Friday, September 02, 2016

A Game for a New World

Camper World Stadium, Orlando

For much of my younger life I, like most young men in my region, found myself driven by a major obsession with college football. Love of all things football was distilled and spiked into the mother’s milk of grammar school, dominated our collective lives in high school and later formed the basis for most social life in college.

For much of my young adult life, I could rightly have been called a football fanatic. Like any true believer, it was in football that I moved, breathed and had my being. Lacking much of an identity I could safely claim for my own in those days, my allegiance to various teams gave me a credible if tenuous tribal identity that allowed me to fit in if only conditionally and temporarily.  

But my unhealthy love affair with American football ended badly several years ago. I began falling out of love my first year in seminary in 1991 when I walked across the Cal-Berkeley campus on a game day presuming that for once the library would not be jammed and I could finally get some research done. 

I was shocked to find the library just as full of students as any other day, apparently oblivious to the cannon firing from the stadium across campus where the Golden Bears were busy shelling a much weaker team from nearby San Jose State. Retreating to the coffee houses south of campus on Telegraph Avenue hoping for a little quiet reading time, I discovered them just as full and noisy as the library. 
Café Strada, Berkeley, CA, one of my old hangouts

Time simply did not stop in Berkeley for college football. I said to myself, “Toto, we’re clearly not in the South anymore.”

The stake through the heart would come about six years later when one of my alma maters won the national championship by beating another of my alma maters. My father, sister, brother-in-law and his mother and I all dutifully trudged up to Florida Field on a very cold Saturday morning in January to engage in some long-awaited “Yea, us!”

The small gathering that day in the east stands was dwarfed by the looming stadium around us whose ongoing expansions have pushed its capacity to nearly 100,000. Its upper seating is now crowned by posh corporate suites complete with full-service lounges and air-conditioned box seating. In hoi polloi seating in the nose bleed section just below, players on the field look like ants requiring the game to be watched on the giant television screens in the end zones complete with an endless barrage of ear splitting commercial announcements.

Florida Field, ca. 1970s

My parents had met at the university in the GI Bill days of post WWII and all three of their children eventually earned degrees there. My affiliation with Florida Field has a long history, having first attended the game against the University of Miami with my Dad and brother in 1965. I had learned “We are the boys from old Florida” on my mother’s lap and even today swaying with my arms around complete strangers’ shoulders to sing that song brings tears to my eyes. But as I looked around the stadium that day, it was clear that the place I once knew and loved had long since vanished.

Gone were the sweaty afternoons of plebian general admission ticket holders sitting on splintered east stands seating, the hazards of which most of us undergraduates had long since become oblivious in our customary alcohol-dimmed hazes. Gone were the days where alumni families annually purchased a block of tickets in the shaded west stand and game day served as a giant extended family reunion, hot and humid Saturday afternoons where winning was the ostensible goal but socializing was the ultimate concern.

The days of sanguine, personable interactions around a game that was often secondary in importance to what was going on in the stands and the parking lots around the stadium were gone. What had replaced it was an overwhelming, noisy, mass produced spectacle designed more for electronic media than human participants. Football, like many aspects in virtually every large public university, had become a business and, like any other business, the goal now was less about bringing pride to the university than drawing crowds and selling overpriced tribal identity merchandise made in China to insure profits for the corporate entity which had succeeded that university.

Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, 2015

As I watched the mural on the stadium wall being unveiled to proclaim UF to be “National Champs,” I found myself strangely detached. Perhaps it was because I was actually a graduate student at the other university UF had defeated to win the championship. Truth be told, I had become suspect to both my family of Gators (my parents met at UF and both of my siblings attended there) and my colleagues at FSU.

But what I felt that moment was less conflict than sheer detachment. There were no fireworks. Jesus did not make a cameo appearance temporarily clad in an orange and blue jersey. Indeed, the rather paltry crowd hardly made enough noise to be heard in the sound vacuum of that yawning, empty concrete canyon.

Worse yet, glory is fleeting and the frenetic journalists of the sports world were already beginning to debate who would be number one next year. So what was all this frenzied year-long worry and anxiety all about, anyway?

Perhaps only I could hear it that day but I swear that just after the mural was unveiled Peggy Lee’s 1960s hit “Is That All There Is?” began to play over the stadium sound system. “Is that all there is?” Peggy’s raspy voice pondered, “If that’s all there is, then let’s keep dancing. We’ll break out the booze…and have….a ball….if that’s all….there is….”

Call it a funeral dirge for a dying love affair.

Soccer in a Second Language

Of course American football is hardly the only version of the game in the world bearing that name. Futbol, as it is called in many places, going under the alias of soccer in the US, is the world’s most popular sport. The international version lacks the padding, the helmets and the punishing physical contact of its American cousin. The rate of brain damage and paralyzing injuries in soccer is essentially non-existent.

Better yet, the two 45 minute halves are not incessantly interrupted for commercials. When the ball goes out of bounds or a foul is called, the brief time to return the ball to play or to line up for the free kick at the goal is accounted for at the end of regulation time each half. The game rolls on.

What a breath of fresh air!

I first encountered futbol as the last smoldering embers of my love for American football were dying. About six years ago I had to go to Miami to get a visa from the Bolivian embassy, got finished early and had a little time on my hands. I went out Tamiami Trail to Florida International University to see the horticultural collection and the excellent art museum there before seeking out the Starbucks in the student union.

