Kate Smith and “God Bless America”

Dear Sports Fan,

What’s the story with Kate Smith and “God Bless America? Why are people all up in arms about this?


Dear Alex,

You’re absolutely right to ask and I’d be happy to explain as best I can. In fact, I’ve wanted to write about this since I first saw her name in the news, because this story is a perfect intersection of sports, politics, and history, all of which are of great interest to me. I’m going to tackle this as a series of short questions and answers. Some of the questions may seem like exaggerations of how people might react to this news, but I guarantee you, they are not. They are based on a survey of opinion articles on the story. Here are just a few of the headlines:

Who is Kate Smith?

Kate Smith was a hit singer in the 1930s and 40s who had popular radio and later television shows. At her peak, she was one of the most famous people in the country. She remained a celebrity through the 1970s. She was strongly associated with patriotism – having popularized the Irving Berlin song, “God Bless America” and helped to sell war bonds during World War II.

What is her sports connection?

Smith became connected to the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team in the late 1960s – early 1970s. According to NBC Sports, a member of the Philadelphia Flyer’s organization was reacting to fans being unhappy with the playing of the national anthem before games during the 1969 season in the context of the Vietnam War and the reinstatement of the draft. He “stumbled across” a recording of Kate Smith singing “God Bless America” from the 1930s and decided to try it instead of the anthem. It became a tradition in Philadelphia, in part because the team seemed to play better in games when it was substituted for the National Anthem — they won 19 of their first 21 games when Kate Smith’s recording was played.

The team invited Smith to sing the song in person, which she did on several occasions, the most memorable of which was during a Stanley Cup gam against the Boston Bruins in 1974, which the Flyers won. Here’s one of her live performances:

The tradition continued after her death in 1986.

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, many Major League Baseball teams began using Smith’s recording of “God Bless America” during their seventh inning stretches. (The seventh inning stretch is a slightly longer break between the first half of the inning and the second half which usually has a musical accompaniment.) The New York Yankees kept this new tradition up longer than other teams.

Why is she in the news now?

Both teams have recently stopped using Smith’s recording after an “email from a fan alerted them” that Smith had also recorded at least two racist songs. The Flyers have also covered up a statue of Smith that stood outside their stadium.

The teams’ decisions have sparked a slew of reactions among fans and in media, the majority of which (or at least the most vocal of which) defend Smith and ridicule the teams for their decisions.

What were the songs she recorded and were they really racist?

The two songs cited were “Pickaninny Heaven” and “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” and yes, they are really racist. The word “pickaninny” itself is a racial slur and the song, “Pickaninny Heaven” traffics in stereotypes about black culture. “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” is the far more insidious of the two songs. It espouses the idea that black people were born for the express purpose of serving white people, not only as manual laborers and entertainers but also as moral examples and encourages black people to accept their lot in life.

But this was the 1930s. Everyone was racist! Also, “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” was satire and the black singer, Paul Robeson performed it.

Not everyone was racist in the 1930s. Some people definitely were though and there was conflict, just like all other times in American history. In the specific context of the 1930s though, you had black people being disproportionately affected by the Great Depression, a rise in lynchings, a continuation of Jim Crow, and the rise of fascism with its fake-genetics racism. Songs, like the two in question, that perpetuate the myth of racial difference and inferiority were not simply a reflection of the times but also purposely racist in the context of the time.

The idea that “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” was intended as satire at the time has been circulating in the current news cycle. I can’t find the source of this, nor can I find anything to support it. Paul Robeson, a black singer and social and political activist (and Rutgers football star), whose civil rights credentials are unquestionable, did perform the song but that doesn’t prove anything. His rendition sounds to me as though it is filled with deep pathos, not satire; that by applying his magnificent voice and presence to the song, he’s challenging audiences, “are you sure you believe that black people are inferior?” or at least making the point, “it’s really sad that so many people think black people are inferior.” Even if the song were truly satirical and Robeson’s performance was satirical, the same would not be true of a white woman performing the song. Not all comedy works if you sub out the comedian.

Okay fine, but isn’t this an overreaction?

An overreaction? It’s definitely a quick reaction. The teams involved have changed their behavior soon after learning about the questionable behavior. I can think of three possible reasons for the quick reaction.

