American Attitudes toward Soccer

by Mark Salisbury, to appear in Soccer News

We have all seen it, heard it, read it. Soccer isn’t a “real” sport. Soccer is boring. Soccer is only for geeky gym class kids with pocket-protectors and thick glasses. Soccer is a foreign game for hooligan, drunken psycho-fans. Soccer is just plain un-American. Just before the 1994 World Cup, Mike Barnacle of the Boston Globe described soccer as “a mindless sport where hordes of incomprehensible athletes run aimlessly in a circle until everyone is dehydrated and, finally, some guy uses his skull to score a touchdown.”

Where did this anti-soccer sentiment come from? It surely didn’t materialize out of thin air. On the contrary, many of these argument are recycled year after year. Tony Kornheiser of the Washington Post even tried the same joke in a June, 1994 column that he had used before the 1990 World Cup (“Can the Sweeper perform any domestic chores?”). No other sport is privy to such consistent degradation in the mainstream press. Tom Weir wrote in USA Today in December, 1993, that “hating soccer is more American than apple pie, driving a pickup, or spending Saturday afternoons channel surfing with the remote control.” What is it about soccer that generates this degradation?

In fact, most anti-soccer arguments have little to do with soccer. Whether its Dan Barreiro in the Mpls. Star Tribune inviting foreigners to World Cup in the U.S. with, “Bring us your tired, your poor, your hoodlums!” or Bernie Lincicome from the Chicago Tribune suggesting soccer’s only value in the U.S. is to serve “in junior high gym class as phys ed credit for kids who are free to use their hands to push their glasses up their nose,” what is often called “soccer bashing” is really based on century-old notions that branded football as the manly, American games, while soccer was either a sport for immigrants or a sport for fitness.

Many have suggested that baseball and football are solely American inventions. Yet soccer, football, and baseball evolved in virtually the same way. Just as baseball developed out of modifications made to the British game of rounders (the Abner Doubleday myth has been proven thoroughly unfounded), and football evolved from an unorganized version of English rugby, so soccer grew out of informalized versions of a game that had been played for centuries on both sides of the Atlantic. The same precursor to soccer played in England was recorded in Boston in 1657. The first recorded soccer club formed in the U.S. was the Oneida Football Club, which played on Boston Common from 1862-1865. This predates the formation of the English Football Association in 1863. The idea that soccer is originally less American than baseball and football was invented much later, with little basis in historical fact.

Though soccer made a brief appearance as an intercollegiate sport in the Ivy League between 1869 and 1875, Harvard had refused to compete under the soccer rules, proclaimed the rugby rules more “manly.” Harvard had been the center of the Muscular Christianity movement since the 1850s, and their inclination toward more physical games had long been demonstrated in the annual “Bloody Monday” – a free-for all brawl between sophomores and freshmen. In a powerful display of Harvard’s prestige, Princeton, Columbia, and Yale coalesced and switched from soccer to rugby at the 1876 formation of the Intercollegiate Football Association in order to compete with Harvard. By 1900, Ivy League rugby had metamorphosed into American football, which Walter Camp, the father of American football, hailed in Harper’s Weekly as a great scientific advancement over the unorganized kicking game that was football’s predecessor.

The popular press was quick to glamorize American football as the crowning portrayal of America’s cultural and intellectual superiority over the rest of the world – particularly its English forebearers. Newspaper and magazine articles regularly compare American football and English football – and invariably found the American game more manly and more progressive. They took incredible license in concocting tales to prove football the ultimate American game. The New York World claimed in 1885, just nine years after rugby rules had been adopted by the Intercollegiate Football Association, that “when George Washington’s father was a boy learning his ABC’s the lads of Yale College used to play foot-ball. Long before the blue stars of the American flag were born the boys of Princeton played the same game.” In 1889, the New York Evening World even published an illustration of what it claimed to be “The Original Football Game, 4-11-44 B.C.,” complete with the markings of aged parchment. Football games were turned into fashionable spectacles for the trendy social elites, and anyone wanting themselves identified as truly American was strongly encouraged to cheer on their favorite Ivy League team.

Such outlandish attempts to prove football’s supreme destiny served to relegate soccer to insignificance. While coverage of six or seven college football games every fall averaged 3-4 full pages each including illustrations by 1895, the hundreds of amateur soccer teams throughout the northeast garnered no more than 2-3 column inches in the local paper.

