Football can tell you a lot about a society.
If you’ve ever seen Aussie Rules Football, a game loosely derived from an early version of rugby, you have instant insight into the independent and rugged nature of Australian culture.
Gaelic football. Uniquely Irish.
Canadian football. A rare misstep from our usually more enlightened brothers from the North, Canadian football is a head-scratcher with its imperial-measured and unnecessarily unconventional 110 yard field, seemingly trolling us with their excesses of spare land. Imagine the humiliation of taking seats at the 50 yard line tickets, only to be looked one-upped by the smug guy on the 55. Right, Canadians don’t get smug. Meanwhile, what’s with being so polite as to allow two of your nine teams to have the same nickname?! The Saskatchewan Roughriders and the Ottawa Rough Riders. Same, not same? No. Like Vanilla Ice claiming his riff is not the same as Under Pressure, I’m not buying it. Sorry, not sorry.
Then there is American football, defined by its fierce competitiveness, winner-take-all Darwinian battle that combines strategy, leadership, skill, execution and physically violent aggressiveness.
Finally, there is futbol the rest-of-the-word plays. The game the majority of humans on our planet consider actual football — a meritocratic dance where for 90+ minutes, any eleven can go mano-a-mano against any another eleven, a level playing field as their pitch.
But there’s something strange…
The operating principles of the respective organising bodies are in direct conflict with the prevailing doctrine of the societies that revere them.
The NFL is a socialist collective.
UEFA and FIFA are capitalistic free-market purists.
How many Americans would lose their minds if their beloved NFL’s socialist governing principles were applied to their public life?
And what about the Europeans accustomed to the comfort and social stability provided by wealth redistribution, who rabidly and fiercely support their team, scrapping for every advantage?
Let’s start with American football — namely the National Football League.
The NFL is an American institution. It is an integral thread of the cultural fabric of the country. For almost 50 years, the league enjoyed privileged tax-exempt status from the federal government, gifted by Congress and rescinded only in 2015.
The NFL is privately owned by its franchise owners. It’s a billionaires’ boys club, with its membership of savvy capitalists through and through. The Dallas Cowboys franchise has been valued at $5 billion by Forbes with all franchises combined worth more than $70 billion cumulatively. The money is huge.
The essence of NFL culture is embodied in the survival-of-the-fittest battles, played live in front of over 1,000,000 fans who fill coliseums each and every Fall weekend.
American football fans love teams who win and the warriors who reveal themselves as legends by repeatedly demonstrating their superiority in the arena, every time the whistle blows.
Fans love it. NFL zealots love the weekly drama created across the balanced 32 teams. The local geographic and long-time rivalries. The games within the game. The drama and narratives that progress throughout each season. Fans love the bone-crushing hits delivered by their gladiators. Fans love the freedom, the anthem, flyovers and the flag.
But, do not fuck with the flag.
Because then you are messing with our institutions themselves. And freedom and God Bless America and thank you for your service and the rocket’s red glare.
Just ask Colin Kaepernick. In my view, straight up, hero. Exercising the rights and freedoms that our troops and tax dollars get spent fighting for in the first place.
Colin Kaepernick is Katniss Everdeen and the NFL brass is the Capitol.
Silently leaning on his knee during the national anthem of a meaningless pre-season (hunger) game was his mocking-jay dog whistle to mobilize underground District 12 sympathizers.
A few heroic followers initially answered Kaep’s call, but the suffocating media blanket that quickly ensued snuffed out new followers from easily joining in, stalling the cause’s momentum.
So when President Snow (Commissioner Roger Goodell) decisively shut down further such displays of freedom by orchestrating the owners to unanimously vote to levy self-imposed fines on themselves for each player who might exercise such unalienable right (incidentally protected by our embattled military in the first place), thereby effectively check-mating any future potential participant, I lost what remaining love I had for the NFL, drained already by the undeniably widespread devastation now known to be caused from under-reported concussions.