  1. Sports teams are now run by people committed to social justice and always doing the right thing regardless of the bottom line.
  2. Sports teams are scared of being shamed by their fans.
  3. The two teams in question were getting sick of their connection to Kate Smith and were looking for a reason to ditch her rendition of God Bless America.

Which do you think is most likely? I think we can toss out #1 immediately. The people who run sports teams are still interested in winning and making money; not necessarily in that order. #3 is possible. Playing a recording of God Bless America from over 80 years ago firmly ties your team to a nostalgic appreciation of the past. In the era of social media, teams might feel like ditching that for a more contemporary vibe but not be sure how to do it on their own.

#2 is definitely my choice though. The era of #metoo was directly proceeded by the era of tearing down confederate monuments and of revisiting public tributes to past figures in general. The engine powering all of this is a powerful anger that should scare any organization as reliant on good will and consumer interaction as a sports team.

So, it’s a quick reaction, but is it an overreaction? It’s hard to judge that if you’re not a person who is offended by something. How do you judge how badly someone is offended? Luckily for us, we can mostly look at the other side of the equation: how important is it to play Kate Smith’s “God Bless America” at sporting events? The answer to that is pretty easy – it’s not that important!

But this is historical revisionism! You can’t just rewrite the past.

Yah, historical revisionism is bad. It’s way better to find a way of telling a story of the past that is inclusive of the incorrect ways people have told that same story. The best example I know of an organization doing this is the Natural History Museum in NYC. That said, the Flyers and the Yankees are not history museums. They don’t have an obligation to correct the historical record. They do have an obligation not to offend current fans.

Well, I’m a current fan and I feel offended by the destruction of a beloved tradition.

Good. If the only things we lose because of our culture’s greater understanding of more diverse historical and lived experiences are painless to lose, then we are not evaluating things deeply enough.

I just wish people would keep politics out of sports. Sports is a refuge from politics.

Nonsense – use of Kate Smith’s “God Bless America” at sporting events has always been political. The Flyers first subbed it in for the National Anthem because of the context of the Vietnam War and political divisions within their fanbase. The Yankees started using it after the attacks of September 11, 2001; a political response to a political act. Politics are inextricably combined with all of our activities and that certainly includes our sports!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

Why do NFL players kneel during the National Anthem?

Dear Sports Fan,

Please tell us why NFL players want to kneel during the National Anthem. And explain what, if anything, this has to do with respect or disrespect for the U.S. military.


— — —

Dear RKR,

The experience of seeing NFL football players kneeling during the National Anthem before a game has become a common one of the past couple of years as has the experience of having their act become a subject of political controversy. As the players’ acts of protest have become more controversial, their intent has become increasingly hidden by claims from outside observers. This makes developing an opinion about whether to support the protests and relatedly, whether the protests are disrespectful toward the American Flag much more tricky. Explanations for the reasoning behind the protest are all over the place. For example, here is the start of the Wikipedia entry on the U.S. National Anthem Protests:

Since August 2016, some U.S. athletes have silently protested against “systematic oppression”,[2] “equality and social injustice”,[3] “racism and injustice in our criminal system”,[4] “oppression of people of color in the United States”,[5] and to not “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color”[6] during the playing of the U.S. national anthem.[7] Many players since 2017 have started to protest against the policies of President Donald Trump.[8]*

*It’s worth noting that the sources for those claims are, in order: [2] Sporting News, [3] USA Today, [4] Fox News, [5] SB Nation, [6] NFL.com, [7] Fox News, [8] Fox News. 

As someone who follows sports news and political news quite actively, I am sure that I carry my own share of bias into this answer, so I’m going to do my best to answer your question without editorializing.

The first NFL player to protest during the National Anthem was Colin Kaepernick. On August 14, 2016, the San Francisco 49ers — the NFL team that employed Kaepernick at the time — played the Houston Texans in a preseason game. Kaepernick sat on a team bench during the playing of the National Anthem. He did the same thing the following week during the 49ers preseason game against the Denver Broncos. He did the same thing once more in the 49ers next preseason game against the Green Bay Packers on August 26, 2016. This time, a few reporters noticed and asked him questions about it after the game.

