Saturday, July 31, 2010

UUs Protest Arizona Immigration Law: News from Arizona & Kansas City

On July 29, Arizona’s new anti-immigration law (SB 1070) went into effect. The previous evening, U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton issued an injunction preventing the implementation of some parts of the law. On July 29 protesters took to the streets in Phoenix to demonstrate against the law. Their numbers were bolstered by hundreds of Unitarian Universalists wearing bright goldenrod Standing on the Side of Love T-shirts.

Many of the protesters engaged in civil disobedience aimed at disrupting the efforts of law enforcement officials to escalate their immigration raids. One report said that there were 73 arrests for civil disobedience on 7/29. Of those 73, twenty-six were Unitarian Universalists. I am so proud of my fellow co-religionists for practicing their values and witnessing for justice in Arizona.

I am especially proud of the fact that I know many of those arrested. They include:
Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, a classmate of mine at Harvard Divinity School who serves one of our congregations in Phoenix. Susan is a shining example of courage and grace in her witness for justice.

Rev. Ian White Maher, another classmate of mine at HDS and a man who understands racism at a level that is deeper than almost anyone I’ve ever met.

Rev. Peter Morales, President of the UUA.

Rita Butterfield, the wife of Rev. Chris Bell, also a classmate of mine at HDS.

Leslie Mills and Shawna Foster, both students at the 2009 Midwest Leadership School.
There is a ton of information available at the Standing on the Side of Love web-site as well as lots of photos and videos available. If you haven’t already done so, I would recommend reading the op-ed piece by Peter Morales that appeared on the Washington Post web-site.

###

I received invitations to two local events in response to SB 1070 in Arizona. One invitation was to attend an interfaith prayer vigil at a United Methodist church in Overland Park. The other invitation was to join a group working for immigrant justice at the Kansas City Royals game. I chose the Royals game. Two dozen of us gathered an hour before the game. We carried signs and distributed literature about SB 1070 and called on baseball fans to pressure Major League Baseball to move the 2011 All Star game out of Arizona. Some of us stood outside the gates. Some of us walked through the parking lot and engaged groups of tailgaters. (If you are interested in putting pressure on MLB to move the All Star game, you can text the word “Allstar” to 3-0-6-4-4.)

At the game I was joined by a number of immigration attorneys and advocates for immigrant rights. Although there were only two dozen of us, we were a diverse group. Our group included a man who spent 23 years trying to resolve his immigration status, college students who have been working in support of the Dream Act, and a number of children including an 8 year old boy whose father was deported six years ago.

For the occasion I made a large sign. On one side it read, “All Star Game Out of Arizona!” On the other side, it asked provocatively, “What Would Jackie Robinson Do?” That latter sign attracted a lot of attention. And, it made for an excellent talking point. Jackie Robinson may be the most beloved baseball player of all time, his life a symbol of fairness and inclusivity. Jackie Robinson calls forth our best selves, a vision of brotherhood and sisterhood. History has been kind to those who supported and encouraged him and unkind to those who put barriers in front of him. If baseball is the American pastime, then Jackie Robinson represents a strand of the American spirit.

Here in Kansas City, closer Joakim Soria, arguably the Royal’s best player, has stated that he would consider boycotting next year’s All Star game. This provided another powerful talking point. Not all of the fans agreed with our signs—and several made it a point to tell us they didn’t—but it was a good experience to talk to baseball fans about what the sport and what our country ought to stand for.

Friday, July 30, 2010

MWLS Religious Values & Heritage Lectures

I spent the third week in July serving as the Religious Values & Heritage lecturer at the Unitarian Universalist Association Midwest Leadership School held at Beloit College in Beloit, Wisconsin. This was my second year serving in this role. The lectures I delivered were fairly similar to the ones I had delivered the previous year. (As promised, I have re-posted the lectures below.)

