It’s a smug and not particularly daring thing, now, to tell blinkered idiots imploring writers to “Stick To Sports” that caring about sports and caring about the world are not mutually exclusive, and that sports themselves intersect in myriad ways with culture and economics and politics. They are not a silo apart from everything else and treating them that way can actually have some pretty destructive effects. Anyway, you know this already. I believe in you.
But not allowing yourself to be blind to, say, sexual abuse in women’s gymnastics, or publicly financed stadium boondoggles, or the shuttling of teenage soccer players across the globe—it bums you out. You become increasingly certain that sports have become corporatized and overemphasized in ways that have rendered them a societal net negative. You do the moral math and figure, if you never got to watch Neymar score another goal, but Qatar would stop building those stupid, labour-killing stadiums in summer desert heat, that would be a trade-off worth making.
Of course that’s a false choice, and of course I’m watching the World Cup. Another mutt-white American friend and I were at a bar last Friday to catch Spain-Portugal, sitting alongside a couple of friendly Russians and in front of a boorish pack of English bros. Our bartender was of Mexican descent. The game was very good, and the company was at least interesting. If it wasn’t a life-changing experience, it was the sort of experience soccer creates: day-drinking happily in congress with an international set of fans, cheering and groaning together, chit-chatting during the match’s lulls. This border-traversing fellow feeling is not so strong that it will heal the world, as FIFA half-claims it might, but it is a positive byproduct of a sport that otherwise produces so many wretched ones. When Cristiano Ronaldo scored his beautiful eighty-eighth minute free kick, everybody in the joint applauded. Because certain things are universally understood. They unite us, if only for a moment.