Last week, Ann Coulter penned a column explaining why soccer is un-American. First, it’s collectivist. (“Individual achievement is not a big factor…blame is dispersed.”) Second, it’s effeminate. (“It’s a sport in which athletic talent finds so little expression that girls can play with boys.”) Third, it’s culturally elitist. (“The same people trying to push soccer on Americans are the ones demanding that we love HBO’s “Girls,” light-rail, Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton.”) Fourth, and most importantly, “It’s foreign…Soccer is like the metric system, which liberals also adore because it’s European.”
Soccer hatred, in other words, exemplifies American exceptionalism. For roughly two centuries, American exceptionalism has rested on the premise that there is a standard mode of national behavior, born in Europe, which America resists. Over the centuries, what constitutes that European standard—and America’s resistance to it—has changed. For some 19th-century thinkers, for instance, what made America exceptional was its refusal to partake of the European habit of fighting wars. For Coulter and many contemporary conservatives, by contrast, part of what makes America exceptional is its individualism, manliness and populism. (All of which soccer allegedly lacks).
But Coulter’s deeper point is that for America to truly be America, it must stand apart. That’s why she brings up the metric system. The main reason to resist the metric system isn’t that it’s a bad form of measurement. It’s that it’s a European form of measurement. So it is with soccer. Soccer’s alleged collectivism, effeminacy and elitism are simply markers of its foreignness. The core problem with embracing soccer is that in so doing, America would become more like the rest of the world.
Which is why Coulter should be very afraid. Because America is embracing soccer. America’s World Cup game against Portugal attracted almost 25 million television viewers in the U.S., eight million more than watched the highest rated World Cup game in 2010, and far more than the average viewership for last year’s World Series or this year’s NBA finals. NBC now broadcasts English soccer. And America’s own league, Major League Soccer, draws as many fans to its stadiums as do the NHL and NBA.
Worse, from Coulter’s perspective, Americans like soccer for the very reason she loathes it: It connects us to the rest of the world. Earlier this year, I wrote an essay entitled “The End of American Exceptionalism,” which argued that on subjects where the United States has long been seen as different, attitudes in America increasingly resemble those in Europe. Soccer is one of the best examples yet.
To understand how the embrace of soccer undermines American exceptionalism, it’s worth understanding why Americans rejected soccer to begin with. In their 2001 book, Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism, Andrei Markovits and Steven Hellerman argue that in advanced industrial countries, the sports that achieved hegemony in the late 19th and early 20th centuries have generally maintained preeminence ever since.
So why didn’t soccer gain a foothold in the U.S. in the decades between the Civil War and World War I, when it was gaining dominance in Europe? Precisely because it was gaining dominance in Europe. The arbiters of taste in late 19th and early 20th century America wanted its national pastimes to be exceptional. Despite the British roots of both baseball (in rounders) and football (in rugby), their promoters worked to cleanse them of foreign associations and market them as American originals. Basketball had the good fortune to have actually been invented in the United States.
Soccer, by contrast, was associated with foreignness in an era when mass immigration was spawning Coulter-like fears that America was losing its special character. “Soccer,” Markovits and Hellerman argue, “was perceived by both native-born Americans and immigrants as a non-American activity at a time in American history when nativism and nationalism emerged to create a distinctly American self-image … if one liked soccer, one was viewed as at least resisting—if not outright rejecting—integration into America.” Old-stock Americans, in other words, were elevating baseball, football, and basketball into symbols of America’s distinct identity. Immigrants realized that embracing those sports offered a way to claim that identity for themselves. Clinging to soccer, by contrast, was a declaration that you would not melt.
So why is interest in soccer rising now? Partly, because the United States is yet again witnessing mass immigration from soccer-mad nations. A huge chunk of the soccer fans in America today are Hispanic. According to one recent study, 56 percent of Hispanic Americans said they planned to watch the World Cup compared to only 20 percent of white non-Hispanics. Twenty-six percent of Hispanics in the U.S. call soccer their favorite game; among non-Hispanics whites, it’s three percent.
The difference between Hispanic immigrants today and European immigrants a century ago is that today’s newcomers don’t feel they must reject soccer to prove their Americanism. Technology makes it easier to stay connected to one’s favorite teams back home. But the key shift is that America’s sports culture is less nativist. More native-born Americans now accept that a game invented overseas can become authentically American, and that the immigrants who love it can become authentically American too. Fewer believe that to have merit, something must be invented in the United States.