Blog Post

On Soccer, Contingency, and Presidential Power

By any objective measure, it would seem that Barack Obama's first year and a half in office has been among the most effective in history. When he signs the financial reform bill into law he can add that to a roster that already includes last year's enormous fiscal stimulus package, student loan reform, and America's first comprehensive healthcare overhaul. Given this list, which omits countless non-legislative changes he has made as chief executive, it is hardly surprising that conservatives should be angry. After all, he is being effective at getting things done that they don't want. What is surprising, though, is why independents and liberals would be turning against him, as some are clearly doing.

As I pondered this puzzle over the last weeks the answer became clear—and no, it didn't have to do with the gusher at the bottom of the gulf, or at least not exclusively. The answer, I realized, was that Americans have a problem with soccer.

During the week after their team was eliminated from the World Cup, US National Soccer Team coach Bob Bradley made the media rounds with star midfielder Landon Donovan, whose brilliant beyond-last minute goal against Algeria kept the US in the World Cup into the round of 16. They opened the New York Stock Exchange and ended the same day exchanging quips with Jon Stewart on his Daily Show. They and the rest of the team enjoyed some well-deserved lionizing… at the same time that Bob Bradley was waiting to hear if he would keep his job. It seems that Americans can't quite figure out if the US's final result at the Cup this year is something to scream in joy or in anger about. Yes, the team made to the knock-out rounds, and thus hammered home the idea that they're one of the 16 best teams in the world; but they also were the only group leader to be ignominiously, well, knocked out, and by the same African country one fifteenth our size that did it last time, I might add. They got a round further than the 2006 team, but not quite as far as the 2002 team. We're celebrating them like heroes, but also coming to grips with the fact that they just didn't accomplish as much as we would have liked.

So, on the one hand we have a president who has done as much or more than any other in history has done in a similar amount of time, and we're either really angry or downright disappointed with him; and on the other hand we have a soccer team that has not managed to accomplish what we hoped for, but that we're really proud of. How do we make sense of this?

I submit that the confused American response to our president and our soccer team stems from the difficulties we have in dealing with contingency. Contingency connotes something a bit more specific than mere "chance." If something happens by chance, that suggests that it just as easily could have happened in another way. "Contingency" thus entails chance insofar as it is opposed to "necessity"; but "contingency" is also opposed to freedom, because something that's contingent depends on something else to decide its fate. This latter meaning is the origin of Americans' problems with contingency.

When questioned about how much control they have over their own destinies, Americans are more likely than any other people in world to say that they have a lot. This confidence in the say we have in how our lives unroll explains a lot: it explains the 19% of Americans who improbably believe they will one day be part of the top 1% of earners (and hence quite astutely oppose tax hikes for the rich now in defense of their future wealth); it explains the wide-spread resistance to the welfare state and other attempts by government to coddle, protect, or otherwise control an individual's destiny. This belief has a lot of positive side effects, I hasten to add. As a part-time European, I am pretty certain that the widely-spread anecdotal evidence as to how much easier it is to get an initiative up and going in the US as opposed to in Europe has some truth to it. The never-ending birth throws of the EU seem to buttress the impression of sclerotic governmental structures too addicted to thinking every last detail through to ever actually get anything done.

On the downside, though, Americans' belief in personal freedom and control over our destinies means that we may often have wildly unrealistic assumptions about our power to alter the world around us. This is where our intolerance for contingency comes in; which also explains why we are so confused by soccer and so angry at the president.

Just look at the way we tried to package the successes and failures of the American side: they persevered in the face of adversity; they prevailed despite being robbed (twice!) by incompetent referees; they came back from behind through their sheer grit to live the American dream, to achieve a Hollywood ending… (these last two were metaphors the television announcers really threw around). But, of course, there's nothing particularly American about the way the US tied, won, and eventually lost the four games it played. It was soccer, pure and simple. One of the reasons soccer is so exciting, so agonizing, so infuriating, and so unbelievably popular pretty much everywhere else in the world other than in the US, is because, unlike so many of the sports beloved of Americans, soccer makes no pretense about defeating contingency. We are fond in American football of saying that anything can happen on any given Sunday, but that lip service to contingency pales in comparison to a sport in which it is so difficult to score that many games end up as 0-0 ties to be decided by penalty shoot-outs, where millimeters or microseconds can decide whether a team goes on in glory or home in despair. Americans reveled, and rightly so, in the Donovan's "miraculous" goal against Algeria after regulation time, but if I performed a miracle for every goal in added time I've seen I wouldn't need the Pope to make me a saint. Finally, the handful of obviously mishandled calls in this age of constant video surveillance and playback will inevitably lead to some enhanced goal-line coverage, as FIFA president Sepp Blatter conceded; but this does not change the default position of the soccer establishment that human judgment, and hence human error, are part of the game. What Americans, therefore, find intolerable about soccer is perhaps what the rest of the world appreciates most about it: that it is capricious, unfair, and devilishly difficult to control, in other words, that it mimics real life.

If we're confused about the beautiful game, take a look at the mixed messages we send the "leader of the free world" (an amazing epithet, if you think about it). While conservatives lambast his "socialist" tendencies, and wring their hands about his "death panels" and how he's taken their country away from them, liberals and independents are shaking their heads at his hesitancy, his tranquility, his lack of leadership, his unwillingness to wield authority. The sources of this angst: an economy ripped apart by his predecessors' obsession with deregulation; foreign policy quagmires incurred by his predecessors' obsession with preemptive power; and now an apparently unstoppable oil slick caused by, well, see the first cause above. Americans, in other words, don't just want an effective, pragmatic problem solver as a president. That's not enough. What we want is to be safe in our fantasy that we, through our leaders, have the power to determine our own fates; that our wellbeing does not depend on the adequate functioning of a blowout preventer five thousand feet below the gulf's surface; or that victory is assured on the fleet foot of a midfielder striking a stray ball forty seconds after the official end of regulation play. 

But we’re not safe. Ask any soccer fan. Ask fast, though. The next game is about to begin.

William Egginton's picture

William Egginton is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at the Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches on Spanish and Latin American literature, literary theory, and the relation between literature and philosophy. He is the author of How the World Became a Stage (2003), Perversity and Ethics (2006), A Wrinkle in History (2007), The Philosopher's Desire (2007), The Theater of Truth (2010), and In Defense of Religious Moderation (2011). He is also co-editor with Mike Sandbothe of The Pragmatic Turn in Philosophy (2004), translator of Lisa Block de Behar's Borges, the Passion of an Endless Quotation (2003, 2nd edition 2014), and co-editor with David E. Johnson of Thinking With Borges (2009). His most recent book is The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered In the Modern World (2016).