football

Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs is pop analysis: both the analysis of pop, and analysis that aspires to the status of pop. Hence the informality of the style, the (faux) confessionalism, the intermingling of sacred and profane, high and low. A “low culture manifesto” (as the book’s subtitle has it) is not quite so “low culture” both because of its self-reflexivity and because of its more or less knowing nods to the entire lineage of cultural manifestos.

If we’re going to have pop analysis (and why not, I suppose), personally I prefer Dave Eggers and Nick Hornby to Klosterman. Perhaps that just says that I prefer it when things are more obviously leavened with fiction, with a plot however baggy.

Moreover, Klosterman’s conclusions are too pat, too unsatisfying. The essay I like best is probably the one that actually refers to Hornby: a rant against football (sorry, “soccer”) as an un-American, indeed unsporting, sport because supposedly it’s too egalitarian: “it’s the only sport where you can’t fuck up. An outcast can succeed simply by not failing” (89). Even so, this is a nice conceit, but it doesn’t add up.

Klosterman has clearly never himself played football, let alone found himself subject to the classic humiliation of being the last to be picked for a playground team. Watching but one football movie (I happened recently to see There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble) should be enough evidence that suitably sporting hierarchies are as rigidly enforced, perhaps more so, in football as anywhere else.

Indeed, if anything it’s the other way around. It’s precisely the fluidity of football (which Klosterman translates as “running about and avoiding major collisions” [89]) that makes the comparisons all the more insistent.

Put this another way: as a non-native, I’m always struck by the specialization promoted in US sports. For instance, the fact that American Football has a completely different offensive line from its defensive line; or that the “special teams” only ever come onto the field for a few minutes of each game. Or in baseball, the phenomenon of the “closer,” who will pitch at best the last couple of innings; my thought is always that if he’s so good, he should be on from the start.

In British sports, such as football but also even cricket, the all-rounder is much more highly valued: the midfielder who can move up or play deep, the striker who can play with both feet, the batsman who can also bowl, for instance. Yes, there are still specialists (and even perhaps increasingly so: David Beckham became little more than a taker of free kicks), but the same players stay on the field the whole time. Even the very best fast bowler has to bat from time to time; there’s no equivalent of baseball’s “designated hitter.”

All the more so, then, in playground and high-school games in which the notional playing positions are all the looser: the fact is that in football, a player is at every moment at least potentially judged as part of entire team, rather than simply as one part in a fragmented team apparatus.

Meanwhile, this is probably a moment to give a nod to my friend Grant Farred, whose book on football, Long Distance Love, has just been published. And also to point out with some pride that I figure (albeit un-named) in the book’s very first paragraph.

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