Serving this two-year stint on the MWLS staff was a great experience. It is amazing to have nearly 40 UU lay leaders willing to give up an entire week to take an intensive course in leadership skills so they are better able to serve in a leadership capacity in their congregations. It is even amazing that a staff of 9 lay people commit to serving an additional three years to make leadership school go. It is an intense week. Students are expected to attend every single offering on the schedule and the programming for each day runs from 8:00am to 9:30pm with only two hours unscheduled. Oftentimes, "free time" is spent planning worship services or completing assignments.

Another thing that sets MWLS apart is that we are the only UU leadership school to run a leadership training for youth concurrently with the program for adults. The youth have their own classes in leadership skills development, religious values & heritage, and faith reflection. However, youth and adults come together for worship skills training and worship. (There are two worship services daily and students are assigned to worship groups and tasked with designing a worship service with 24 hours notice.) Here is a fun video from this year's youth school.

And, as promised, here are my lectures:

Monday 7/19
Lecture #1: "Are We an Odd Toadstool?: An Historiography of Unitarian Universalism"
Lecture #2: "The Wordy Shipmates: Understanding Our Puritan Roots"

Tuesday 7/20
Lecture #3: "Trampling the Tulips: The Unitarian Break from Calvinism"
Lecture #4: "A Theology of Human Nature and Its Social Consequences"

Wednesday 7/21
Lecture #5: "Transcendentalism, the New Nation, and the Second Great Awakening"
Lecture#6: "A Shorty History of Universalism"

Thursday 7/22
Lecture #7: "Unitarian Universalist Approaches to World Religions"
Lecture #8: "Humanism and the Challenge of Modernity"

Friday 7/23
Lecture #9: "From Merger to Present: UU History from 1961 to 2009"
Lecture #10: "The Future History of Unitarian Universalism"

Sermon: "A Faith or Interfaith?" (Delivered 7-11-10)

Opening Words
By Jacob Trapp
Each of the great religions has a distinctive note, to be likened to the strings of a harp.

In Hinduism it is the note of the spirit: a universe throbbing with divine energy and meaning.

In Buddhism it is the wisdom of self-discipline: quenching the fires of desire in the cool water of meditation.

In Confucianism it is reciprocity: mutual consideration is the basis of society.

In Taoism it is to conquer by inaction: be lowly and serviceable, like a brook; become rich by sharing.

In Judaism it is exodus from bondage: the covenant of responsibility in freedom.

In Islam it is the note of submission: “Our God and your God is one, to whom we are self-surrendered.”

In Christianity it is that all may become one: “This is my body broken for you.” “Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these.”

Reading
From Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras by Diana Eck
For many people religion is a rigid concept, somewhat like a stone that is passed from generation to generation. We don’t add to it, change it, or challenge it; we just pass it along. But even the most cursory study of the history of religion would undermine such a view. Religious traditions are far more like rivers than stones. Like [rivers everywhere, whether the Ganges which flows through Banaras in India, or the Gallatin which flows through Bozeman, Montana, the rivers] are flowing and changing. Sometimes they dry up in arid land; sometimes they radically change course and move out to water new territory. All of us contribute to the river of our traditions.

We do not know how we will change the river or be changed as we experience its currents. The Indian philosopher Krishnamurti has said, “Relationship is the mirror in which we see ourselves as we really are.” This is especially true in our relationships with people of other religious traditions. In the give and take of dialogue, understanding one another leads to mutual self-understanding and finally to mutual transformation.

Religious traditions are more like rivers than monuments. They are not static and they are not over. They are still rolling—with forks and confluences, rapids and waterfalls. Where those rivers of faith flow depends upon who we are and who we become.

Sermon
Recently I had the opportunity to hear one of my colleagues describe her experiences working with an interfaith clergy association in her city. If I remember correctly, the members of this clergy association consisted of a good number of ministers of mainline Protestant churches, a few Catholic priests, a rabbi, an imam, and a UU minister with strong humanist leanings. Each year, these religious leaders hosted an interfaith Thanksgiving service. After a few years, after she had developed some relational traction among the interfaith clergy group, she explained to the group that she would prefer not to be assigned a Bible passage to read at the interfaith Thanksgiving service. The group accepted her request and asked her to read the President’s Proclamation. So, instead of reading a passage from the Bible she was now to read a letter on White House stationery bearing the signature of President George W. Bush. Not the “scripture” she had in mind, needless to say.

