Ann Coulter is, at her best, a provocative and entertaining performance artist. Unfortunately, there are times when her poststructuralist reasoning falls short of insightful analysis. An excellent example of such a time comes from last week, when she dedicated a column to soccer.
In this column we saw her (feigned? more about that later!) aversion toward the game take control and keep her from what she undoubtedly set out to do – provide colorful cultural commentary on the most important sporting event in the world, the FIFA World Cup. What did she produce instead? Nine bullet points and a closing comment, all meant to demonstrate that “[a]ny growing interest in soccer” is “a sign of [the] nation’s moral decay.” That is, unfortunately, not at all what they demonstrate. In an effort to help Ms. Coulter raise the quality of her soccer writings, I will try to clear up some of her confusion about the beautiful game, and in the process, perhaps uncover the profound true meaning of her piece.
Ms. Coulter starts out by claiming that she is worried individual achievement is not a big factor in soccer. Fortunately, she need not fret. As I wrote here last week: “In soccer, one goal, one red card, one penalty kick can make the difference between glory and failure. Johan Cruijff in 1974, Diego Maradona in 1986, and, hopefully, Robin van Persie this year are all players who regularly carry their team to victory based on a flash of personal brilliance. This outsized role of the individual – of course, if hundreds of pitches are thrown in a game a single will matter much less – is directly reflected in players’ compensation. Of the 17 NFL players on the Forbes list of highest-paid athletes in the world, only four made more than $2 million from endorsements last year; every single soccer player on the list hit that mark, and most of them cleared the bar quite comfortably.” As Ms. Coulter will soon discover, the best player at the World Cup receives a prestigious award: the Golden Ball, which has been won in the past by such soccer greats as Garrincha, Zidane, and Romário.
"A fourth problem Ms. Coulter sees with soccer is a supposed lack of downside risk, in the form of personal humiliation or major injury."
She is also concerned that soccer requires so little athletic talent that girls can play with boys. This is simply incorrect – turn on the TV — but perhaps what Coulter is upset about is that men and women watch and enjoy the World Cup together. The government of Iran shares these concerns, and has tried to bar women from stadiums and even from watching games generally. I believe it is a clear sign of moral decay that president Obama and Ann Coulter now both see the government of the Islamic Republic as a key ally; men and women watching soccer together, not so much.
Ms. Coulter continues by reiterating another line of criticism that I addressed here last week: the low number of goals scored in soccer games. I repeat: “[T]here aren’t very many paintings by Rembrandt, and that is part of what makes us value them. Would you swap the Mona Lisa for twenty drawings by a 5-year-old?”
A fourth problem Ms. Coulter sees with soccer is a supposed lack of downside risk, in the form of personal humiliation or major injury. Again, she need not fret: there is plenty of that. Take for example the horrific case of Andrés Escobar. After scoring an own goal in the 1994 World Cup, he was murdered by drug lords who blamed their gambling losses on him – talk about major injury. Or think of a decisive penalty shoot-out, when a single man in the arena bears his the burden of his club or nation’s hopes and aspirations. Even highly successful soccer players like Gareth Southgate can, on the basis of on missed shot, be forever associated with failure.
It doesn’t stop there. Ms. Coulter also repeats my colleague Marc Thiessen’s critique of soccer rules against the use of your hands, by proclaiming that “[w]hat sets man apart from the lesser beasts, besides a soul, is that we have opposable thumbs.” As I said when Mr. Thiessen wrote that “[s]occer is the only sport in the world where you cannot use the one tool that distinguishes man from beast: opposable thumbs”: Soccer offers us a scheme of ordered liberty, not the crazed violence of beast-like warriors.
And it goes on and on like that, misunderstanding after misunderstanding. Ms. Coulter claims that she didn’t realize, among other things, that viewership for the games by the U.S. team in this World Cup has been five times as high as that of the Stanley Cup finals, and higher even than that of the NBA finals. Many Americans do seem to care, and many Americans are eager to find out who will be crowned world champions on July 13th.
"And it goes on and on like that, misunderstanding after misunderstanding."
I would venture that Ms. Coulter does as well. Despite her attempts to display disdain for soccer, I think her deep passion for the game ends up shining through. It shines through in her all-too-obviously faked ignorance about key features of the game. Her objections are too transparently wrong to be anything but a charade. What explains this exercise in pretending not to care about soccer?
For that we turn to the last paragraph of her column, where we observe some deep-seated xenophobia: “If more “Americans” are watching soccer today, it’s only because of the demographic switch effected by Teddy Kennedy’s 1965 immigration law. I promise you: No American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer.” This xenophobic tone can be explained in one way and one way only: she’s literally scared of the foreign. The foreign, in this case, is represented not just by the Belgians the U.S. will face tomorrow, but probably even more so by the mighty Dutch warriors of the Clockwork Orange that Team U.S. would face were it to make it all the way to the semifinal. Pretending not to care about soccer at all is Ms. Coulter’s way of dealing with her worst nightmare: a humiliating defeat at the hands of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar et al.