Quick: name a soccer player. Oh, and don’t say Pelé, David Beckham, Brandi Chastain or your fifth grader on the travel team.
It’s not as if they don’t count, of course.
Pelé is celebrated for being, well, Pelé. David Beckham is renown for marrying a Spice Girl. Brandi Chastain wore the sports bra seen around the world (that was inexplicably more controversial than any of the much skimpier Victoria’s Secret bras on permanent display in and on every other magazine ad and TV commercial). And your kid was legendary for an entire afternoon following that one game last fall when he made the critical pass that led to the winning goal against the team in the league that everyone hates. (And no matter what some snarky parents whispered on the walk back to the parking lot, they weren’t victorious just because the other team’s star player had to stay home after catching pink eye from his little sister).
But beyond those four superstars, you probably can’t name another player because you haven’t watched soccer since the United States lost to a country only slightly larger than Minnesota on Saturday (even then you had enough trouble keeping track of which color jersey the Americans wore, never mind their names, right?). And before that you most likely hadn’t seen, heard or thought about a soccer match since the World Cup in 2006, when the United States died an even speedier death. While recreational soccer is the golden child of domestic suburban sports, the professional version is its cousin with a raging case of genital herpes.
It’s just a fact that most Americans don’t care about soccer after high school or college, or even know that it exists in this country after that point. After all, who among us can sustain a cheering section for players who chronically and collectively underachieve (unless you’re a Detroit Lions fan)? Football, baseball and basketball bring in ratings gold because we breed exceptional players. It’s kind of like our stash of nuclear weapons: Would the United States engage in a global arms race if our arsenal didn’t blow away (ahem) everyone else’s? Our egos are way too inflated to encourage failure.
Soccer isn’t the exclusive bandwagon-only sport in the United States. Every two years a handful of other sports get shoved into the spotlight ad nauseam for a few weeks at the Olympics, until which time some improbably tiny gymnast busts an ankle on a vault landing or professional snowboarder blows her wad by hot-dogging when she thinks the coast is clear. They might get a half-page feature in People magazine afterward or awkwardly read the Top Ten list on Letterman before slinking back into obscurity (or onto the Smucker’s Stars on Ice tour), daydreaming about what life might have been like if they had been lucky enough to get clubbed in the knee like Nancy Kerrigan.
Becoming the most decorated Olympian in history is only the second most interesting thing ever to happen to Michael Phelps. The first, by far, was when he was photographed taking a bong hit at a college party in South Carolina just weeks after winning a record eight medals at the 2008 Summer Games. The resulting jokes about his endorsement deals with munchies staples like foot-long subs and sugary breakfast cereals are now on par with comedy classics like Joey Buttafuoco and the rubber chicken.
Who can ever forget the decathlete darlings of the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Dan and Dave. They rose to stardom in a Reebok campaign — complete with a series of Super Bowl ads — pitting one against the other. It was easily the most exciting thing to happen to the decathlon since the marriage of Bruce Jenner and Tropicana orange juice, until five weeks before the games when Dan hit a roadblock during the trials and didn’t actually qualify for the Olympic team. It’s unclear where either is today, but hopefully they invested their endorsement money wisely and aren’t living in a van down by the river. It’s also unclear which events make up a decathlon, exactly, but the 2012 Summer Olympics are, like, still two years away, so who cares right now anyway?
And cycling was never really in the mainstream until Lance Armstrong beat cancer and started winning year after year. But if it’s not the Tour de France, if Lance isn’t in it or he’s not winning, most people in the U.S. (other then those in tony cities and towns) don’t care or even know that cycling is a year-round sport.
Quick: what’s curling again? Don’t worry, you’ve got four years to get up to speed on it. And yes, it’s cheating to ask a Canadian.
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