say (minimally) that a particular sport will be improved or damaged by a particular rule change. (So we would be saying, in effect, that soccer at time-2 — say, after tweaking the offside rule — is a better sport than soccer at time-1.) And more ambitiously we should be able to make reasoned comparisons about the relative merits of different sports; just as we do about different art forms or genres. This just turns out to be devilishly difficult because different sports have different positive and negative features, and there is such a wide variety of things that contribute to a spectator’s appreciation of a sporting event. Be that as it may, I’d like to pluck out one consideration Barra hints at in this rant (I think I have seen him develop it just slightly more explicitly elsewhere, but I can’t remember where). The proto-argument was elided out of the passage I quoted earlier. Barra draws attention to the fact that the big American sports make use of “the arms and hands and thus about half the athletic talents the human body is capable of.” Or put the other way, soccer is inferior because it severely restricts the use of the hands and arms (in particular for throwing, catching, blocking, and tackling). And in so doing, it rules out many of the more impressive athletic feats a well-honed human body can perform. (Obviously, the arms are used for balance, and for throw-ins, and two players on the pitch — the keepers — are allowed to make significant use of their arms and hands. But in what follows I’ll try to take the spirit of the accusation seriously.) I had enjoyed elite soccer for two decades, and the big North American sports for even longer, before I encountered this argument. I can’t say it made me question my “faith” in the greatness of soccer as a sport. But as a professional philosopher, I have to say, it was unsettling. If we are looking for criteria or “principles” we can use to make meaningful cross-sport comparisons, then at first glance the following does not seem unreasonable:

Other things equal, Sport-1 is better than Sport-2 if the athletes in S-1 are able to use and display a greater range of human athletic abilities than in S-2.

Nobody would think that this is the only criterion for comparing sports (if it were, then maybe Australian Rules Football would be the sportus maximus). On the other hand, at some point the elimination of physical capacities from a sport surely makes it less and less interesting as a sport (which is one reason why a sport like long-jumping or weightlifting can’t be especially interesting). So what, if anything, is wrong with this principle? I have come to think that one problem with it is that it is deeply at odds with the very essence of what a game is. That is, it does not properly appreciate how games differ from other pursuits in life. And that once we grasp this essence we also see what is wrong with some other things going on in sports, such as deliberate rule-breaking and diving. In the next post I will pick up on the threads left dangling in both this post and the previous one. What is a game, anyway?