My shifting feelings toward the NFL remind me to how I felt about boxing in the mid-1980s in the aftermath of witnessing Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini’s gruesome 14th round TKO of Kim Duk-koo in 1982 — resulting in Kim’s tragic death just four days later. Once seen, cannot be unseen.
But, I digress.
As Americans we love the self-made rags-to-riches story. The American Dream. Rising up, and making something from nothing, Alexander Hamilton style.
People talk about America being a place of ‘equal opportunity’. But emphasis is more on the ‘opportunity’ than the ‘equal’ part — a lack of equality being an old-fashioned social relic preserved past its expiration date thanks to a pickling brine of privilege and bias.
Equality inequalities aside, in America opportunity abounds. Everyone gets their shot. Then, it’s about what you make of it. Opportunity itself is seen as equitably free, even if access to that opportunity is uneven.
Americans love glory. We especially love glory from people who make the most of their shot. Beating the odds. We love the underdog.
Impossible as it might sound to the rest of the world, Americans view ourselves as underdogs.
Our historical narrative of becoming independent by breaking free from our overreaching and under-delivering overlords runs deep.
We are especially sympathetic to the back-story of the hard-scrabble underdog fearlessly challenging the heartless incumbent. Like the Jedi Knights taking on the Federation.
Like Rocky Balboa taking down the impossibly chiseled and perfect Drago — incidentally a way better villain than Apollo Creed who had an underdog backstory of his own.
Like the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olymics when the Bad News Bears team of ragtag college kids taking down the Soviet Red Army on skates.
David v. Goliath. West v. East. Karpov v. Kasparov. Capitalism v. Communism.
Like the space race, sports becomes a metaphor and battleground for political, social and ultimately idealogical superiority, played out with a live global audience.
Where superiority in sports is somehow seen as a de-facto demonstration that the value systems and social constructs beneath them are somehow proven also to be superior. What else could inspire government sponsored doping regimens.
Which leads to the essence of the football paradox.
The ethos of the NFL is embodied by the Green Bay Packers.
What you need to know:
- Green Bay, Wisconsin is a town in remote north-central Wisconsin with population of just 100,000.
- The team plays outdoors at Lambeau Field often in harsh winter conditions. It can get freaking cold. The field has been called a “frozen tundra.” This makes them bad-asses for playing on concrete and for being gritty and hardy.
- Industry in Green Bay includes manufacturing and agriculture so the team moniker refers to local industrial shipping techniques, not what their juvenile rival fans claim.
- The Green Bay region was colonized in the 19th century by northern Europeans who brought brewing, bratwurst and cheese making culture to the region — to the effect local fans lovingly call themselves “cheese-heads,” and in good times wear Styrofoam blocks of cheese on their heads.
- The Packers have a storied NFL history. The franchise started in 1921, and won the first ever two Super Bowls in 1967 and 1968 — the champions game between leagues AFL and NFL before the leagues colluded and merged in 1970.
- The team has gone from first (1968) to worst (1991) to first (1996) to worst (2005) to first (2010).
Fans love the Pack.
The team is owned not by a billionaire, but as a collective. The NFL franchise is actually owned by “Green Bay Packers, Inc.” which is a non-profit organisation owned by 360,000 individual stockholders, none of whom are allowed to personally control more than 4% of the overall shares.
The NFL without the Green Bay Packers would be unimaginable.
But, how does a non-profit org based in rural Wisconsin have any chance to compete against big market teams from New York, Chicago or Los Angeles?
One word: Socialism.
The NFL owners are smart enough to understand the quality of their product depends on balance and parity of the teams in their ability to compete with each other. No one benefits from a league dominated by a few teams who crush everyone else all the time. That becomes boring for all but a handful of games a year. The more the balance across the league, the more exiting the games are. This brings the 17 million fans to the stadium, and the tens of millions more who religiously watch every week on TV.
