New Year’s Resolutions suck. The reason for making a resolution is quite simple but also quite painful: it is the realization that within ourselves there is something that we would like to correct and ultimately improve upon. Some can be rather simple but others require far more time and effort. If they involve a group or a collection of people than the task becomes more precarious. While many in the American soccer world are probably spending the next few days on ways to improve the game there is one thing that we can all do together that will perhaps have the greatest impact on our future: we need to become less jaded and negative towards each other.
Sports is a reflection of society and society right now is a very dark, depressing place. The anger and vitriol that was once thought to just be limited to the digital world has spread over into actual society. The animosity,the bitterness, the cynicism towards ourselves both inward and outward has moved from conversations that were held internally or amongst our peers to the general public. The need to create ‘debate’ for pennies on the dollar ( Whenever you see a website that has a top ten list try and remember that in all likelihood that poor writer is getting paid $1.00 per every thousand pageviews) and the lack of accountability that social media provides has produced an environment that does not encourage positive discourse but rather alienation and anger.
The polarization of society has indeed reached the soccer world and it’s poison has taken a game that was once seen as the global game, carved it up, and turned it into something that feels at times feels completely foreign to yours truly. Many in the United States will see the as the United States Men’s National Team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup as being the moment where things started to turn sour here in the U.S. But the truth is that these feelings have been building for decades from individuals who perceive the status quo as failing to deliver a quality game here in this country. Some issues like the inequality of pay and opportunities within the women’s game versus the men’s game is pretty straightforward. Others such as the perceived collusion between Major League Soccer, U.S. Soccer, and Soccer United Marketing require a map, a magnifying glass, and a good working knowledge of the Illuminati, the Free Masons, and the lizard people (We are kidding about the lizard people). These questions have always been asked both privately and publicly it is just that now there is an opportunity to really hit U.S. Soccer with every sharp criticism possible. It is quite jarring at times to read some of the comments posted on social media geared towards MLS Commissioner Don Garber, U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati, and pretty much anyone who has any stake in the game. From someone who grew up with the mindset that we were all in this together and working towards one cause it is kind of sad to see so much cynicism on both sides of the argument.
But perhaps that personal touch is why we are all so cynical. Growing up as a soccer fan in the 1980s and 1990s there were times in which I wondered if my family was the only family that actually cared about the game. There were plenty of kids playing soccer, sure. But there was a certain level of alienation that was involved. Who remembers hearing the following line when kicking a ball around during recess: ‘Soccer is for ___ (You get where this is going)’? Soccer has always felt like the sport of the underdog here in the U.S. because to get it to this point involved going through a lot of hurdles. It involved a lot of volunteer work (who here had to run a bingo night to raise money for their team to play in a tournament), a lot of long car rides with our parents to matches, a lot of long afternoons refereeing getting yelled at by parents, coaches, and officials whose understanding of the game was limited. All of these experiences were very good life experiences and at times a great deal of fun but the hope was that this was leading towards something. The goal was never to win a World Cup (although it could be argued that by winning the Women’s World Cup we achieved that) but rather to give our kids a chance to play the same game that was being played in Germany, France, England, and so many other parts of the world. In public policy this is called the tragedy of the commons and it seems to be a very apt theory for our current situation.
In many ways we have succeeded in this task. Soccer has found a spot in the sporting order here in the United States having turned many of its naysayers into at least mildly interested parties. Two decades of kids playing the beautiful game, increased access to matches from abroad, the FIFA video game series, and folks looking to have a pint in the wee hours of the morning has built a steady culture where people now know that they are not alone. That you can now drag a date to watch a match either at the pub or in the stands is a huge sign that inroads have been made.
But the problem isn’t that people aren’t grateful of the progress that has been made. The problem is that we are still seeing the many mistakes of the past and people are wondering where their money and hard work went to. Peeling off the layers of U.S. Soccer’s byzantine organizational structure has been a fascinating process because it showed what can happen when more questions aren’t asked about the system being set up at the top. At some point it is clear that there was a disconnect between those at the bottom and those at the top. That doesn’t make one party right or one party wrong but it does show us what can happen when there is a lack of accountability at the top and a lack of management at the bottom. Where the two conflict is where the cynicism arises and where we as a footballing culture have to figure out how to correct this ship.
There are no easy answers but perhaps the first thing that all of us need to do is remove the enemy imagery that we have placed upon our perceived opponents. Don Garber is not an evil person who is looking to crush your child or local town’s hopes and dreams. Neither is the local referee who is underpaid and dealing with an institution that is understaffed and overworked. Nor is the journalist who you disagree with on one particular point. Let’s all calm down, put away our phones for a little bit, and get some perspective. There are very real issues in this game globally that require the anger and vitriol that we share with each other online that this venom should be directed towards. Go read up on the trafficking of players from Africa through Turkey and see if you still feel the same about some of the problems here in U.S. soccer. We need to stop using the word outrage so often and save it for when real issues come up that deserve to be outraged over.
Tied to removing our enemy imagery is also being able to actually listen to each other. When it comes to social media it feels as if we as a soccer culture are often not reading or hearing what others are saying in tweets, posts, blogs, podcasts, etc. but just waiting for the chance to reinforce our own previous disposition. All of these tools are great mechanisms for promoting dialogue and creating solutions to problems. But if we are not actually talking to others but rather talking at them are we actually using them properly? Rather than being ready with 1-2 quick responses we should wait and listen to what the other party is saying?
Second, we have to re-learn the art of compromise. The game of soccer is a zero sum game. Soccer off of the pitch is not a zero sum game. No system that we create is going to be perfect and each of us is going to have to live with that. Why? Because there is no such thing as a perfect system for developing talent. The much-ballyhooed systems of England, Germany, and France also have their own flaws. The difference is though that the various parties in these countries work and talk to one another. There is accountability on both ends and while they might not always agree on everything there is a consensus that they have mutual goals and that they should work together at least on the issues that benefit both sides. That doesn’t occur in this country and in this system not because one party is being selfish and unwilling to bend, but because all parties are being unwilling to bend. Compromise has taken a serious hit in this country both on and off of the pitch in recent years but it is an essential part of society. We have woefully neglected it and in turn it has fostered much of the cynicism that we see in others in the beautiful game and in our world.
While words are easy, putting them into practice is much harder. So how do we remove this negativity that has surrounded our game and get back to working together on some of our mutually-shared goals? One such method is to have a forum where all parties can discuss the issues that are important to them. We here at Prost Amerika believe that creating a dialogue will help start the process of reconciliation and would like to do a virtual forum using our Radio MLS platform (oh and for conspiracy theorists the MLS in the name does not stand for Major League Soccer. Sorry to burst your bubble) to prove this. The forum will be at a date time and down the road where all parties be it current or former professionals players, coaches, managers, referees, officials, and/or supporters are given equal time to discuss the issues that matter to them and to create working groups to solve both short and long-term issues. We believe that all parties can indeed work together without resorting to negative stereotypes and petty memes and GIFs. We all have a stake in this game so let’s figure out how to make it better.
If you would like to participate or would just like more information please email us email@example.com.