This got the story going but it didn’t truly explode until three days later, on August 29, when then presidential candidate Donald Trump was asked about it in a KIRO radio interview by Dori Monson and responded by saying, “I have followed it and I think it’s personally not a good thing, I think it’s a terrible thing. And maybe he should find a country that works better for him, let him try. It won’t happen.” From that moment on, the story of the protests have become increasingly calcified as an “us vs. them” fight with, generally speaking, protesting NFL players and liberals on one side and the NFL commissioner, (most) NFL owners, President Trump, and conservatives on the other. In order to get the clearest possible picture of why, let’s go back to that brief period between August 26 and 29, 2016 after the protest had been noticed but before they had become a controversy.

The day after that August 26 preseason game, the New York Times and NFL.com each ran stories about Kaepernick’s protest. With the benefit of hindsight, they are noticeably balanced in their portrayal. According to Christine Hauser of the New York Times, Kaepernick’s protest was “a statement against racial oppression.” The NFL.com’s article on the same day by Steve Wyche attributed Kaepernick’s protest to, “what he deems are wrongdoings against African Americans and minorities in the United States.” Both stories carried a quote from Kaepernick’s post-game interview: 

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Both the New York Times and NFL.com seem to have done a fair job of summarizing Kaepernick’s intent, although neither of them provide the specific context of police violence against people of color that is so obvviously present in Kaepernick’s last sentence. The following week, in the final preseason game the 49ers played that year, Kaepernick was joined in his protest by teammate Eric Reid. This time, both players knelt during the National Anthem instead of sitting. A year after this, Reid wrote an op-ed in the New York Times explaining his reasoning for joining Kaepernick. Reid wrote, “In early 2016, I began paying attention to reports about the incredible number of unarmed black people being killed by the police… A few weeks later, during preseason, my teammate Colin Kaepernick chose to sit on the bench during the national anthem to protest police brutality.”

In terms of why they switched from sitting to kneeling, here’s what Reid wrote, “After hours of careful consideration, and even a visit from Nate Boyer, a retired Green Beret and former N.F.L. player, we came to the conclusion that we should kneel, rather than sit, the next day during the anthem as a peaceful protest. We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”

It seems clear that the protest was generally about the oppression of people of color in the United States and specifically about police brutality. Whether you believe it is disrespectful is a more complicated question. I am reminded of a long rambling car-ride conversation on the subject of disrespect I had with a childhood friend who is now a philosophy professor. We were debating whether an act is disrespectful because of the intent of the person doing it or based on how the person on the receiving end perceives it. If you believe it’s based on the intent of the actor, then you may have enough information now to make up your own mind. If, however, (and this was my side of the argument,) you believe that whether something is disrespectful is based on how the other person perceived it, then… well… the question you’re left with is this: who gets to decide whether the National Anthem or the United States Flag feels disrespected? Who speaks for the country? And isn’t that the underlying political question of our time?

It’s not going to be solved here but thanks for reading anyway,
Ezra Fischer

Questions from the first two days of the 2018 Winter Olympics

Over the first two days of the 2018 Winter Olympics, I got a bunch of questions:

  • How good should we feel about North and South Korea marching and competing together?
  • Why is the Korean Women’s Hockey team wearing more visible shin guards than the Swiss team?
  • What’s up with athletes wearing tape on their faces?
  • Is mixed doubles curling really a thing? Why does gender matter in curling at all?

I love getting questions! Keep sending them, please!

How good should we feel about North and South Korea marching and competing together?

Eh… one never really knows when it comes to war and peace and geopolitical affairs… but probably not all that good. Yes, it’s amazing to see athletes wearing a uniform that shows the entirety of the Korean peninsula on it and to imagine what this might mean to Korean communities or families that have endured a 50+ year militarized split.  On the other hand, as I learned in Uri Friedman’s excellent article on this topic for the Atlantic, this is not the first time North and South Korea have come together for the Olympics. Actually, it’s the ninth time it’s happened since 2000. This dims my hope for the symbolic gesture to turn into something more meaningful when the games are over. My thoughts are drawn back four years to Sochi – a time of relative peace in Russia – followed almost immediately by a semi-covert invasion of Ukraine when the games were done. If there’s even a slim chance that some good will come of it, it’s still probably worth it, but it does feel particularly unfair to the South Korean hockey teams whose team chemistry has been interrupted by the political injection of North Korean players just a few weeks before the biggest tournament of their lives.

