Violence and English soccer are unfortunately linked in the minds of many people. It’s a partially fair association given the game’s widespread problems with hooliganism back in the ‘80s, but like most preconceptions it ignores the undeniable fact that these issues are mostly things of the past in the UK. Tougher rules for spectators, harsher punishments for offenders and a push to make soccer a family sport have made that troubled history seem a distant bad dream.
Last week England made the news again, however, with violent scenes broadcast around the world from the streets of its major cities. Sport was again a victim, but this time, the soccer fans were on the other side. Games in London were cancelled because police were required elsewhere in the capital, and thus were not available to enforce security at the stadiums. There are even reports that in some areas, organized groups of fans were actively protecting their communities from the riots.
A year from London’s 2012 Olympic Games, the images must have made a considerable dent in England’s tourism appeal, and it was embarrassing for many Brits to make the comparison between this destructive and objectless civil disorder with the politically inspired and broadly pacifist protest movements that have sprung up elsewhere around the world in recent months. There was also concern over the message sent by canceling these soccer games and (arguably) caving in to these violent events. A relatively small number of hooligans seemed to bring the country to its knees, and raised security worries over the ability of British authorities to police next summer’s huge sporting festival.
It is hard to criticize anyone for postponing a game over safety fears — because however remote the danger, the risks are huge — but it is equally unpalatable that our peaceful lives and interests may have been held hostage by a small group of offenders.
Taking a slightly different view of this whole issue brings me to the painful anniversary that will be commemorated next month. I’m sure it hasn’t escaped many people’s attention that in a few short days, ten years will have passed since the apocalyptic scenes of 9/11, and I expect many will make time to solemnly remember the lives of those lost.
But this year the day falls on a Sunday, always a big day for sport. And it’s a busy one — this Sunday in particular will see 13 games of the opening weekend of the NFL season, 15 MLB games and the final of the U.S. Open. It seems tricky to accommodate these two contrasting elements of the same day, one deeply sad and the other exciting. Is it okay to go out — or tune in — and enjoy yourself?
Yes, and for two good reasons: one is that the bad guys should never win. The best way to expose the flaws in hateful ideologies and even to rebel against them is to carry on regardless. The freedoms we take for granted are what make our societies time seem weak in the face of violent attacks but unimaginably strong and lasting in reality. Continuing with our normal lives and celebrating a big day in the sporting calendar is the only way to win.
The other reason is because of what sports mean in America. Not only is the country hugely successful in international competitions like the Olympics, but sports in the United States are idiosyncratically American. Just as any game at any level and in any sport in the United States is always preceded by the national anthem, any important national commemoration, whether happy or sad, should surely be a celebration of the things that make Americans who they are.
A moment of silence, perhaps — something that speaks louder than words ever could — might add context to the games that Sunday, but America isn’t a somber and serious place, at least not most of the time. Football season is back — on both sides of the Atlantic — and no matter what troubles may have been thrown at it, our world and our sports will go on, not through force but through force of character.
Tom Taylor asks that his readers sing the British national anthem before indulging in his columns. Ask him for the lyrics at tom.taylor ‘at’ stanford.edu.