My colleague went on to describe a worship service the interfaith clergy group offered in the aftermath of the Southeast Asian Tsunami. This city has a sizeable population of immigrants from Southeast Asia and the clergy association turned to her to design a ritual for acknowledging grief that would appropriately include the religious diversity of their Asian immigrant neighbors. They turned to her, the Unitarian Universalist.

In hearing this story I felt a deep recognition. One of my competencies as a UU minister is the ability to design and lead prayers and rituals that are inclusive of and would be meaningful to a diverse religious audience. Just as one of your competencies as religious people is the ability to participate in a worship experience that incorporates elements from various religious traditions and not feel threatened but rather present and grateful and even moved by rituals that might be quite foreign to you.

But, in hearing this story I also felt ever so slightly annoyed. As Unitarian Universalists don’t we have a tradition that is our own, something distinct that we bring to the table? My calling is not to be a religious generalist, or a spiritual transient, or a mercenary minister.

The title of my sermon this morning is “A Faith or Interfaith?” My words will be an exploration of our religious identity, especially our relationship with religions of the world. It is a message about who we say we are and who we really are.

In our Unitarian Universalist Principles & Purposes we say that one of the sources of our Living Tradition is, “Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life.” One of the religious education classes we offer from time to time to our junior high age children is a program called Neighboring Faiths, in which our youth attend worship services held at the churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples of other faiths. Thirty years ago, we used to display the symbols of the religions of the world at the entrance to the Barn Chapel. Next Sunday I will be in Beloit, Wisconsin serving on the faculty of the UU Midwest Leadership School. The nearest UU church is down the road in Rockford, Illinois where they prominently display a circular stained-glass artwork with symbols from the world’s religions. The flaming chalice of Unitarian Universalism sits prominently in the center surrounded by symbols representing Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Taoism, and Hinduism.

The stained glass artwork is beautiful. The message is wonderfully inclusive. And yet I sometimes wonder if there is not something misleading in images like these. I do not know of a single Unitarian Universalist congregation with significant numbers of Muslims, Taoists, or Hindus, much less Sikhs, Jains, Confucians, or Zoroastrians. And, in just about every Unitarian Universalist congregation that I know of, the poetry of Mary Oliver is heard more often than the Tao de Ching; Emerson is quoted more often than the Prophet Mohammed; and there are more references to the theory of evolution than to the Bhagavad Gita.

Our extant theological diversity in this congregation, as with most UU congregations, would inspire an artist to create a very different stained glass window, one where symbols representing humanism, atheism, agnosticism, nature, science, music, and poetry would be far more prominent and where even the symbols for Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism would be more less conspicuous.

Please join me in the following thought exercise. Suppose you are at home and you look out the window and see that there is a large moving truck outside. You have new neighbors moving in next door. Being the neighborly sort, you walk over to greet them. Now, suppose the subject of religion comes up. They tell you that they are practicing Jews or Muslims or Sikhs or Buddhists. Most of us would probably not say, “Well, you should come to SMUUCh, we accept your religious expression at our church.” That is probably not what you would say, would you? If you said this, it would be completely true, but also not exactly the whole truth. You would probably say something that shows that you value diversity and pluralism, something that tells them that you will not be dropping by their home to proselytize and that you won’t be sticking Bible tracts in their doorway. You might say something to indicate that you do not stand in critical judgment of their faith, that you are open to a relationship of dialogue that might touch your own understanding of faith.

So, who would you invite you to come to SMUUCh? If your neighbor said that they were an atheist but wanted to find a community, you might invite them. If your neighbors said that they were a Christian-Jewish couple and that they didn’t feel entirely comfortable at the Methodist Church or at the Reform Jewish synagogue. If you neighbors said that they had been attending a Christian church in their previous town, but wanted their children to attend a church where the religious education is not exclusively Christian.

