Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Soccer: An American Sport

Brian D. Bunk

Chicago, 1905. SDN-004085, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.
One sure way to irritate historians of soccer in the United States (and yes, there are a few) is to call the sport foreign. In various forms the game has been played by Native Americans and Puritans; factory workers and college students; and professionals and preschoolers throughout American history. Why then does this idea persist? The reasons are complex, but one important factor is that the mainstream sporting press, especially in the second half of the 20th century, has continually depicted soccer as a foreign game.

Anyone who watches ESPN, the nation’s dominant sports network, probably already realized what the website [] quantified for 2012: the majority of airtime on the channel’s signature news program Sportscenter focused on just three leagues, the National Football League, National Basketball Association,  and Major League Baseball. Soccer meanwhile earned just 1.3% of the total and most of that miniscule amount was devoted to international soccer. Of course ESPN has only been on the air since 1979 and for many years was not nearly as influential as it is today.

Instead fans relied on printed media for sports news, and one of the leading periodicals over the last six decades has been Sports Illustrated. I spent some time examining how many times and in what context the editors put soccer on the cover. Since the first appearance of the weekly in August 1954 through to August 2013 soccer has made the cover just sixteen times. It’s not just the absence of the sport that’s significant but also the context in which it has been portrayed. Fifteen of the sixteen soccer covers have featured foreign players, foreign locations, or U.S. national team players, both men and women. The individuals include Pelé (Brazil), Giorgio Chinaglia and Mario Balotelli (Italy), Daniel Passarella and Diego Maradona (Argentina), and David Beckham (England).  Another showed Brazilian players celebrating their World Cup triumph in 1994 and in 2010 a cover story promised to explain “what soccer means to the world.” Each of the six times U.S. national team players made it to the front they were featured in their roles as representatives of the country in international competitions. In a few cases individuals playing in major American professional leagues have graced the cover: Pelé and Chinaglia from the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League (NASL) in the 1970s and David Beckham for the L.A. Galaxy of Major League Soccer in 2007. Notice that although the leagues were based in the U.S., the players featured were born overseas. Only once in all the decades of SI has an American-born player, playing in an American league appeared on the cover. Curiously it was also the first soccer cover in the magazine’s history: goalkeeper Bob Rigby of the Philadelphia Atoms (NASL) on September 3, 1973. The history of soccer in the United States is much longer and richer than most people realize, and we shouldn’t allow coverage of the sport in the United States to mask its true social and cultural significance either today or in the past.

Brian D. Bunk is a historian at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and creator/host of the Soccer History USA Podcast.


hcr said...

Who knew?!? This is really cool, Brian! And is there any chance you could do a post about Pele? My kids have never heard of him, and as I recall, he was the reason I first figured out that actual people lived in South America, because he was the lead story in my Weekly Reader (you're too young to know what that is, I bet), in grade school. I would like more youngsters to know about him.

Steven Cromack said...

What an important idea to remember. Thanks, Professor Bunk!

Brian D. Bunk said...

Some of my undergraduate students created an online exhibit about Pelé for a course I taught last spring.

I'm also working on a conference paper and podcast that will deal in large part with Pelé. Look for it in the spring!

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