Why is the Korean Women’s Hockey team wearing more visible shin guards than the Swiss team?

Aha! I was not the only one watching the Korean women’s team get their tournament started with an 8-0 loss to Switzerland. In ice hockey some defenders who specialize in blocking shots do wear bulkier shin guards than other players. Cheaper shin guards also tend to be bigger than more expensive ones. In this case though, I think you were fooled by an optical illusion caused by a design choice made by whoever designed the Korean uniforms. I think you were seeing a vertical white line on the Korean socks, not their shin guards. The Swiss team wore a more traditional horizontal stripe.

What’s up with athletes wearing tape on their faces?

I know, right?

Czech Republic’s Marketa Davidova competes in the women’s 7,5 km sprint biathlon event during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games on February 10, 2018, in Pyeongchang. / AFP PHOTO / Odd ANDERSENODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images

Apparently, according to Tara Parker-Pope in her article for the New York Times, this is something athletes are doing to try to stay warm. This is the first Winter Olympics in a while that’s actually, you know, cold. So, we’re seeing Olympic teams doing all kinds of things to try to get an edge. This includes breathing through a “respiratory heat exchanger,” wearing electric coats, and taping, or more traditionally greasing, up any exposed skin, including faces. It may not be the most telegenic tactic but if it helps, you know it’s going to be popular!

Is mixed doubles curling really a thing? Why does gender matter in curling at all?

Okay, fine, I’ll admit it. I asked this question on Facebook and got a bunch of responses from friends. It was an excellent turn of the tables compared to my normal mode when it comes to questions about sports. A Facebook friend linked me to Liz Clarke’s Washington Post article, “In Olympic Curling, men and women are not created equal.” Clarke, who I am 100% confident approached this subject from a position of great skepticism, included this infuriating quote from “Kyle Paquette, director of sports science for Curling Canada”:

It’s not simply that Canada’s top male skips (the chief strategist of a curling team) are more aggressive play callers than the top female skips. The difference is more nuanced, according to [Paquette,] suggesting to some that top male curling skips may see angles better and anticipate three or four shots ahead better than their female counterparts.

Oh, really? Men are just naturally better tacticians, huh? We must be genetically selected for it after all those millennia of throwing rocks at each other, right? Aghghghhhghhh! You don’t think that maybe it has something to do with boys being given more encouragement, more practice time, better coaches, better equipment, and greater rewards for success from a very early age? Director of sports science? How do I get that job?


Hope you have a wonderful Olympics-filled Sunday. Keep the questions coming!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

Have we had presidents who were athletes?

Dear Sports Fan,

I know we’ve had presidents who were actors (well, at least one) and presidents who were generals, and lots who were lawyers. Have we had presidents who were athletes?


Dear Richard,

We have had presidents who were athletes. Off the top of my head, I know that Gerald Ford played center for a big-time college football team, which makes it doubly funny that his Saturday Night Live parody was almost completely based on his clumsiness. Barack Obama’s skill on the basketball court is probably a little overstated, but its importance to him cannot be. I believe Teddy Roosevelt overcame a fairly severe asthma condition to become an avid outdoorsman and big game hunter. And we all know how much exercise he got on the stairs in Brooklyn. I don’t think George W. Bush played a sport at the collegiate level, but the first pitch strike he threw out in the World Series after 9/11 was a chill-inducing presidential athletic moment in my memory. You deserve an answer with a little more weight though, so I researched the topic. Here is what I found.

I’ll stick with my original answer. Gerald Ford was one of our most athletic presidents. He not only played center for the University of Michigan, but he also played linebacker and long snapper. In 1932 and 1933 his University of Michigan Team was undefeated and won the national championship. Even more impressively, in 1934, Ford briefly quit the team in protest for the racially motivated benching of his best friend on the team, an African-American running back named Willis Ward.