A few weeks ago I was in Minneapolis attending the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly. One of the familiar parts of each GA is wandering through the exhibition hall where various vendors and exhibitors promote various causes, products, and services. You can buy a set of chalice earrings or a T-shirt with the 7 Principles; you can learn about divinity schools, get professional consulting on your church website, buy books, and learn about UU efforts to oppose the death penalty or promote ethical eating. And so on. Each year, there is a section of the exhibition hall that I have dubbed “the hyphenation highway.” It is where you find the tables of UU groups of a particular theological persuasion. At the UU Buddhists table you can purchase resources on Buddhist meditation practices for UUs. The UUs for Jewish Awareness support UUs who identify with Judaism and offer a Shabbat service on Friday evening. The UU Mystics group doesn’t have a lot of literature. Instead, they offer a circle of lawn chairs where people engage in conversation about their “direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder.” The second largest table is occupied by the UU Christian Fellowship. They sell back issues of their scholarly journal that includes contributions not only from UU ministers but from world renowned theologians. They sell anthologies of writings by prominent UU Christian ministers. They host an extremely popular communion service at General Assembly, as well as a dinner and hymn sing and a slew of other programmatic offerings.

The largest table is not actually located on “the hyphenation highway.” The HUUmanists booth is located on the opposite side of the exhibition hall and they sell copies of their own scholarly journal, other books, and an extravagant collection of bumper stickers, some more reverent than others.

I’ve inflicted you with this lengthy description to demonstrate the ways in which theological diversity is manifest and not manifest within contemporary Unitarian Universalism. In preparation for this sermon I picked up a book that was written almost twenty years ago. The book is called, Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras and it was published by Beacon Press, which is owned by our denomination. It is written by Diana Eck, who grew up as a Methodist in Montana and continues to practice as a Methodist. As a college student she traveled to the holy city of Banaras in India and eventually became a scholarly authority on Hinduism. Eck became a professor at Harvard University, teaching Hinduism and survey courses on world religions. She later became director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard. She credits her experiences in Banaras, her immersion within Hinduism, her understanding of Hinduism, and her engagement with Hindus as having the effect of strengthening her faith as a Christian.

Professor Diana Eck describes three approaches to religious diversity. The first approach is the exclusivist position. This is the position of fundamentalists, a position that says, my religion is the one true religion and therefore yours is false. Fortunately, this point of view is rare among Unitarian Universalists. At the turn of the nineteenth century, the German Enlightenment philosopher and theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher delivered a lecture series. The lectures were published under the title, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers. And, we might do well to ask whether being a “cultured despiser” of religion is to hold such an exclusivist position.

A second approach to religious diversity is known as inclusivism. Inclusivism is sort of like saying that others are partially right. Eck writes of this approach, “Everyone is invited in, [but there isn’t any doubt as to] who put up the tent. Others are gathered in, but on our terms, within our framework, under our canopy, as part of our system… The inclusivist attitude is, of course, much more open than the exclusivist, but the presupposition is that in the end ours is the truth wide enough to include all. Ours are the terms in which truth is stated.”

We proclaim that “wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life” is one of the sources of our faith. I wonder if this is a set-up for the “inclusivist” position.

Pluralism is the third approach and the approach that Diana Eck calls for. Pluralism, she insists, begins with a sense of humility, an acknowledgment that the world is larger than your own worldview. She writes, “The Copernican revolution is a good image for dramatizing the revolution in religious understanding that we are now experiencing. It is as dramatic as Copernicus’s discovery that what we thought was at the center of our universe turned out not to be. God always transcends what we humans can apprehend or understand. No tradition can claim the Holy or the Truth as its private property. As Gandhi put it so succinctly, ‘Revelation is the exclusive property of no nation, no tribe.’”