How they keep things level to the benefit of all:
- All league-collected revenue is shared equally with every franchise. The big money is from TV rights, and that money is shared. Licensed merchandise profits also get shared equally. If you buy your kid a Tom Brady licensed jersey, that profit doesn’t go to New England, but is split equally 32 ways.
- Player salary expenses are capped. In 2019 the cap was set at $188.2 million per year per team — with playing rosters of 45 per team. Capping the labor expense protects for fairness, as otherwise nothing would stop Larry Ellison from deciding he wanted to spend his net worth on linebackers and long snappers. Capping the payroll is controversial, as it interferes with free-market principles where players aren’t free to collect their true market worth. The players are unionized and use collective bargaining power to protect their interests and find common ground with the team owners. Teams are, for example, required to spend a minimum of 89% of their own cap every year, and the league in total must spend 95% of the cap, or pay the difference to the players anyway.
- No prize money. In Europe, for winning the 2019 Champions League, Liverpool took home 86 million Euros in tournament prize money. In the US, the team who wins the Super Bowl gets squat. Players get individual bonuses for playoff games (and sacrificing their bodies accordingly) but the teams themselves don’t earn prize money for playoff victories. The spoils are all shared, even with the worst teams.
- Talent is redistributed. The order of drafting newly eligible players every year is in inverse order to the prior year’s performance. The worst team picks first, and the best team picks last. In every round. These picks are actual currency, with draft picks and players get traded freely. This setup systematically gives weaker teams additional market strength in the talent pool, performing the task of a self-correcting talent equalizer. It works well for its purpose. Note that anti-socialists argue that such systems usually create incentives to perform poorly, to collect the benefit — for example, tanking the end of the season to lock in first pick for that stellar QB. This inefficiency is an acceptable tradeoff for a system that works well for all stakeholders in aggregate.
Objectively, this socialist system has served the league, players and fans very well. The league has thrived. The money is huger than ever. Everyone’s getting paid. The pie has grown bigger, and everyone’s become richer thanks to the sharing of wealth and recalibration which maintains balance. You could even call this “trickle-up economics.”
And fans love it, because it means their team, no matter how futile, gets their shot.
Many may not know this generation’s dynasty — the New England Patriots — were the league patsies in the 1990s, going 1–15 and 2–14 in two particularly bad years.
I was a Patriots fan as a kid, even though I lived on the west coast. My Mom’s family are from Massachusetts, and my Uncle Jimmy in the 1980s was as into the Pats as he was pizzerias. I became even more hooked the more my beloved hometown Stanford college players found their way to New England’s roster (shout out: Jim Plunkett, Randy Vataha, Brian Holloway, Garin Veris, Greg Baty).
In 1982, there was still very little access to NFL footage. Halftime highlights from Howard Cosell on Monday Night Football was the best thing going. Only later did I understand the struggle of east coast kids begging to stay up past 10:30pm on a school night to see it.
As a fan, you’d think I would be thrilled with the unlikely run that the Pats have made during Bill Belichick’s head coaching regime which started in 2000. The long-lasting run at the top defies odds, and is objectively impressive. Yet, his critics accuse him of being a cheater.
But don’t blame the Patriots’ cheating culture just on him. It goes way further back.
Chris Berman fans will enjoy this 1993 clip re-capping the 1982 “snow plow game” where a federal prisoner Mark Henderson who was on weekend prison furlough and driving a snow plow, was enlisted to help end a scoreless tie by clearing a spot for John Smith to kick the winning field goal. Shady!
So by the time Inflate-gate rolled around, compounded by earlier reports of intercepting opposing team’s play calls, and surreptitiously video-recording the private practices of other opponents, a pattern had emerged.
Back to the beauty of the balance and redistribution of resources and talent across the league .
The New Orleans Saints were 3–13 in 2005 and their fans reverted (the ‘Aints!) to wearing paper bags on their heads, feigning embarrassment. Don’t tag me bro.
Just four seasons later in 2009 their players were getting fitted for Super Bowl rings. Worst to first.
