Like anyone born before Newt Gingrich was actively attacking Ronald Reagan as the reincarnation of Neville Chamberlain, I grew up in a different America, one anticipating imminent doom not from fat kids and Iran's nuclear ambitions but from killer bees and Russia's nuclear reality. As my colleague Jesse Walker once said, the past is a different planet. Indeed, it may be a whole other galaxy.
I played soccer throughout the 1970s, back when defenders were called "fullbacks" and midfielders were called "halfbacks" because (American) football was the only possible analogue by which to name positions. For a brief shining moment, the full-blown adoption of the metric system was only a second Ford adminstration away from becoming a lead-pipe cinch and the New York Cosmos of the NASL (look it up on the Google, kids) were outdrawing the football Giants at the Meadowlands.
Yet even in New Jersey, a state stuffed to its sweetly toxic gills with Irish, Italian, Cuban, and other recent-immigrant types who played soccer without apology or acknowledgement that it marked them as unmeltable ethnics, the feets-don't-fail-me-now game was officially an oddity.
In good old Middletown, New Jersey, the kid leagues were sponsored only by the Catholic church, which was trying to branch out from its decades-long stranglehold on the unambiguously American sport of basketball (god bless the C.Y.O.). And even then, my Romish high school only added a varsity team around 1979. We lost every game our first season and the minor high points came only when an opposing team scored on itself.
Pele, Shep Messing (who posed for Playgirl), and Kyle Rote, Jr. be damned: Donning short-shorts and running around a field without using your hands and wearing a helmet and shoulder pads was seen as bizarre and inherently girls-only as synchronized swimming (which was called water ballet back then). That soccer (yeah, yeah, futbol) was big in Europe only emphasized the innately femme nature of the game and its obviously Marxist origins. The "men" in Europe held hands, cried at the drop of a hat, and carried purses, fer chrissakes.
So it came to pass that throughout my adolescence, I was regularly accused of being gay and communistic simply for preferring to play soccer rather than engage in the openly homoerotic butt-slapping that characterized (American) football.
That experience taught me to be suspicious whenever anybody makes claims that a particular non-political activity is inherently ideological. So I was especially well-prepared for the seemingly weekly columns written by Fred Barnes, then at The New Republic, and others throughout the 1980s about how Americans would never accept soccer because, well, it was sort of collectivist and totally faggy. In a post-9/11 world, Barnes finally acknowledged that soccer wasn't all bad as long as the American boys were "world-class."
Which brings me, on the eve of the Super Bowl, to the latest dumb-dumb piece in which jock-sniffing right-wingers lay claim to a particular athletic activity as supremely conservative.
The article in question is double-plus-good on this score, as it's titled "Move Over, NASCAR: Why Mixed Martial Arts Is The True Conservative Sport!" and appears at National Review Online, the website of the magazine founded by William F. Buckley, Jr. in the 1950s to stand athwart history yelling stop. To stand athwart history, not a groggy, punch-drunk, scantily clad man you've just spent the past 40 minutes intimately feeling up.
So why exactly is MMA so conservative? The reasons, argues Arlen Delgado, are really pretty self-evident and include the following points:
- "It's conservative philosophy manifested in a sport." Because nothing says respect for tradition more than a couple of guys leg-locked together and rolling around in a ring inspired by anti-commie screenwriter and director John (Red Dawn) Milius.
- "The UFC boasts a disproportionately high number of outspoken conservative fighters." Because, contra basketball player Charles Barkley, Auburn's "round mound of rebound" who was once discussed as a GOP candidate for governor of Alabama, sports figures should be considered role models?
- "The UFC staunchly supports U.S. military personnel and veterans." Because everyone remembers that moment during the baseball's All-Star game last year when the American and National League teams mooned a platoon of paraplegic Fallujah vets? Or back when Jane Fonda did a Super Bowl half-time salute to Ho Chi Minh from a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun (I think the Kansas City Chiefs won that year)?
To be fair, it's not only the right that tries to claim certain games or even athletics writ large for its side. The Nation devoted a whole issue last year to sports, with the unappetizing subtitle, "Views from Left Field," and featuring such ripped-from-the-Comintern-headlines as "Class Struggle on the Court" and "Revolution on Eight Wheels: Roller Derby marries an underground vibe with the fun of athletic competition" (as if we needed another pinko take on roller derby after Raquel Welch's epic Kansas City Bomber, easily the agit-prop equal of anything Eisenstein churned out).