I find what Eck writes to be insightful and liberating. If religions are more like rivers than like stones, then our own tradition is ever changing and evolving and we can put aside the arrogant notion that we are the zenith of faith’s evolution. If we are called to live in dialogue and relationship, then the value expressed in our principles of being informed by the wisdom of other faiths means that we are predisposed to partake of the sweet fruits of pluralism.

I want to end on somewhat of a mystical note. I invite you to open up your hymnals to number 608 in the back. This reading is found in a section of readings that come from Buddhism, the Chinese traditions of Taoism and Confuciansim, Islam, Hinduism, and Native American sacred traditions. Number 608 comes from a Sufi mystic named Kabir. It is an ecstatic reading. I interpret this reading as a poetic and playful response to claims that religious truth can be boiled down into a few essential truths. I invite you to imagine Kabir holding up a piece of utilitarian pottery and saying, “Ha! I have captured God! I have captured absolute religious truth. And, I have it here, inside of this clay jug!” Please read along with me:
Inside this clay jug there are canyons and pine mountains, and the maker of canyons and pine mountains!

All seven oceans are inside, and hundreds of millions of stars.

The acid that tests the gold is there, and the one who judges jewels.

And the music from the strings no ones touches, and the source of all water.

If you want the truth, I will tell you the truth:

Friend, listen: the God whom I love is inside.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Random Thoughts about the World Cup

[This post was written before the start of quarterfinal matches this morning. I have left it intact and not altered it as a result of today's games featuring Brazil, The Netherlands, Uruguay, and Ghana.]

Just south of downtown Quito there is a bus stop named in honor of Jefferson Perez. Perez is a two-time Olympic medalist in the 20 km race walk and is the only Ecuadorian athlete ever to win a medal in the Olympics. Contrast Perez with American swimmer Michael Phelps. Phelps won 8 medals at the 2004 Olympics and another 8 medals (all Gold) at the 2008 games. Despite being arguably the greatest Olympian ever, Michael Phelps is unlikely to have a D.C. Metro stop named in his honor. American swimmers won a total of 34 medals in Beijing in 2008. In other words, in one sport at one Olympics the USA won 17 times as many medals as Ecuador has won in their entire history of Olympic competition. The point I am making here is not a “rah rah” claim about the sheer dominance of American athletes in many sports. Instead, as I will explain later, this comparison has something to do with my feelings about soccer.

I have followed the 2010 World Cup a lot more closely than I have ever followed the sport of soccer. The reason for this is that I got to spend last fall in Ecuador during the peak season of qualifying matches for teams trying to make it to the World Cup. I got to see a lot of soccer. I talked with a lot of people about soccer. I got to see a country that literally shut down in the middle of the day while everyone watched the game. Even though Ecuador failed to qualify, I learned a lot about South American soccer. And, it is amazing to see just how dominant the South American teams have been these past several weeks in South Africa. The World Cup quarterfinals begin tomorrow. 8 teams remain. Four of those teams are from South America. An entirely South American “final four” is not out of the question.

This has been a fun story to follow, but let me say just a few more words about how good the South American teams have been. All five South American teams made it to the knockout stage. During the group stage, only one South American team (Chile) suffered a defeat. That defeat came in an inconsequential game against Spain, one the top ranked teams coming into the tournament. South America’s only other loss came in the knockout round in which Brazil defeated Chile. The quarterfinals include four of the five South American teams in the tournament, three of the 13 European teams, and one of the six African teams. I’m rooting for a championship match between Uruguay and Paraguay. (I bet you didn’t know that Uruguay won the World Cup in 1930 and 1950!)