George H. W. Bush also played college sports. He was first baseman and captain of the Yale baseball team and played in the first two College World Series ever held. Oddly enough, he was also a member of the Yale cheerleading squad, something his father, and his son, future president George W. Bush, also did at Yale.

Dwight D. Eisenhower has a compelling athletic back story. While attending the U.S. military academy at West Point, he played football, starting at running back and linebacker in 1912. He either made or missed a tackle on the legendary Jim Thorpe, (sources seem to disagree, but even today, a tackle is a highly subjective statistic, so we’ll give it to him.) He also injured his knee badly enough to need to give up football… although Wikipedia claims he then moved on to “fencing and gymnastics,” which are both highly knee-dependent sports, so who knows. There’s also the mysterious matter of the Eisenhower baseball controversy. In the summer before he went the West Point, he may or may not have played semi-professional baseball under the pseudonym, “Wilson.” If he did, then he may be our only president who personally violated the NCAA ban on paying “student athletes.”

Many other presidents have been athletes. George Washington apparently had a hell of an arm. John F. Kennedy was on the swimming team at Harvard, an avocation which may have saved his life when his patrol boat went down in the Pacific Ocean during World War II. But my favorite piece of presidential athletic trivia that I picked up was from this article on Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was not only a champion wrestler who took on all comers and a fair number of wagers during his life, but he was also an excellent handball player! In a moment that parallels and foreshadows President Obama’s tradition of playing basketball on election days by almost 150 years, Lincoln played handball (and was injured slightly) while waiting for news of the 1860 Presidential nominating convention.

Thanks for reading,

Understanding Tour de France TV Graphics – Department Numbers

Dear Sports Fan,

While watching LIVE broadcast from Tour de France, from time to time there is a note with the name of place, city where particular racers are. And there is always a number in brackets. And I’m wondering, what does that number mean?

Best Regards,

Tour de France Number
What does the 88 mean?

— — —

Dear Michal,

Thanks so much for your question and for sending a screenshot of the TV graphic you’re asking about. I had no idea what those numbers are but this morning, I woke up and searched around on the internet for a while and I think I’ve figured it out.

The number in brackets next to the name of the town the Tour de France riders are racing through is the department of France the town is in. For example, in the image here, the riders are traveling through Saint-Etienne-les-Remiremont. Saint-Etienne-les-Remiremont is a small commune or township in France which is 70% covered by forest and has around 1,500 households in it. It sounds like a very nice place except for the periodic tragic floods it withstands due to being at the base of a water-system from a glacial lake in the mountains above it. The town was first settled in 870 by a monastery of women. Most importantly to our discussion though is that it is within the Vosges department.

A department is one of the tiered level of regional government in France: regions, departments, and communes in order of size. The history of the department is fascinating. It was created during the French Revolution and was intended to be a rational way of dividing the country. Each of the 83 (there are now 96) departments was designed so that its farthest inhabitants would still only be a day’s trip on horseback from the capital of the department and its borders were intentionally drawn across traditional boundaries to break up older political identities. The departments were named after geographic  features instead of ethnic or political ones. A pessimist would say that this was because the leaders of the French revolution had recently seen just how vulnerable a government can be if it can’t control its people but an optimist would reply back that a certain amount of central control and assimilation is necessary to establish the identity of any nation.

Of course, at this point, all we’re trying to do is enjoy watching the Tour de France on television! Today’s stage 20 will travel through the department of Dordogne [24,] so watch out for the number 24 as you go! If you want to know more about Dordogne or almost any department of France, you can go to its website which is usually www.cg[department number].fr. Dordogne’s is www.cg24.fr.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the rest of the Tour,
Ezra Fischer

Is it Fair to Mock Tim Tebow for his Religion?

Dear Sports Fan,

I saw that a couple of football players were making fun of Tim Tebow for praying. What’s up with that? Do you think it’s fair to mock Tim Tebow for his religion?


