“Who Should We Root For?” And Other Questions I Can’t Answer

Dr. Brenda Elsey is an associate professor of history at Hofstra University and the author of Citizens and Sportsmen: Fútbol and Politics in Twentieth Century Chile. Follow her on twitter @politicultura.

Reflecting on his time in the editorial pages of Mexican newspapers, the historical anthropologist Claudio Lomnitz commented, “In times of peace and prosperity, when there has been broad hegemony, historians tend to be perceived as ornamental.” That is nowhere truer than in the U.S., where, unlike other parts of the world, academics rarely enter the world of punditry.  During Olympic and World Cup years, however, there is greater crossover between critical sports scholarship and mainstream media.  So-called, “human interest” stories tend to either frame these tournaments as disasters in the making or, alternatively, as exhibitions of sports’ unique capacity to unite humankind.  All the while, one wonders how corporate sponsorship and market imperatives shape the terms of coverage.  Thornier yet, is the investment all of us have in the claims of sports’ importance.  It’s a hard place for those of us trained in nuance, context, and deep research.

The U.S. academy has faced anti-intellectualism for as long as it has been around.  Despite accusations that we’re too busy drinking lattes to care about the “real world” scholars have sought to apply their work to relevant social problems.  This shouldn’t be surprising given how cosmopolitan higher education has become. To be a leading university, specialisms are expected in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.  In terms of sustained dialogue across borders, academics tend to be disproportionate to the U.S. sports’ audience.  I’ll never forget my disappointment reading my favorite childhood sports’ columnist, Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press, railing against soccer and celebrating the insularity of U.S. sports.

Sport attracts reading publics to worthwhile stories that they might otherwise have no interest in, and both journalists and social scientists have used this to good effect.  If I can get students interested in the struggle of Chileans to construct a vibrant, diverse, and just political system by talking about the 1962 World Cup, that is a victory.  The solidarity they feel with players trying to maintain civility in the face of a brutal dictatorship is worth exploiting their passion for soccer. The Pinochet regime’s use of stadiums for torture and illegal detention, as well as its orchestration of the national team’s appearances to bolster its legitimacy is also a story screaming to be told and connects Chile to Argentina, Germany, China, and other parts of the world.  And, I wouldn’t know any of this if it weren’t for journalists chronicling it.

Scholars have moved closer to journalists in the digital age.  Social media and digital databases have at once expanded and contracted audiences.  This, I think, is largely positive for academics, albeit they are still connecting with a specialized audience.  Without the same constraints as print journalism, academics can wield their footnotes and forgo the “common denominator” of traditional media audiences.  One of the brightest spots over the past year has been the Far Post series, which has included important pieces by Laurent Dubois and David Patrick Lane.  It’s long form journalism, with enough research, timeliness, and discussion of soccer mechanics to crossover.  Unfortunately, fast dissemination via digital platforms also means it’s easier to plagiarize.  In the academy, the premium on “originality” of ideas makes this a horrifying prospect.  Plenty of us have been interviewed for publications ranging from ESPN to school newspapers, only to see our work buried or replicated, rather than credited.  In Chile, I’ve had pieces plagiarized before they can be translated.

In the last twenty years or so, there’s been a notable shift among sports journalists away from a staunch refusal to recognize the politics of sport.  In the past, this set them at odds with critical studies of sport, whether because journalists tended to define politics very narrowly or because of their notion that sport was a “free space.”  This supports a conservative position that defines the status quo as apolitical.  In recent years, sportswriters like Dave Zirin, David Goldblatt, and Grant Wahl have taken their colleagues and subjects to task for supporting homophobic, racist, and corrupt practices in sports.  Here, journalists have a harder job since they have a more tangled relationship to their informants.  Historians brutally analyze and categorize their subjects, since they’re mostly long gone.

I hope to be a resource for those journalists, even if I probably won’t ever be that “one” historian who can make headline statements.  In the meantime, I’ll work on answering the questions people ask when they first hear I write about the history of soccer.  These present in the following order: Who should I root for during the World Cup?  Who’s the greatest player ever?  Should instant replay be employed?  The quick answers:  Chile, Pelé (with Garrincha), and definitely not, because as historians and journalists agree, it’s all about the drama.

One thought to ““Who Should We Root For?” And Other Questions I Can’t Answer”

  1. First of all, thank you Brenda from the heart for organizing the greatest fútbol/futebol/football/calcio/soccer conference in recent memory.

    Your post is thought-provoking and goes a long way toward getting the conversation going about trends in fútbol writing in academia and journalism ahead of our gathering at Hofstra.

    As an Africanist, I too have long relied on football as a hook for my undergraduates. Once I capture their attention with sport (and sex, drink, drugs, music!), I reel them in for heavy discussion of other serious matters, such as Structural Adjustment, external debt, indigenous people’s movements, cultural imperialism and so on. I wonder if Europeanists adopt similar tactics and, if so, whether they do so to the same extent as those of us who write about the Darker Nations of the world (Prashad 2007).

    I liked your point that World Cup years are unique in sparking crossover between media and academia work around soccer. The roundtable at the Hofstra conference is one of the most powerful examples of this trend, as are the numerous books on Brazilian futebol and society due out very soon (e.g. Goldblatt, Kittleson, Fontes and Buarque de Hollanda, Zirin). Yet history also shows that after the World Cup and Olympic circus leave town the anti-intellectualism mentioned in the post takes over once again. I’m interested in hearing conference participants and blog readers’ views about this phenomenon and if and how fútbologists can deal with this challenge.

    Finally, a question about Dave Zirin and Chile, the subject of your terrific book *Citizens and Sportsmen* (FSF session on it here). Zirin wrote a piece on The Nation blog in January 2014 about C.D. Palestino’s use of the map of Palestine on their jerseys that got a ton of attention on the web and on Twitter (http://www.thenation.com/blog/177943/israel-palestine-pinochet-soccer-jersey). I agree it’s all about the drama, but how historically informed was this article? Was there some missing information about Palestino, for example, that would have helped us better understand the story?

    As they say on radio, I’ll take your response off the air. Gracias.

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