Redistribution has kept the league in balance. League balance is self-correcting as those who lag behind get energy and vitamin boosts to make sure everyone is keeping up. This creates opportunity. And hope. Everybody gets their shot.
This is socialism at its best.
Club football, meanwhile, is a completely different story.
Now living in the Netherlands, and as an Amsterdam resident, I’ve taken a notional interest in Ajax, a long time big fish in the objectively second tier Dutch league Eredivisie. My support for Ajax escalated unknowingly through purchases of a phone cover and a 4 Euro doormat from IKEA featuring the tell-tale ‘XXX’ moniker of both the city and, incidentally the club.
To say I follow European football would be a huge mischaracterization.
My interest is limited to curiosity and wanting to stay relevant in the flow of local culture, absent authentic allegiance. Yet with only flimsy connection at best, even I found my heart genuinely tugged on behalf of my Dutchies when the Spurs deftly and unexpectedly maneuvered their way through to this year’s Champions League final in the waning seconds. Niet lekker.
This is to say I know only enough about European soccer to be dangerous to myself in writing about it.
Yet I can’t help see the paradox.
It starts with residing in an objectively socialist society (the Netherlands) with its high taxes funding commensurately valuable and effectively delivered services and safety nets to their people — free schooling, free medical, modern infrastructure, mostly reliable government (don’t get me started on reneging on my official 30% ruling letter), well-funded social safety nets, and so on.
Note despite the distributive norm in the Netherlands, things are full-on capitalistic. It is a highly business-friendly environment to where companies flock. At the same time, employees are looked after, with the ability to push back effectively when they’re not.
The net result is a society with a bell shaped distribution curve (healthy middle class) as opposed to the more U-shaped societies in places I’ve lived like the US and Singapore, where most people either struggle to get by (poor) or landed in the 1% (rich) with a shrinking middle-class who've migrated mostly to the unluckier and heavier weighted part of the U curve.
The statistic called the GINI index is described as measuring “the degree of inequality in the distribution of family income in a country.”
The United States ranks as the 39th most “inequitable” distribution out of 157 nations, while the Netherlands ranks 133rd. Isn’t it funny how it is ranked from most-unequitable to least-unequitable. Seems upside-down, right? If I was brave enough to call it ironic and risk being scorned for using the word improperly by my kids, I might even consider calling it that.
Life in the US is based on fighting for individual interests.
In the Netherlands, decisions get optimised for the best interest of the group.
Despite half-hearted complaints about high taxes, the Dutch are a close-knit crew and are in it together. They share a collective spirit. Even a bit smug with their know-it-all capabilities and pioneering fearlessness.
The culture is tolerant of individual freedoms (soft drugs, religion, prostitution, sexuality), and instead relies on a “doe normaal” culture. This “I don’t care what you do so long as you don’t bother the rest of us” ensures civil behavior, replacing religion as the pacifier of the masses.
The Dutch Protestant influenced cultural ethos produces pragmatists who prefer codes of conduct enforced through culture over rules.
The Dutch pride themselves on their flat hierarchy, although even in flat hierarchies, the Dutch stand tall. Outside of the office, a junior employee is expected to take the piss out of a senior to reinforce the ‘we’re all equal’ undertone.
This camaraderie may have formed centuries ago by the ambitious pioneering sailors during colonial times… you couldn’t make it on these world-conquering voyages without collaboration and teaming with others — relying on others while confident in your own abilities.
In the Netherlands, society is naturally inclined toward social cooperation through their collective battle against the sea. The country is largely under sea-level, its engineers winning enough of the war against the seas to somehow become Europe’s most densely populated country.
To re-claim land against the tides, individualism doesn’t work. People must rely on each-other. Because one single selfish neighbor will flood everyone else out.
Instead of “a high tide raises all boats,” there must be a Dutch saying along the lines of ‘one crack in the dam floods all.’
It is considered anti-social to show off wealth. The 1% is relatively low profile in the Netherlands — what would be considered a conspicuous show of wealth in Amsterdam (Jimmy Choos) would go unnoticed in Singapore, Vancouver, London or San Francisco.
