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Knees Taken

My devotion to European soccer has been mostly a solitary one. While there are probably several million fellow fans in the U.S., they are widely scattered, and I’m in touch with only a paltry few. We are easily overwhelmed by the fans of those other sports.

But thanks to the idiocy of my countrymen, I am currently being rewarded for this lonely pursuit. While my fellow Americans subsist on reruns of past Super Bowls and NBA highlight reels, I have been watching live sports for over two months. Not that I gloat.

The German league — we sophisticates call it the Bundesliga — restarted in May, followed by the English Premier League in June. The Italian and Spanish leagues started in June, as well, but I don’t follow those as closely.

Yes, they’re playing these games in empty stadiums, as the leagues are all desperate to preserve TV revenue, their golden goose. But even with no fans in the stands, I can’t perceive any meaningful difference in the intensity of either the players or the teams. The inevitable league winners — Liverpool in England, Bayern Munich in Germany — were foreordained well before the virus shut them down, but in both leagues there is still much to play for, with terrific teams still contending. The games are as stimulating as they are welcome.

This is, of course, an object lesson in the value of effective public health policy. Europe spent several months in Covid hell. But because their populations were willing to stay home, listen to their experts, and flatten their curves, they now get to watch live sports. They also get to go back to their jobs and schools.

Unlike a certain country I could name. A country whose major sports leagues are about to start playing games with the virus. A country that has failed so badly at virus management, it might not flatten its own curve for years.

But I bring good news. American influence in the world — so shamefully undermined by our own leadership — is nonetheless still alive, in places and ways we wouldn’t expect.

Consider that at every English soccer game since the lockdown, right before kickoff, the players of both teams take a knee. Every team, every game.

Three years after Colin Kaepernick first took a knee, and took all sorts of grief for it. A month after Al Sharpton told white people to “Get your knee off our neck” at George Floyd’s memorial. Here, on my TV, are English soccer teams — with players of every color and nationality, speaking at least a dozen languages — taking their cue from Americans. Just like old times.

Racism is not exclusive to America, and it’s not new to soccer. There have been incidents going back decades, and no doubt longer, of bigots in the grandstands all over Europe, taunting Black players, throwing bananas, making ape noises.

The leagues, to their credit, have tried to push back. Long before the lockdown, a number of teams were forced to play in empty stadiums, as punishment for the vile actions of a few of their fans. This was revenue lost, and the teams got the message. They all committed, more or less, to what was a fairly visible, fairly robust anti-racism campaign. It’s not clear what it accomplished, which would be hard to measure, but it seemed an honest effort. That was before the virus, and before George Floyd.

Now, just as in the U.S., his death has triggered an explosion of protests worldwide. In Europe, much of the ferment was in sympathy with American Blacks, but even more is a reaction to their own home-grown racism. Even so, “Black Lives Matter” has caught on as a rallying cry, prominently displayed in the stadiums and on team jerseys.

The sports leagues on both sides of the Atlantic, conservative by nature, have had no choice but to respond to this moment. The virus has hit them in their wallets, and their hearts and minds have followed. They’ll do anything to keep fans buying, especially now, when they don’t have much to sell.

So the NFL has done a public one-eighty on Kaepernick. He remains unsigned as a quarterback — which is every fan’s loss — but his new film deal with Disney has surely gotten their attention. His stock is clearly rising.

Dan Snyder, owner of the football team formerly known as Redskins, finally retired that hideous name under pressure from his corporate sponsors. This will in turn put pressure on the Braves, Chiefs, and Indians to do the same. Snyder hasn’t settled on a new name — I suggest the Washington Subpoenas.

The NFL is not alone in feeling the pressure. In every sport, the leagues are hemorrhaging money. They can’t sell seats, and the players’ salaries are off the charts. If it weren’t for their television contracts, bankruptcy would be looming — and may yet be.

So they’re trying to put out the right messaging, but more than that, they seem to be making a financial commitment. Money talks, and just maybe it will have something new to say about racism.

Taking a knee has become a symbol, and we’ll never think of the gesture the same way again. That’s how much the death of George Floyd has resonated, not just in the U.S., but throughout the world. Especially in the stadiums.

So while I’d love to talk soccer — ask me anything about Jadon Sancho or Erling Haaland or Son Heung Min — I will instead point out that, even as Trump is roundly loathed throughout the world, some aspects of the American Experiment might just survive him. Please let it be soon.


Berkley MI

Friday 07/17/20

 

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