I am a big sports fan but I’ve never cared much for the sport of soccer. I admit this with some trepidation. In the cultured, liberal circles in which I run, it borders on blasphemy to say that you don’t care for soccer but do care for other sports. Not liking soccer is often seen as evidence of a kind of small-mindedness, an anti-global stance if you will. Not liking soccer can get you accused of holding nationalist tendencies of the ugly and ignorant variety. You say you don’t like soccer and others assume that you are going to say something along the lines of “We’re better than everybody else.” After the United States lost to Ghana in the knockout round of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, somebody posted a statement on the internet that went something like this:
“Hey Ghana, how about a rematch? July 4th. On the moon. What? You need directions. Oh, that’s right. You’ve never been there.”
It is this kind of stupid statement that one expects to come out of the mouth of someone who says that he does not like soccer. The United States has never demonstrated competitive dominance in soccer, at least on the men’s side, and it is the essence of shallow nationalism to shrug soccer off. “Who cares that we stink at soccer? We’ve been to the moon. We invented the atomic bomb. Take that!”

Here are a few of the reasons why I don’t like soccer (a few of the same criticisms appeared in an ESPN.com article I read):

Reason #1: Not boring, just excruciating
Non-soccer fans frequently claim that soccer is boring. But “boring” is the wrong choice of words. It isn’t boring. Soccer is sometimes mocked for its futility: one team brings the ball down the field and they manage a weak shot on goal. The other team brings the ball the other way and manages a weak shot on goal. Repeat for 90 minutes and the game ends tied 0-0. Actually, after watching a number of World Cup matches, this description isn’t very accurate. It doesn’t do justice to the excruciating nature of the sport. When the ball is in the middle of the field, I actually find the passing and ball movement to be quite elegant. But, as a team moves into scoring position, the elegance usually disappears. Players bunch up. Ball control gets choppy. Players push and trip and get tied up. This is supposed to be exciting, but it seems like the aesthetic quality of play diminishes the closer a team gets to scoring.

In my mind, the corner kick is a blight on the game. The ball is kicked from the corner into a scrum of players who all jump, attempting to hit the ball with their heads, and hoping the ball will ricochet into the goal. It is not pretty.

Reason #2: Not low scoring, but unbalanced
A frequent criticism of soccer is that it is low scoring. This is actually a bad criticism. Low scoring games can be fascinating. I love a good pitchers’ duel in baseball. And, let’s face it, soccer is low scoring. Of the 48 games in the group stage, there were only eight games in which a team scored three or more goals. And, all of those games were “blowouts” decided by two or more goals with the exception of the match between Slovakia and Italy.

Now, it is possible to argue that this lack of blowouts means that the games were closely fought and, therefore, more exciting. This is a valid point. But, let’s look at one game in particular, the match between the United States and Ghana in the first stage of the knockout round. In this game Ghana scored quickly and played ahead until just after the one hour mark. Throughout the early going Ghana really controlled the ball and they had several chances to add to their lead. Later in the first half and into the second half, the United States rebounded and looked like they might add an equalizer. They eventually did tie the score, but the tie came on a penalty kick. The US player dribbled the ball in close proximity to the goal. The Ghanaian defender made contact with him. The referee blew the whistle and called a foul. It was a subjective call but by no means a bad one. The foul meant that the US got a penalty kick, which they easily converted.

Herein lies the problem. Only three goals were scored in the entire contest and one of those was a virtual freebie. Had the defender made a little bit less contact, what is the chance that the US player would have scored on his own? 25%? 10%? 5%? What are the chances of scoring on a penalty kick? 75%? It was not a bad call but it is a bad rule. The entire competitive balance of a low scoring game was swayed by a very arbitrary call. It is like a pitchers’ duel in baseball during which a power hitter comes to the plate and gets to hit the ball off of a tee instead of facing the pitcher. Other sports have their own version of the penalty shot. Basketball has free throws, but free-throws usually account for around 25% of a team’s scoring. In the match between the USA and Ghana, penalty kicks accounted for 100% of the scoring by the United States. The closest analogy to the penalty kick in soccer is the pass interference in the end zone call in American Football. When a wide receiver runs a route into the end zone there is almost always some contact and some jostling. If defensive pass interference is called in the end zone, the team on offense gets a first down at the one-yard line and is virtually guaranteed a touchdown. But, even then, such an unbalanced penalty might account for 25% of a team’s scoring. In a game in which goals are rare, a penalty kick makes the game too unbalanced. The arbitrary should not determine the outcome.