Further, there is a strong feeling of common ownership and pride.
One morning last Fall I was dropping a bag into the garbage bin on my block. I noticed someone had left a late-model microwave oven on the street, being too large to fit in the garbage shoot. Up strolled a scowling elderly neighbor who notices me sizing up the eyesore.
“That’s anti-social!” she defiantly declared, turning on her heel.
But, on certain Sundays and Wednesdays, the close-knit Dutch vibe vaporizes. When football gets played.
My brother came to the Netherlands for a visit in April. An avid Barcelona fan, he was determined I take him to see Ajax play so he could scout out Frenkie de Jong who had recently been human trafficked from Ajax to Barca for a cool 75m Euros on the transfer market.
The only Ajax game during his visit was a road game against 6th place Willem II who hosted the first place visitors in their modest 14,500 capacity stadium in the town of Tilburg of 200,000 residents.
I overpaid for tickets online, and we went on a road trip.
As fate would have it, the tickets I bought happened to be in the first row, right in the corner, up against the Plexiglas wall that separates the home loyalists from the visiting fanatics.
It was savage.
Humans became hyenas. We had a front-row seat to the vitriol that can only be compared to what you might see in the Oakland Coliseum or at the Vet back in the day (where indeed the City of Philadelphia operated a full-fledged jail in the bowels of the stadium). We were kept safe by nearby unarmed security wearing reflective yellow jackets and unamused expressions.
In Tilburg, dudes (it was mostly dudes) would take turns coming over to the plastic barrier, and gesticulate and taunt their rival fans. Animals taunting each other at the zoo, emboldened by the safety of the barrier. Primal instincts on full display.
Inside the stadium it was madness. Outside the gate it was instant civilization as soon as the final whistle blew.
After 90 minutes of late-afternoon full-throated chest-thumping, the hometown fans of the losing home team exited the stadium in an orderly fashion, unlocked their bikes, and proceeded to casually pedal toward home where many would be home in time for stamppot dinner with the family.
Despite living in a culture and society optimised for the collective rather than the individual, the fans are no less hungry to win. Competition is seen a zero-sum game, and winning demonstrates superiority.
In no way does redistribution and collectivism reduce competitiveness or drive.
The fans are hungry for winners. Winners breed winners. And the strong get stronger. The more you win, the more money the club makes. The more fans who buy jerseys. The better the players they can afford. The more they win. The more popular they get. The more they can charge for tickets and sponsorships. The better the players they can buy. The more they win. The more people pay to see them play.
And the winning spans generations. It’s tradition. So it matters.
It’s why ManU is ManU and has been ManU ever since you ever heard of ManU. Same for Barca. Or Bayern. It works for these elite clubs. Europe’s top valued clubs are worth $3b plus according to KPMG.
Ajax, the Amsterdam club who punched way above its weight class this year, will subsequently get decimated in the off-season by the richer clubs who will spend their fat wallets in the transfer window in the war for talent.
These premier clubs have to compete in these human auctions for demonstrated over-achievers, bidding and over-paying (FOMO tax) for playmakers, in order to defend against the risk of a more sustained challenge to their respective thrones.
European football is economic Darwinism. Every team for themselves.
In the British Premier League, there are 20 teams. For the full season, every team plays every other team once at home and once on the road — a total of 38 games. Teams get 3 points for each win, 1 for each tie, and 0 for losses. At the end of the season, the three teams with the lowest point total get kicked out of the league (calling it “relegation” doesn’t take much of the sting out of it). The three are replaced by the top three teams from the league below who who get “promoted” to the Premier League.
In this way, any club can build their way into the Premier League. It is a meritocracy with the best teams rising to the top.
Everyone can earn their shot.