Indeed, the heavyweight champs of using sports to score cheap partisan points may well have been Ethel and Julius Rosenberg who, while awaiting their execution for atomic espionage in 1953, still found time to share jailhouse thoughts about the Brooklyn Dodgers. "It is the Dodgers' unconquerable spirit which makes people love them," Ethel wrote to her husband at one point in letters they knew would be published. "The victory of the Dodgers over the Phillies quickly restored me to my customary good spirits." As the great literary and cultural critic Leslie Fiedler observed caustically, such a transparently stagey and ham-handed gesture shifts us "from melodrama to comedy." That the comedy is unintended is besides the point, as was Ethel's grasp of the proletariat pecking order of the Senior Circuit. If there was a team more worthy of working-man, hang-dog solidarity than the Bums, it was surely the hapless Phils who, despite their recent success, own the world record for total losses in any league of any sport.
But at least Ethel Rosenberg could plead distraction due to a date with the electric chair. In 2000, when the loathsome Yankees squared off against the equally rancid Mets in the World Series, conservative scribe Peggy Noonan unconsciously channeled Mrs. Rosenberg and actually wrote:
The Mets, my Metties, are the team of square, flat Long Island and the striving unchic boroughs—the team of the middle and working class… In a country in which status is everything, the Mets are the team of the nobodies. They are the team of those lacking in status, the ones with no special claims, the people who'll never be in style. God bless all Met fans, a hardy crew that don't give a damn….
Such a characterization isn't simply wrong (though it is that). It blasts common-sense out of the park like a Dave Kingman moon shot circa 1976. As a kid growing up in New Jersey and in a National League household (like the Rosenbergs, my father had been a Brooklyn diehard growing up, though he never once pondered whether Carl Furillo or Cookie Lavagetto supported the Taft-Hartley Act), I saw my first two dozen ball games in the late, unlamented Shea Stadium. And I lived in Queens when the Mets beat the Boston Red Sox in the 1986 World Series, so I have some familiarity both with certifiably obnoxious Mets rosters over the years and, worse, their even more obnoxious fans. Mets fans may never have style, but they have long believed themselves to be a chosen people, an arrogance that even Gary Carter's poodle haircut, Lenny Dykstra's rotting teeth, or the Jim Fregosi trade can diminish.
None of this is to say that politics and sports don't overlap in profound and typically stupid ways. The modern Olympics were political from their start, conceived by a Frenchman as a means to avenge defeat in the Franco-Prussian War; later, they became one of the great Cold War proxy battles, spurring personal and taxpayer sacrifice in pursuit of international bragging rights in shot-putting, race walking, and team-pursuit bicycle racing. Baseball, America's supposed pastime, translated the nation's original sin of slavery into sport by banning blacks from competing for decades; the rigged and near-absolute control of team owners over players in baseball provided management with government-sanctioned power that Andrew Carnegie could only have dreamed of. The Edifice Complex subsidies that build stadiums everywhere and by every level of government are first and foremost political issues.
But discussing any of that is as distinct from anointing this or that game as truly conservative or liberal or libertarian or whatever as soccer is distinct from synchronized swimming. As the Super Bowl beckons, word comes that Gisele Bundchen, the supermodel wife of Patriots QB Tom Brady, has conscripted her friends and family via email to beg God to suit up for New England on Sunday. Mrs. Brady wrote:
Pray for [Tom], so he can feel confident, healthy and strong. Envision him happy and fulfilled experiencing with his team a victory this sunday.
Given how beautiful and rich and successful Brady and Bundchen already are, even atheists would be forgiven for asking whatever gods still exist to let the Giants win (even if it means giving yet another triumph to a New York team and another ring on the fingers of the lantern-jawed Manning Brothers, themselves annoyingly successful). But however distasteful Bundchen's special pleading may be—the New York Post called her email campaign "disgustingly sappy"—at least she doesn't mix politics and sport in the way that so many others do.
We politicize just about everything these days, which is surely one of the reasons why there is so little joy in Mudville and even why the housing market first inflated and then popped. Surely, we can get by in our leisure time without reflexively mapping our preferred sports to our preferred ideology. Soccer had no inherent ideology when meatheads were denouncing it as gay or communistic and MMA is not any more conservative than NASCAR isn't. If that small truth gets in the way of whiling away the weekends, well, maybe you're not half the fan you think you are.
Nick Gillespie is editor in chief of Reason.com and Reason.tv and co-author with Matt Welch of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America. He hopes both teams lose in the Super Bowl.