Reason #3: Poor use of available technology
In my section above I talked about how a penalty kick makes the game competitively unbalanced. In a sport where goals are rare, shouldn’t it be incumbent upon the sport to minimize the impact of arbitrary calls by the referee? In Germany’s 4-1 victory over England in the knockout stage, the referees failed to call a goal by England. It didn’t affect the outcome of this contest, but in most games it would have. And, there is really no excuse for that. Soccer needs an instant replay system for calls of this nature.

Reason #4: The flopping
During the group stage of the World Cup I was also watching the Boston Celtics reach the NBA finals. The NBA has become famous for its floppers. Two players bump and one player throws himself backwards and lies sprawled out on the court. It is an attempt to fool the refs and draw them into calling a foul. It is the epitome of bad sportsmanship. But it often works and this makes it good strategy. And yet, good strategy and good play do not always go hand in hand.

In soccer the flopping is even worse. The players roll around on the ground clutching an ankle or grabbing a knee. They wince and writhe. Usually the player gets back on his feet and is running without a hitch fifteen seconds later. This is good strategy. If you can coax a free kick or a yellow card out of the referee you’ve changed the game. If you can get the referee to upgrade the call from a yellow card to a red card, the other team has been put at a serious disadvantage.

Quite apart from the ethics of flopping, there is the aesthetics of flopping. Author David Foster Wallace once reviewed the autobiography of star tennis player Tracy Austin and asked why the autobiographies of athletes are often so insipid. He wrote, insightfully, that it is not because athletes are unintelligent. Rather, Wallace claimed that athletes are deeply focused in such a way that most other human beings don’t understand. They are unconscious in the sense that they are not aware of the types of details you and I might find interesting. Austin describes other top tennis stars in the blandest of terms. She does this, Wallace argues, because she is so focused on playing that what the other person is like as a person doesn’t sink in. This is why flopping is so egregious. In a moment of total athletic focus, an athlete becomes transcendent. The focus on perception—the attempt to control how one is seen by others—is antithetical to the purposes of sport.

Reason #5: The ties
In the group stage of the 2010 World Cup there were 48 games. 14 of those games (almost 30%) ended in ties. Ties are utilitarian, a way to earn an extra point in order to advance to the next stage of competition. But, there is something inherently unsatisfactory about them. In American Football, the NFL and the NCAA have flawed rules for resolving games that end regulation in a tie. But, soccer would benefit from a system like in hockey where both teams benefit from playing to a tie, but there is also a fair and competitive way for determining the winner.

Reason #6: The weird extra time rule
Soccer, like most sports, is played with a clock. The clock can make the end of a contest thrilling or boring. As KU men’s basketball fans know, you don’t get Mario Chalmers sinking that 3-pointer without a clock. The last second shot in basketball. The Hail Mary pass in football. Of course, when the game is not close the clock can be annoying. Football quarterbacks take a knee and let the clock run. Basketball teams empty the benches and play “garbage time.” But, with so many close games, a thrilling finish depends on people knowing how much time is left on the clock. In soccer, the referee keeps track of “extra time”—time that ran off the clock when the game was stopped—and blows the whistle when the “extra time” is over. But players and fans have no idea how much time is actually left. Basketball players know whether they need to throw up a shot or whether they can pass and take a better shot. Football players know whether they have time to put together a drive or whether they need to take a shot at the end zone. There is nothing like this in soccer.

So far I’ve mentioned six reasons why I don’t like soccer: excruciating play close to the goal, a penalty structure that unbalances play, lack of replays, the flopping, the ties, and the weird rule about extra time. These all have to do with soccer in general. But, then there is something about the World Cup itself. It seems the no one else has asked it but I will: are we actually seeing the world’s best soccer?