But just because soccer had vanished from the college campuses did not mean it did not exist. On the contrary, soccer continued to be passionately played and followed by millions of first or second generation Americans, sponsored by social clubs and industries scattered throughout the major industrial centers. Even in San Francisco in 1909, senior league matches drew crowds between six and seven thousand. Teams like the Brooklyn Wanders, Fall River Rovers, and Bethlehem Steel Football Club regularly produced great teams and great players from both American and foreign-born stock. Fall River beat the legendary Corinthians of England 3-0 in front of 8000 fans in 1906. An American player who starred on one of these teams often found a professional career waiting for him in England or Scotland.

But despite the number of American-born soccer players and youths who had learned the game in the states, soccer was continually tagged as an ethnic sport. As early as 1915, a New York Times article quoted the physical director at Northwestern (IL) saying, “We do not believe in its [soccer’s] success in the ordinary college community. It takes a leaven of good Scotch, English, and Scandinavian boys to make it a success.” The derisive “ethnic” tag continues to be a stumbling block to the success of soccer in the mainstream.

As American football became increasingly brutal, those who had originally lauded it as the great American game began to recant, recommending soccer as the new sport of choice. In 1895, Harper’s Weekly encouraged its readers to give soccer a chance because it represented the purer side of amateur sport. However, major differences appeared in the arguments in favor of soccer as opposed to those made for American football twenty years before.

While football was portrayed as a manly, virile game representing all that was good about capitalist America, soccer was reintroduced as a return to the gentlemanly ideal of amateur sportsmanship. Football was often called “a moral agent” or “a training for life.” In a 1905 editorial in The Independent, the author proclaimed football to be the very “epitome of our commonwealth, the real national game, the symbol of our civilization.” But less than a year later, The Independent published an article entitled “Plea for Association Football,” calling for a return to a sport that emphasized participation over professionalism and deft skill over brute force. By 1912 several schools in the northeast, including Yale, Princeton, and Haverford, were playing each other every year.

In the same year the National Collegiate Athletic Association joined in the call for more soccer teams with a concerted effort to make soccer a staple intercollegiate sport. Their repeated attempts to encourage member schools to add soccer to their athletic programs lasted for over ten years. At the Annual NCAA convention in 1922, the soccer committee reported that the progress of soccer based on their efforts was “always automatic – loved by those who play the game, and approved of by all who believe in fine, active, independent outdoor exercise.” These efforts were so successful that at the 1930 convention the soccer committee declared that “the time is rapidly approaching when a team made up of collegiate players can be put on the field of such degree of skill that it will hold its own with the best teams in the country.”

By the late 1920s, however, the NCAA had begun to experiment with rule changes designed to make the game less demanding. The participation argument had worked, and they thought the more inclusive they could make the game, the more converts they would gain. However, football was never a participation sport. It was a battle for survival, weeding out the lesser men through a contest that demanded stature, strength, character, and the ability to play with pain. Soccer was all-inclusive; a game where everybody could enjoy the benefits of outdoor, physical exercise. Though it was a good argument for a gym class, it stripped soccer of its ability to create collegiate heroes like the football gods worshipped weekly in the popular press. Soccer could not embody the essential American character traits because it was either ethnic or exercise. Had soccer been presented as a fiercely contested game that taught the fastest, strongest, most intelligent team how to win through determination and teamwork, the history of soccer in this country might have been much different.

In order for soccer to finally take its place as a mainstream American spectator sport, we must change the way the game is perceived. First, we must continue to create American soccer heroes. Whether it be Michelle Akers or Cobi Jones, they did not achieve their level of soccer brilliance by mere participation. They are recognized for playing the game well. Second, we must change soccer’s foreign stereotype. Soccer in the U.S. is as old as baseball and is no more foreign than golf. Moreover, many of America’s greatest players during those early years were born in this country. But to change the “ethnic” tag, we must recognize that all of those so-called “immigrants” are also our fathers and our grandfathers. As Sam Foulds, the late historian for the USSF, like to say, they are “Americans of foreign birth.” Just like each one of them, soccer has always been an American game of foreign birth.