— — —

Hey Cody,

It’s a close call, but I do think it’s okay to mock Tim Tebow’s religiosity. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the story, here’s a little background. Tim Tebow is a Quarterback, currently playing for the Denver Broncos in the NFL, who won two National Championships in college with the University of Florida football team. In college he became incredibly famous, mostly for his football playing prowess, but also for his religious beliefs which he was unabashedly public about. In 2009 a reporter asked him if he was a virgin and he said he was. He also showed some humor, saying, “I think you’re stunned right now,” Tebow joked with reporters after revealing his virginity. “You can’t even ask a question. … I was ready for that question, but I don’t think ya’ll were.” In 2010, Tebow publicized his beliefs further by participating in a Super Bowl commercial for Focus On the Family which (between the lines, as it were) promoted an anti-abortion message by celebrating Tebow’s mom’s decision to continue her pregnancy despite being advised by a doctor not to. As Brian Phillips writes in his well-worth reading article on Tebow on Grantland, “A trillion words have been written about this already, but suffice it to say that if you see him as the avatar of muscular Christianity in football, you know that in his bland, smiling, placidly self-confident way, he sees himself that way, too.”

These days, Tebow has somehow become even more polarizing as he has emerged in mid-season as the starting quarterback for the Denver Broncos. Two weekends ago he started his first game this season against the Miami Dolphins. The Broncos were down 15-0 at half-time but ended up coming back to win the game in overtime. When they won, cameras caught Tebow kneeling in prayer as his teammates celebrated around him. This act has become a meme over the last week, leading to a website selling shirts… and to any number of photos and videos of people performing their own acts of “Tebowing.”

This past Sunday’s game did not go quite so well for the Broncos or for Tebow. The Broncos lost 45 to 10 to the Detroit Lions and Tebow played badly, throwing one interception and fumbling three times. The Lions were not satisfied just by winning, they also picked a couple choice moments to mock Tebow by adopting his now famous praying pose after sacking him or scoring a touchdown.

To your question — which was also asked in this way in the New York Times’ football blog today:

Is it all in good fun?  Tebow invites scrutiny with the very public nature of his religious beliefs, his evangelistic side. But let’s imagine that a player displayed a Muslim religious ritual or one based on Hinduism? Would it be fair to mock those displays as well? If not, why is it fair game for Tebow?

I say yes, it is fair to mock Tebow for his religious displays because Tebow, through his actions has made them part of the public domain. It’s one thing to claim that dropping to his knees in passionate prayer is not a public act even if it is on a playing field with 20+ cameras, but it’s another to claim that someone who used to list bible verses on his eye-black and who has publicly endorsed religious/cultural lobbies it treating his own religious as a private matter. Frankly, I don’t think the players on the Lions were mocking Tim Tebow for his religion, I think they were mocking a sophomore player, who they think is not very good at his craft, for what they consider a self-aggrandizing and maybe just a little prematurely self-congratulatory celebration.

What do you think?
Ezra Fischer


What's Up with Realignment in College Sports?

Dear Sports Fan,

What’s up with realignment in college sports? That seems to be all anyone is talking about these days.



Dear Ken,

If you’ve ever wondered why national borders are so messed up — why they break cultural groups in half, ignore obvious geographic boundaries like rivers and mountains, and  geometric conventions like straight lines — then this is the perfect non-violent real life lesson. Over the past couple weeks (and years,) several schools have committed to moving from one conference to another. The borders are shifting.

There’s no need to get into the specifics[1] but suffice it to say that many of them involve relatively impractical moves like Pittsburgh (366 miles from the ocean) into the Atlantic Coast Conference and Texas A&M (Southern, but not particularly Eastern) into the South-Eastern Conference. It’s not all geography — the Big Ten conference now has 12 teams.[2]

The sport that’s driving all of this is football. There’s an enormous amount of money made on college football. According to this CNN article, in 2010 the average school with a football team in one of the major conferences made over a million dollars a game. The important phrase in that sentence is not “over a million,” it’s “major conferences.” Right now the major conferences are the SEC, the Big 10, the Big 12, the Pac 12, the ACC, and the Big East. As these conferences threaten to break up, the member schools are wriggling around in their chairs, trying not to be the last one standing when the music stops. This creates MORE instability, which creates more nervousness, which creates more movement, which creates more instability… I could keep this up all night if it didn’t wear out my suspenders.