The summer of 1992 was the summer between my freshman and sophomore year in high school. In was that summer that the entire world tuned in to watch the Barcelona Olympics. A new rule allowed professional basketball players to compete and the United States sent the Dream Team: Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Scottie Pippen, Chris Mullin, Clyde Drexler, and, ahem, Christian Laettner. The Dream Team cruised, winning all eight games at the Olympics by an average margin of 42 points.

But, with no offense intended to silver and bronze winners Croatia and Lithuania, it seems to me like the USA could have easily fielded additional teams capable of finishing second and third. They could have created teams in 1992 from a list of NBA and college stars such as: Isaiah Thomas, Gary Payton, Tim Hardaway, Kevin Johnson, Mark Price, Joe Dumars, Jeff Hornacek, Reggie Lewis, Reggie Miller, Mitch Richmond, Hersey Hawkins, Dell Curry, Dan Majerle, Glen Rice, James Worthy, Sean Elliott, Larry Johnson, Dennis Rodman, Shawn Kemp, Derrick Coleman, Xavier McDaniel, Horace Grant, Otis Thorpe, Kevin Willis, Hakeem Olajuwon, Brad Daugherty, Shaquille O’Neal, and Alonzo Mourning.

Despite the novelty of seeing the Dream Team, the 1992 NBA Finals between the Chicago Bulls and Portland Trailblazers was much more competitive than the gold medal game at the Olympics.

Similarly, baseball has attempted to have its own version of the World Cup. The World Baseball Classic was played in March in both 2006 and 2009. Japan won both tournaments. However, it should be noted that this tournament was played at a time when most Major League Baseball players are beginning spring training. Of the MLB players who did participate—and many did not—many of them used the WBC as a way to play their way into shape for the upcoming MLB season. Still others played at less than full effort; they played not to get hurt. The MLB playoffs in October are far more competitive than the WBC in March.

The World Cup isn’t exactly basketball in the Olympics. It isn’t the World Baseball Classic either. But, it seems to me like it combines a few of the negative elements of both tournaments. While I was watching one of the games I overheard the announcers talking about how one player from one country was teammates with another player from the other country on a team in a European league. Many of the players in the World Cup, and most of the players on the better teams, also play professionally in soccer leagues around the world. When I heard the announcer I wondered whether those two players were more used to playing as teammates than as opponents. Are some of these teams actually teams in the truest sense of the word, or are they more like a patchwork of star athletes who happen to all a particular national identity? Unlike the WBC it is clear that none of the players are “playing into shape.” But, are any of them just a little distracted as they look ahead to going back to play for the teams that have them under contract for millions and millions of Euros? Soccer is the world’s most global sport and it is also the most globalized, which would seem to make the nation versus nation concept a bit antiquated.

I began this essay by writing about a bus stop in Quito named in honor of Olympic champion race walker Jefferson Perez. It was in Quito that I became more interested in soccer than I had ever been before, at least interested enough to try to follow the World Cup. That bus stop, to me, signifies many things. It signifies the way it is possible for the citizens of one nation to completely stand behind their athletes. My counter-example, the Olympic triumph of swimmer Michael Phelps, signifies the opposite. Phelps epitomizes a country whose citizens achieve dazzling heights of athletic achievement, but where there is little unity. Maybe we’re spoiled. Maybe we are just easily distracted. But we certainly do not root for our athletes as a collective. Maybe it was different on the basketball courts in Barcelona in 1992 or on the ice in Lake Placid in 1980. Soccer may be the universal sport but we Americans live in a nation where nothing is universalizing. So, one nation shuts down while their team tries to qualify for the World Cup. Another nation flips channels while their team plays in Cup, looking for hints about where this year’s crop of NBA free agents might sign.

If you’ve read this all the way to end, it is now time for you to go find out the latest news about which team LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson, Amare Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer, and David Lee will each play for next year. And, if that story doesn’t interest you, you can check out tennis or golf or mixed martial arts or NASCAR or baseball. And, aren’t football camps starting soon?