Email Exchange: Is the USMNT Too Fair?

US striker Jozy Altidore (L) controls th

This is the first post in what will be an ongoing series. Each weekday morning, Mike and Cam will take an intriguing piece of sports journalism from the web, on any topic whatsoever, and discuss the ideas it inspires. The posts are partly a chance for the two to think about how they can improve their own journalistic abilities, and also a way to think about the intersection of sports and society. But, as with the blog entire, they’re mostly just done for fun.

Today’s article: “Where Dishonesty is Best Policy, U.S. Soccer Falls Short,” Sam Borden, The New York Times

Michael Rosen:

So the basic idea of this piece is that the USMNT is above flopping, for reasons having to do with some sort of national ethos.

I think the most damning part of this piece, and Jay Caspian Kang alluded to this on Twitter, is that there isn’t one source that isn’t affiliated with the US Soccer team. I mean, I understand this is just kind of a silly and lighthearted sports piece and not some hard news story, but if you’re trying to put forth any kind of argument, failing to consider an alternate point of view just invalidates it completely. The author just sounds naive when he argues, essentially, that every other country in the world flops to their advantage, but we don’t, because we say so. And that’s not even getting at the jingoistic undertones.

Cameron Seib:

Wow, 8:18 am on my first official day of summer and I’m already dealing with the word “jingoistic.” Why’d I think this blog was a good idea?

But anyways. Even as Americans, we accept the notion that, generally speaking, the US “thrives” off dishonesty. Wall Street is evidence enough of that, I’d say. But this article directly undercuts the stereotyped image of the Big Bad Immoral American. Which brings me back to your point. Borden had to know that with such a lack of evidence, his argument isn’t all that convincing. Did he get caught up in the patriotic fervor the Cup induces, and simply try to put out something that would shine brightly on his Yanks? Did he just get lazy?

Despite the lacking support for the piece’s claim, though, my first inclination was to believe what I was reading. It reminded me of the ongoing PED debate in (mostly) baseball. Again, I think Wall Street’s continued existence shows Americans don’t care all that much about cheating, so long as they’re able to benefit from said transgression. So, why do we impose such harsh moral standards on our sports – if Barry Bonds was making the MLB more enjoyable for all, why did anyone give a fuck if he was on ‘roids? Culturally, we seem to hold sports to a standard of purity that we don’t seek elsewhere in society, and I’m not sure why.

MR:

Dang, a lot to get to here. To start with the easiest of your claims to address: yes, it seems like a case of some lazy reporting to me. I don’t know how you can write this piece and fail to take into account alternate perspectives. Another possibility is just naiveté. Regardless, I think we can agree that there isn’t much here to support the fact that the US flops any less than other countries.

Your final point is interesting, and I wonder if that is an American thing. The quote from Ramos, one of Klinsmann’s assistant coaches, is almost malicious towards other countries that he views as more predisposed to flopping: “I don’t know if you call it a problem or a weakness, but it’s clear that the American nature is to try and make everything fair, to try and be fair to the game. That’s just how Americans are.”  Why the defensiveness? I guess I’m talking around your bigger question — “why do we impose such harsh moral standards on our sports” — because I’m fearful of diving into conjecture. Maybe it’s something to do with the black-and-whiteness of sports themselves. There are no gray areas; the ball is fair or foul, the runner is out or safe, the team wins or loses. When something like the PED issue or the flopping issue arises, we race to put the offenders into one category or the other: good or bad. And since, intuitively, they don’t seem good, they must be bad? Or maybe I’m just talking out of my ass.

CS:

My training in journalism amounts to two years of high school newspaper class, a time mostly spent playing Dolphin Olympics 2. But even I know you need some alternate perspectives!!! Borden: did you even J-school, brah?

And, Mike, your hesitance to conjecture worries me. Maybe we should’ve communicated more prior to launching the site, because the sole reason I agreed to these early-morning exchanges was the opportunity it gives to conjecture. I find few things more pleasurable than talking out my ass and passing it off as a pseudo-Socratic insight.

I’m glad you brought up the Ramos quote, as I think it shows the weakness of Borden’s reasoning. He essentially argues that American soccer players don’t flop because they like things to be fair. And, as Borden implicitly suggests via the Ramos quote, Americans like things to be fair because “that’s just how Americans are.” So, the argument ultimately boils down to “Americans don’t flop because they’re American.” A bit ad hoc, I think.

My last thought. We’ve grown up in an American society defined by fear of the unknown. Parents won’t let their kids outside to play, the TSA won’t let us bring shampoo on an airplane, and now we’re all perpetually worried Obama is listening to our phone calls. Simply put, people are increasingly having trouble entrusting those around them. And I think we maybe see sports as a chance to escape this paranoia. Constantly stressed by an inability to know who among us is “cheating,” we find solace in the firm knowledge that at least our favorite athlete isn’t.

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