While the lower-budget teams at the bottom of the table come and go, a crop of premier teams remain in battle for the coveted rankings. In 27 years since the British Premier League took its current form, six teams still have never been relegated:
- Manchester United
- Tottenham Hotspur
If standings were random, with an 15% chance of being relegated each year, the odds of staying in over 27 years is 1.2% per team. That there are six who have defied such odds is telling that systems are designed for the strong to get stronger.
Given the deck is stacked, I have advice for anyone growing up in the football-mad culture of England. Unless you have a thing for futility, you had best find a way to come up with a justifiable reason to be a supporter a dynasty club.
Possibility for promotion represents means the hope is always alive. And there is maybe nothing greater than a team promoting their way into the Premier League. Scrapping to stay in long enough to steady oneself and get positioned for a run at the top, is entirely another level.
Shout out to my sports-enthused pal from college last name Wolverton who based on name only, decided in 1991 to support the Wolverhampton Wanderers, who have subsequently clawed their way from Division 3 in our sophomore year, to finishing 7th overall in the Premier League in 2019. Enjoy the moment, Wolvy!
But the Wolves story is one that will end the same way as the others. Never able to break through and into the top. Or, if one does (I’m looking at you Leicester City), staying there is next to impossible, because the economic deck is stacked against challengers and in favor of wealthy incumbents.
Predators remain firmly entrenched atop the food chain.
What to make of it all?
I’m struck by the fact that in America we have the self-regulated government-subsidized NFL, with its conservative profile, operating on socialist principles, while fully endorsed and adored by an audience who leans right and over-indexes toward small government values.
In Europe, you have soccer organizing bodies like FIFA and UEFA with whiffs of corruption, running a free-wheeling market-driven “meritocracy” ruled by an invisible hand. Fans froth at the mouth for their football royals, lest they lose their throne, loyally convinced of their superiority. Then retreat to the comfort of the warm social blanket.
American football is governed by socialists and adored by conservatives. European football is governed by capitalists and adored by liberals.
Conservative Americans seem to like their football liberal. Spread the wealth and we will all win. But when it comes to society? No way! (“Hey… keep your filthy hands off of my Medicare, though!”)
Liberal Europeans like their football conservative. Every man for himself. Let the rich get richer.
What to conclude from this meander? For me it is confirmation of the fallacy of exceptionalism. There is no one best way to raise kids. No best way to worship. No single way to be a leader. No one best recipe for brewing beer. No best government structure. No best social construct. Doe normaal, indeed.
It’s frustrating that humans so easy get sucked into blindly rooting for one’s home team. Simply because they are the home team. It happens to all of us. Like unconscious bias, it’s a brain error we all suffer from.
You know which fans I really respect? The fans who intentionally switch allegiances away from what they were born into, and are intentional about who (and what) they do support. The Eagles fanatic who was born and raised in Dallas.
In the same way, I’m far less skeptical of the authenticity of the faith of a devout religious convert compared to a radical who avows his faith which coincidentally aligns with the locally demographic majority.
In the end, I have to be honest this narrative is a jab at a subculture of American NFL fans. A culture I’ve been a willing part of most of my life running pools across the better part of three decades.
I worry about the audience who have become lemmings in being told how to believe. Who just want to be mindlessly entertained and to chill as a reward for navigating another stressful week. And lean back, taking in the voices from corporates, ministers, politicians, professors, social media, talking heads, fake news.
It feels positively pre-Orwelian.
An audience who has now been tricked into thinking peaceful silent protests are somehow unpatriotic. Who have been tricked into thinking only people with a large enough stash deserve access to a doctor. Or those who have access to the “side-door” admissions deserve access to high-end education. Who have been tricked into accepting that private companies have rights that equals our fellow Citizens (United).
Who I hope will see through their own hypocrisy. As I need to see through my own. Hoping we meet where we can agree, rather stay entrenched on our own sidelines, blindly screaming for our home team flaunting their colors.
Because there are many ways to play football. And they’re great in their own way. Yes, even Canadian Football, with funky-ass 3 downs instead of 4, and 12 players instead of 11. Oh Canada, indeed.