Soccer in American Culture

Our guest blogger this month, G. Edward White, discusses how he came to write his new book, Soccer in American Culture: The Beautiful Game’s Struggle for Status. White is David and Mary Harrison Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Virginia Law School. His 1996 book, Creating the National Pastime: Baseball Transforms Itself, 1903–1953, reflects his life-long participation and interest in athletics.

After completing a three-volume series entitled Law in American History, whose coverage stretched from the colonial years through the twentieth century, I decided that my next book would be on soccer in America. I made that choice for two reasons. First, the book’s subject matter represented a radical shift from what had occupied me for the last decade (and for most of my scholarly career). I thought that shift might be invigorating. One of the issues I have tried to combat as a scholar has been what I call “senioritis,” the tendency of authors to address a subject early in their careers and then repeat that emphasis (and possibly their interpretive approach) as they go along. I think doing such promotes interpretive flatness, maybe even out-datedness, and doesn’t generate the sort of freshness with which new topics ought to be addressed. I have tried to change the time frame of my projects and my methodological approaches as I have begun new books, in part to fend off senioritis.

The other reason I chose to write a book on soccer was that I have played and coached the sport for many years and am of the view that one should “write about what they know.”  In my case writing about what I “know” has increasingly become something of a publishing liability, since I am a white male, born in the 1940s, and the subjects I “know” best are legal and constitutional history, torts, music, and sports. There isn’t a huge demand for work on those subjects from the perspective I necessarily bring to them, and there isn’t much of demand, in my profession, for work on sports at all. I wasn’t planning on including a lot of legal material in my soccer book, and I haven’t.

I have done something like this once before in my scholarly career. In 1993 I finished the second of two long, quite academic books on the Marshall Court and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. I decided that my next book was going to be on the history of baseball in America. As in the case of soccer, I have played a lot of baseball and softball over the years and feel I “know” something about the sport. And I thought writing about baseball would amount to a comparably radical break with my previous work. That turned out to be so, although there was a fair amount of law in that book, Creating the National Pastime.

When I decided to write on the history of soccer in America I was intrigued by two features of that history. The first was that when “Association football,” so-called because it was a sport founded by a group of men who organized themselves as the Football Association in England (“soccer” is a contraction of “Association football”), grew and began to spread to other nations across the globe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it did not take substantial root in the United States. As late as the opening of the 1960s very few American colleges or high schools played men’s soccer, there was almost no women’s soccer at all, and no professional soccer league had ever successfully established itself in the U.S. Not only were very few Americans watching or following soccer, very few were playing it. Soccer received almost no coverage in the American sporting press despite being the rest of the world’s leading spectator and participant sport. I wondered why the United States, with its substantial population of immigrants from the British Isles and western Europe, had not taken to soccer.

The other feature of the history of soccer in America was a comparatively recent but dramatic phenomenon: the substantial growth of the sport as a spectator and participant activity after the 1970s for both men and women. Soccer is now the fourth largest participatory sport in the U.S. There is a men’s professional soccer league, Major League Soccer, which has been in existence since 1996, has expanded, and whose clubs are beginning to attract visible players from overseas. The current version of a women’s professional league, the National Women’s Soccer League, has become increasingly successful since its inception in 2012. The U.S. women’s World Cup soccer team has won four championships in the eight tournaments in that competition since 1991.

The U.S. Women’s National Team celebrates after winning the World Cup in 2015

An even more noticeable feature of the renaissance of soccer in America since the late twentieth century has been the growth of the sport in public high schools, colleges, and universities. After a long interval in which soccer was rarely offered for men in those institutions, and never for women, it has become common among athletic offerings for both men and women from high school on. Virtually all of the players on the U.S. national women’s soccer team, and many on the U.S. national team, began playing the sport in American high schools and continued in American colleges. In addition, soccer has become a very popular youth sport, with many communities sponsoring youth soccer teams and leagues and numerous fathers and mothers finding themselves coaches of youth teams. In contrast to the years before 1970, when most American audiences were unfamiliar with soccer, there is now a sufficient audience of knowledgeable soccer fans in the U.S. that American networks have regularly televised matches from top-level soccer leagues in England and western Europe.

I wondered why those features of the history of soccer in America had occurred. Why did Americans not embrace soccer—an inexpensive game to play, affording more continuous exercise than baseball, and far safer, for men as well as women, than gridiron football—at the time other nations did? And why, after over a century in which soccer had been a distinctly marginal sport in the United States, has it suddenly emerged to the point where it is approximating “mainstream” status?

Soccer in American Culture is about both of those seemingly puzzling features of American soccer history. I won’t attempt to unravel the puzzles in this post. I encourage persons interested in learning more to sample the book.

To read a sample of the introduction and first chapter, click here.

Soccer in American Culture

The Beautiful Game’s Struggle for Status

G. Edward White

$45.00 | hardcover | 314 pp. | 10 b&w illus.

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