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Football for Soccer Fans: Sportsmanship

Loving a sport from another continent leads to a lot of interesting consequences, one of which is that, assuming you also follow sports closer to home, you’re taking in media and tracking story lines in vastly different contexts. It can be like having a different song playing on either side of your headphones; one minute you’re absorbing the deranged fake laughter and manic camaraderie of an NFL studio show, the next minute you’re watching the Setanta halftime crew converse in a polite murmur and refuse to smile or look at one another. But as different as the assumptions behind the coverage can be, there’s no shortage of interesting points of convergence. Manchester United play Arsenal in the biggest game of the English football season the same weekend the Patriots play the Colts in the biggest game of the American football season. Everyone in Europe worries about fixing the Champions League while everyone in America worries about fixing the BCS. There are any number of opportunities to compare the way things are done in one place with the way things are done in another, and to draw your own conclusions from the similarities and the differences.

One of the comparisons I’ve been thinking about this season is the problem of sportsmanship. In American football there’s been a steady outcry all season over the size of the wins being posted by the New England Patriots, who have repeatedly scored in the 30s and 40s and won 52-7 over the Washington Redskins two weeks ago. In American sports, football especially, it’s assumed that a team will let up after they build an insurmountable lead in order not to humiliate their opponents, but the Patriots have continually elected to pass the ball and score touchdowns when they might have focused on the running game and let time slide off the clock. This has been interpreted by some of the teams they’ve beaten as a mark of disrespect, and by nearly every American football fan as a sign of poor sportsmanship.

It was a sharp contrast, in any case, with the admiration doled out to Liverpool after their record-setting 8-0 win against Besiktas, a result that was not only more lopsided than any Patriots score this season but that also saw Liverpool score three goals in the last 15 minutes, long after the result was secured. Liverpool’s performance was strewn with admiring adjectives (it was stunning, breathtaking, beautiful) while the Patriots were cast as villains and accused of mocking the values of the game.

What’s behind this difference? To some extent there’s simply a gap in the culture of the sports: European football is a game which prizes flair, style, and entertainment and in which teams are criticized for using defensive tactics, even if the negative approach is their best chance to win the game. The values of American football are more explicitly conservative and admiring of “toughness”: stifling defenses come in for high praise (although this sometimes has an it’s-dull-so-it-must-be-good-for-you quality), while flamboyant wide receivers shock the game’s moral guardians with provocative touchdown dances. It may be that American football, which features more scoring in general, can afford to disapprove of scoring in certain situations, while European football, in which goals can be scarce, has to admire attacking play wherever it is found.

But the larger difference, obviously, is the structural one: European football uses goal differential as the first tiebreaker in determining league standings, while American football does not. (“Margin of victory” does factor into the college football rankings, but in an ambiguous way.) In scoring 8 against a vastly weaker team, Liverpool are showing no disrespect, because that +8 margin of victory may well prove to be the difference between qualifying for the next round of the Champions League and watching it from home.

My intuition is that this use of goal differential is a reflection of, rather than the cause of, the difference in moral emphasis between American and European sports. But without judging the systems of values involved, can’t we say that given the essential nature of competition, the European system makes more sense? I understand why we would want to endorse the lesson that it’s wrong to humiliate others, but the mechanism that drives a sporting event is the agreement that two sides are going to work against each other until the end of the game. Don’t we uphold that tradition more honorably by giving our best for the full time shown on the clock?

Honestly, the unwritten rule about sportsmanship and scoring in America mainly seems to have the effect of making the ends of games less exciting (because at least one team has stopped playing competitively) while also causing more humiliation to the losing team (because it’s obvious to everyone that the winning team has stopped playing against them). There are still opportunities for sportsmanship in the European game (surrendering the ball when an opposing player is hurt, for instance). But using goal differential as a tiebreaker keeps the basic element of competition in place throughout the match, ensures that good sportsmanship never means not playing hard, and helps even blowout games retain some element of interest for the fans.

I’d be very interested to hear, in comments or by email, from anyone who has more experience of these questions. Would an 8-0 win be seen as unsporting in, say, a children’s game in England? Is there any circumstance in which an NFL team would be encouraged to run up the score?

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Football for Soccer Fans: Sportsmanship

by Brian Phillips · November 9, 2007

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