Friday, August 5, 2011

Living Fossils of the Soccer World

Welcome back to the anthropology of sports the new segment of sorryforboringyou dot blogspot dot com we are presenting this introduction on a limited amount of punctuation so will throw you to the jump fairly quickly like just after the first period.

Women's soccer has always been bigger in the US. I relate this to a comment of my father's once about local sports here in Tampa, something along the likes of "if you win they will come." And while the Tampa Bay Rays are somewhat finding this bit disproved a bit and are always bitching about only getting thousands in the teens to come to their games, I think there's some truth to the idea that is practically American. Namely that if you put up success, America is going to fall in line and support the cause.

(It seems like we should note how this relates to team sports: a United States team appeals to the patriotism of America in the way that the Williams sisters or Michelle Wie truly do not. A national team, like a local team, allows the sports viewer to feel involved in the action, transcending the feeling of being a "fan" in a way that individual sports cannot quite reach.)

So when the US team won the first FIFA Women's World Cup in 1991 (before, I think, it was actually called the Women's World Cup.), there were the roots planted for support for the national women's team in a sport that is curiously absent from American. Sure, we have Landon Donovan (although many Americans might think he's the guy who made "Mellow Yellow") and David Beckham playing in "Major League Soccer," but even the existence of a term as "major league soccer" shows the games lack of American support. Called, accurately, football worldwide, in America we give it another name and maybe play it a bit as a youth (as I did) but rarely get into it past the age of fifteen.

Women's soccer, at least from a fan if not participation perspective, is different. Americans enjoy a feeling of superiority that was strengthened by their victory in the 1991 Women's World Cup, bolstered by the follow-up win in 1999, and ultimately resulted in the ratings boom that was the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup final...where the US didn't come out victorious. However, this said, the support from the American people did not wane, as the final was still a nice place to be. The victorious Japan won a national event showing one of the true strengthening powers of sports: simply the ability to show the power of a nation. Having gone through horrible natural disaster just months before, the Japanese people as a whole had something to feel proud of. The players even dedicated their performance to those impacted by the earthquake. Ultimately, beating Brazil and outlasting Germany, the other titans of the game, was seen as a good showing if not the greatest possible end at the World Cup.

What I was interested in was an odd bit of reporting that surfaced following the World Cup. National support was overwhelmingly positive and sports media showed themselves to be just that: media. Odd rules rule media, which I find to be responsible for both the common liberal bias (which I love and support) and the odd quirks that pop up from time to time. (A great book I've read for class in the fall about some of the quirks of media and politics can be looked at and ordered here.) In response to the national "good job" and not sarcastic "nice try" being handed out to the women's national team, people on SportsCenter and ESPN in general started throwing out words like "choke."

Which is all well and good. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press and all. (I'm no fascist, I'm more liberal than you are.) What got me was the way the media went out to get the supporters, the people who didn't think that the team had "choked." Hope Solo would eventually come out and say she herself to issue with the word "choke," which you can see in low quality here. Looking at some of the comments, you wonder who it really was that went out to support the team. I must admit to relying on the same reporting from what is basically the only national sports media outlet (ESPN/SportsCenter...I'll say in the parenthetical that Sports Illustrated and Sporting News, one of my dad's magazines, get honorable mentions) that there was actually national support. People like the president are certainly going to support the team. That's their uh JOB?! Supporting patriotic activity and nationalism is really what the president does. So that's not news.

But that's neither here nor there. To frame their questioning of the supposedly positive response to the women's team, multiple sports reporters or at least Ryen Russillo, I don't quite remember anyone else specifically, asked the question "What if it was the men's national team that lost two leads late in regulation and then in extra time?" And that's when I started scratching my head.

In early anthropology (and I realize what kind of picture it paints that the majority of my references to anthropology are criticisms of its origins; you have to be pretty disgusted with the field's origin to be a good modern anthropologist in my opinion...although I'd say the same thing about being white man...) anthropologists would search for "living fossils" of multiple kinds. The primatologists would be after the "missing link" both in bones and in the living, breathing bigfoots in the wild (brilliantly parodied in a different context by Futurama by putting forth the idea that no matter how many missing links you have, you'll end up with missing missing links); the cultural guys would go searching for "wild people."

The problem with this kind of logic is that these things don't exist. Nothing alive right now is a fossil. It's a stupid thing to consider. The idea that people are evolved from monkeys is junk. Monkeys, apes, primates, whatever other names you want to put here, and humans have a common ancestor. You can't determine anything specifically about humans from living chimpanzees. You can make comparisons, but you can't actually say that anything a chimpanzee has today was what it had in the past.

Let's bring linguistic anthropology into the picture: false cognates, this term itself further complicated from (as you see linked at the top of the Wikipedia page) the confusion of false cognates and false friends. False cognates in biological anthropology are called analogies. They contrast with homologies. Homologies are traits shared by related organisms that are due to their common ancestor. Analogies are similar to what they are in language: like a certain impacting situation is to one trait, another different situation has cause this other, similar, trait. A comparison made by my biological anthropology professor was to a small primate's bipedal structure in comparison to ours. It's analogous but you can pretty much say it didn't evolve the same way, simply because we have very little in common with the animal relatively speaking, in comparison to the apes (our closest and not-bipedal relatives). This is a fairly slam shut case, but anything going the other way is harder. You can prove without much doubt that certain similarities are simply analogies, but you can't really prove homologies. You never know if different situations caused similar, but ultimately different, evolution in the past.

This relates to a poem of mine called "Show me a time machine and then maybe I'll start to accept your doctrine" which you could read here, but really only the title is related. Basically, science falls here, as it does with evolution if you want to argue that, into a territory it doesn't like. Value judgment, opinions, beliefs. You can think that certain similarities are homologous, you can even have computer simulations heavily in your favor, but it's just an opinion. I think it is necessary to use science as a way of putting forward the answers most likely to life's biggest questions. I'm not championing teaching Intelligent Design in the classroom. I just think it is a little vain when scientists and college students who think they are scientists make claims about "knowledge," something science isn't interested in creating in the first place. But back to the poem title, obviously if you could go back in time and take a time lapse sort of video of evolution as it happened, you could fairly easily make good judgments on the differences between homologies and analogies...But you can't.

Just as you can't imagine what the US reaction would be to the men's national team "choking" as the women's national team reportedly did. First, the men's team would have to be in the same place as the women's team for this comparison to work. That is they would have had to have won enough World Cups to have US support of the national team at a similar level to that of the women's team. The relatively late arrival of the Women's World Cup is enough to have inspired the US support of the women's team: two World Cup victories means the US has won two of six, a third of the World Cups. The men's team would not have the same level of support if it had won two World Cups out of all of them which go back to 1930! The status would be higher, but you can't say it would be at the same level. Secondly, given the same positioning, if you set the situations to somehow be hypothetically the same and the only difference be gender, how can you claim the response would be differently?

It seems simply disingenuous to assume that the women's national team which has better support in the United States and has had more success would only get a general positive response to their World Cup runner-up position because they are women. Asking the question of how the people would react if it was the men's team is useless. There are countless differences between the two and simply pretending those differences didn't exist, you are left without a point. You do not know if you are right or not. It's not reporting to lay out opinions and it isn't reporting to ask questions and answer them yourself that can only be answered with opinions.

So yeah, sure you can think that the men's team in the same situation would be trashed. You can think the women's team choked. You are certainly allowed to think these things. And share these thoughts. But that's not reporting and to tell you the truth I do not care what you think about such things.

(If only I actually didn't care what they thought. If only I watched SportsCenter, Pardon the Interruption, or Around the Horn every once in a while. Sigh.)

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