Metaphors We Play By


There was a lot of talk during the World Cup last summer about soccer as a metaphor for life. Much of it came from Europhile commentators trying to convince the sports-watching public that, all evidence to the contrary, soccer really is a very interesting game. (Which reminds me. If Americans are always being criticized for cultural imperialism, why aren’t we allowed to resist when the rest of the world directs it at us? We’re the only ones who don’t like soccer? Too bad.) Soccer, we were told, is just like life, because life is all about spontaneity and flow, or unfairness and frustration, or whatever.

Well, maybe. But American sports are also metaphors, and they tell us just as much about our own culture. Everybody knows that football is war. You march down the field and conquer the other team’s territory. But it’s not just war, it’s a particular kind of war: modern war, which is to say, bureaucratic war. A football game is a contest between two highly procedural, intensely hierarchical organizations. The typical NFL or big-time college playbook is about as thick as a telephone directory, often many hundreds of pages long. Professional staffs include a head coach, three “coordinators,” and more than a dozen specialized assistants at the bottom of the organizational chart. Plays are called from the sidelines; everyone executes a precise function. The “systems,” as they say, do battle, as much as the troops on the field.

It’s no coincidence that football became America’s game around the time of Vietnam, that bureaucratic war par excellence. Baseball, the game that it displaced, bespeaks a different world: the farm. It’s not just the bovine tempo; it’s the endless sense of time and space. Baseball has no clock. A game could go on, theoretically, forever. The baseball diamond has no fixed extent. The field (“field”) could also go on without limit, and in sandlot versions often does. “The boys of summer,” professional players are sometimes called, a phrase that gets it right both times. Baseball is summer, and baseball is boyhood: two things that seem like they’re never going to end.

If baseball is rural, basketball is urban, and not just because its heartland is the city. The game is vertical. Its players look like skyscrapers, and in their characteristic movement, the upward leap, they mimic them. The court is confined, almost claustrophobic, compressed even more by the backcourt rule. The action is urgent, like rush hour, forced along by the shot clock. The pace of pleasure is urban as well: lots of scoring, all the time, in a kind of sexual frenzy. (Announcer describing a dunk: “And he jams it down with both hands!”) This is not a game for a culture that’s inclined to delay gratification.

And that may be the deepest reason that Americans will never take to soccer. Soccer is not a metaphor for life, it’s a metaphor for Catholicism. (No accident the sport is strongest in Latin America, the Catholic Mediterranean, and among the quasi-Catholic Lutherans of Northern Europe.) What, after all, is soccer’s constitutive principle? That you’re not allowed to use your hands, those instruments of sin–“pickers and stealers,” as Hamlet calls them, adapting the words of the catechism. Repression is the rule. Release is rare, and when it comes, is apt to trigger mini-riots on the field and real ones, sometimes, in the stands. Lent, Carnival. To each his own.

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William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here. He is a contributing editor of the magazine.


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