The World Cup was playing on a television in the union and I found myself caught up in the excitement of the largely Latin American students there as the American team played to a disappointing tie that day. Apparently one thing that is constant in all versions of football is the tendency for disappointed fans to analyze officiating after the game and lay the unjust defeat of the home team at the feet of officials seen as incompetent on a good day and on the payroll of the winner in darker moments.

Later that summer I’d find myself in Cuba to deliver a paper at an international conference. Now the finals of the World Cup were being played and in the hotel lounge we watched Spain defeat Germany. The energy among the gathered was sky high even as I engaged the conversations in a second language. And once again I found myself getting excited about a sport I understood only minimally but which had had proven immensely attractive in drawing a following around the world.

The Soccer Uncles

My sister’s younger boy plays soccer for his high school team. He’s also played for several years on local teams. Cary is a good goalie. Andy and I have upon occasion become soccer uncles, traveling to nearby towns to see our nephew play.

Cary and teammate, Garren (ca. 2010)
One of my very favorite photos of all times

In truth, I have never figured out how off-sides works or what constitutes fouls that result in free kicks. What I do observe is that parents are generally better behaved at these matches than corresponding events on baseball diamonds and football fields. I also am aware that the incidence of injury in soccer is infinitesimal compared to its American cousin, something that makes me a lot more comfortable watching my nephew as he runs onto the field.

Even as I’m not sure what’s going on all the time, I find myself enjoying these games a lot more than the football games I once loved. If nothing else the level of violence is much lower and the games seem to move a little smoother. Best of all, the lack of ongoing pounding by commercials during the game is evidence that there is a merciful G-d.

So when my nephew said he wanted to go to see the local Orlando City Soccer Club play, I immediately agreed. I want to encourage him in his endeavors and I also wanted to see what this new sport actually looked like here in Orlando.

Vamos, Orlando!

The renovations at the now Camper World Stadium (né Tangerine Bowl then Florida Citrus Bowl) have made the stadium close to comfortable. The bathrooms are not nearly as foul as they once were and the seating is clearly marked, solid and comfortable. Concessions are more numerous and there is plenty of overpriced draught beer to be drunk.

A number of things struck me about the crowd. First, it looked like the diverse place that  a majority-minority Orlando has become. It was that diversity that tipped the scales in favor of our resettling in Orlando after returning from the culturally rich Bay Area in California in the mid-90s. Truth be told, I simply don’t think I could live in a monochromatic culture anymore.  

An Energized End Zone

The team fight song was sung in Spanish “Vamos, vamos, vamos Orlando. Esta noche tenemos que ganar” (Let’s go, Orlando! Tonight we have to win!) The people behind us conversed in Creole. The clipped British accent of the African origin couple to our right betrayed their origins from one of the Caribbean islands and the white middle class family in front of us appeared to have recently escaped from their American football cells, still wearing red Seminoles garb, the uniform of the college football prison, a glaring distinction to the ocean of purple around them.

The rowdy crowd in the south end zone came marching into the stadium to the cadence of a drum corps which would keep them literally jumping up and down the entire game. They bore flags from around the world including the rainbow flag of the LGBTQ movement, reminding us of the international nature of this enterprise.  Indeed, the names of the players reflect a world in which futbol will take the dominant role that the more violent, costly version in the US currently commands. The star player for Orlando has a Latin last name that must be carefully pronounced to avoid a pronunciation which literally translates to poop.

The intentional diversity of this enterprise is strikingly revealed by the ads for the national soccer league which run prior to the game and during half-time: No racism, no sexism, no homophobia, no exceptions, no excuses. Over and over the ad ran prior to game time taking my very breath away. American sports could learn a lot from this example.

It was great fun to let my nephew be the expert at this event. To his credit he never seemed to get tired of being asked to explain what had just happened, why there was a free kick and what did off-sides actually mean. Around us, even in the hot sunshine with little breeze across that man-made concrete gulch, it was obvious that people were simply having a great time together.

We would spend the last 10 minutes of the game - in which goal line stands were repeatedly made - on our feet. It was tremendously exciting. Even the buzz kill of a late free kick to tie the game which took away Orlando’s apparent victory did little to dampen the spirits of the crowd as they poured out of the stadium. They’d come for a good time and they were going home satisfied.  

I can definitely see why people get into futbol. I cannot say I’ll be a regular at the Camper World Stadium (indeed, I’m not sure I’d ever admit to having been to a place with such a name) and after this year the club will be playing in their new stadium downtown designed just for futbol. Chances are I will never become the kind of identity-conditioned fanatic for futbol that I once was for the American version bearing the same name. 

But I’m sure my nephew will be able to talk me into going to more games. And chances are, I could even be convinced to watch a bit of the next World Cup if invited to do so. Andy and I are already pledged to attend a couple of Cary’s local matches this year.

At some level, my conversion to futbol is representative of the country I love. Little by little, America is becoming aware of a new role in the world community, not as the dominant party setting the terms for everyone else but as one among many nation-states and peoples. 

Futbol is the game of the future for a rapidly changing global community. That future is already beginning to take shape in a renovated stadium with an unusual name in the heart of a medium sized city in a Central Florida.  And today that city more resembles the incredibly diverse western hemisphere from which so many of its citizens have come than the old South out of which it has arisen.

Vamos, Orlando!

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Ages, Commentary on Micah 6:8


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