There’s nothing I hate more than people who simply argue that everything that once was was better than anything that will be. This is mindless nostalgia, the subject of a recent brilliant essay by Chuck Klosterman,[3] and I will try to avoid it. However, it seems to me that letting the profit from a single sport drive who everyone other athlete in those schools play (and how far they have to travel to do it) is too bad. It’s another sign that the big money college sports, football and basketball, need to be more fully divorced from track and field, swimming, soccer, field hockey, etc. We can have semi-pro football and basketball teams affiliated with universities that do not drag everyone else through this mud and that are not as inherently hypocritical as the “amateur” leagues are now but that still are profitable enough to fund the non-money sports.

Not sure if I answered your question or just added to your list of people who are talking about realignment but thank you for your question.

Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Because it’s pretty boring, even to crazy college football fans. This website does a ridiculously compendious job of covering it.
  2. They compounded this mistake by dividing the league into two six team divisions, one named “Legends” and one named “Leaders.” Both divisions are made up of teams of college kids.
  3. Although I must say… his writing used to be way better in the early aughts…”

Why is Soccer so Liberal?

Dear Sports Fan,

Can sports be liberal or conservative? Why does soccer seem so liberal?



Dear Nicholas,

What an interesting question. Sports definitely carry political overtones that vary from time to time and culture to culture. For instance, I spent a semester in Cape Town, South Africa during college. Although things are slowly changing, the political/racial meanings of sport set during Apartheid were still present. Football (soccer) is a black sport in South Africa while Rugby is an Afrikaans sport.[1] Cricket is also wildly popular although more so among the White/Coloured (it’s a technical term) population than among Black people. It’s all very complicated.

In the United States soccer is one of the more interestingly politically loaded sports. See this tongue-in-cheek article from Deadspin.com entitled “Soccer: The Liberal Plot to Destroy America.” Sure, NASCAR has a cartoonish identification with Southern conservatives, and golf is tight with the political party of the rich… but why is soccer seen as a liberal sport? There are two main reasons — one historical and one current.

Soccer as we know it in this country — with the youth leagues and the screaming parents on the sidelines and the “2-4-6-8 who do we appreciate?” —  began in the late 60s and early 70s as part of the counter-cultural revolution. Football was too tightly associated with the traditional drink beer, marching band, date the cheerleader, join the marines and go to war life for pot-smoking, Vietnam war protesting, Woodstock going hippies. Soccer was an ideal sport to coalesce around because right at that time Johan Cruijff was ascending to his place as one of the best players of all time. He also happened to be making himself into a counter-cultural idol due to his unique style and radical (and out-spoken) ideas.

Although it’s been 40+ years, I think this explains much of the non-violent, everyone wins, liberal stereotypes about soccer. There’s another thing, something that’s even more true now than it was in the 70s. The best soccer in the world is not played in the United States. If you want to watch the best soccer in the world, you have to watch the English Premier League,[2] the Spanish La Liga, or wait around for the big international tournaments like the World Cup or the European Championships. This is a big difference from Football (okay the rest of the world just doesn’t care) or Basketball, Hockey, or Baseball where the best players in the world come to our league to perform. Insofar as liberals are associated with a greater internationalism and conservatives are associated with isolationist tendencies, then it makes sense that being a soccer fan is seen as a liberal thing to do.

What’s funny about this (and this is far too large of a topic to cover here, so I’ll just nod towards it) is that soccer leagues in other countries are far more capitalist than our leagues. Players are not traded, they are “sold.” If a team does not do well it can be thrown out of the league and relegated to a lower league. Compare that to an NFL team like the Detroit Lions that has not had a winning season since 2000. Not only does it get to keep playing in the NFL, but they receive gobs of money from the other teams in the form of revenue sharing of television, merchandising, and ticket money.

One last bonus factoid that you can use at cocktail parties: in the late 1800s when football and baseball were in their infancy, football, the more physical sport, was played by the upper classes, and baseball was a lower class sport. Why? Well — if you had to work in a factory or a farm you certainly were not about to risk breaking bones playing football. Leave that foolishness to rich college boys!

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Which is why it was so meaningful for Nelson Mandela to embrace the team during the 1995 Rugby World cup. I think this is the plot of that movie with the 5-10, 160 pound Matt Damon playing a 6-3 238 pound rugby player… I haven’t seen it.
  2. Which starts their season today!