In Gaming the World: How Sports Are Reshaping Global Politics And Culture, University of Michigan professors Andrei S. Markovits and Lars Rensmann examine the significance of athletics.
“Sports matter,” they write in the book’s first sentence. “They hold a singular position among leisure time activities and have an unparalleled impact on the everyday lives of billions of people.” (Pg. 1)
Says Bill Shankly, the long-time manager of the Liverpool soccer club: “Some people think football is a matter of life or death. I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more important than that.” (Pg. 15)
Great players change society. Jackie Robinson, for instance, the first black in Major League Baseball, influenced America as much as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. “They lead to an enlightening,” says Dr. Markovits, “precisely because they are the best of the best at what they do.”
Sports are languages. While Americans speak football, basketball, baseball and hockey, the world primarily speaks soccer. The 2006 World Cup final between France and Italy, for instance, drew approximately two billion viewers. By comparison, the Super Bowl is seen by only 160 million people around the world.
Allegiances to particular teams simultaneously create community and promote a “respect for strangers and the universal recognition of individuals independent of their cultural or racial background, citizenship, and heritage. Thus hegemonic sports, as part of popular culture, play a crucial role in shaping more inclusive collective identities.” (Pg. 2)
Translated into English, this means that according to the authors, most sports fan care more about the success of their team than they do about the race and religion of the player.
At least this is true in the United States. The authors say they’ve attended hundreds of games in America over the past 50 years and “never experienced overt-racism or anti-Semitism at any of these events. Nor have we witnessed major acts of violence among the spectators beyond the occasional beer-fueled fistfight.” (Pg. 216)
By contrast, European soccer stadiums frequently host “the worst kind of racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic…language and behavior.” (Pg. 216)
Is this because Europeans are genetically worse people than Americans? Of course not. The key difference here is that the United States won’t tolerate public displays of race hate and much of Europe will.
Italy has had so many soccer-related murders that “many of Italy’s premier sports venues have become totally off-limits for immigrants…and Jews.” (Pg. 222)
When a black player touches the ball in an Italian soccer stadium, much of the crowd routinely reacts with monkey sounds. (Pg. 222)
Swastikas are a common sight at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome where the fascist Lazio gang once unveiled a 60-foot long banner displaying their slogan, “Auschwitz is your home, the ovens are your house.” (Pg. 222)
In Poland, chants such as “We will do what Hitler did to the Jews”, are common at the biggest soccer stadiums. Rivals routinely refer to their opponents as “Jewish.” It’s a favorite Polish put-down just 70 years after three million Polish Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.
Supporters of the Budapest club Ferencvaros sing endless Dr. Mengele-inspired songs at their games. Sample lyrics include “Dirty Jews, dirty Jews, gas chambers, gas chambers” and the always popular “Soap, bones.”
Ferencvaros fans are adept at pressing their tongues into their palates and mimicing the sound of Zyklon B release.
How do Europe’s soccer clubs react to this hatred? “…[C]lubs tend to support their radical hooligans precisely because they view them as their teams’ most loyal supporters and their most reliable – and intimidating – twelfth men both at home and on the road.” (Pg. 228)
The pathological hatred dominant in European soccer played no role in the Seventh-Day Adventist world I grew up in. At Avondale College in Australia and Pacific Union College in California, race meant nothing. What mattered was whether or not you were in the church. My classmates were composed of all races and everyone I knew succeeded or failed according to their deeds. It never occurred to anyone I knew to treat someone badly because of their race or religion.
I can’t even get my head around standing in a stadium and yelling epithets against other races and religions. Not only is it un-American, it is completely against the racially blind attitude of the Bible.
I only began thinking about the importance of race when I entered public school in tenth grade. For the first time in my life, religion had no significance. Instead, people divided up by social class, interests, and race.
I went to a dominantly white high school in Auburn, CA, and along with my classmates I felt a special thrill when we clashed athletically with the black school in our conference. Race was a dominant prism through which we saw each other and the only thing that prevented public displays of racial hatred was that our society held that this was unacceptable.
At 18, I was an atheist and, not coincidentally, an avid raconteur of tasteless jokes (including horrible ones about Aboriginees that I related to my Aboriginee boss).
At 21, I transferred to UCLA and found a campus largely segmented by race. As I walked through the quad every day on my way to class, I passed a dizzying array of clubs, many of which were solely based on race.
Until now, I’d never knowingly met anyone who primarily organized their life by their skin color.
At 23, I returned to religion and ever since then I have looked at the world primarily through a moral lens. I prefer to spend my time with people with whom I share values irrespective of their skin color.
In Europe, by contrast, the overwhelming majority of the population are not active in a religion. Instead they organize themselves – like my public high school – along lines of interests, class and race.
Surely some disaster is at hand.