Notes on a Torontonian Batflip (with apologies to Clifford Geertz)

BatflipIt is odd that while I have waited years (9 in fact) for TFC to make the MLS playoffs, on the day it finally happened I found myself (like the rest of the city) devoting my sporting attention elsewhere. While MLS’s most hapless franchise finally overcame its own history, the city of Toronto was swept up in Blue Jays fever that hasn’t really hit this level in over two decades. This itself says much about where these two sports rank in the consciousness of Torontonians, and normally I would want to be pulling (and arguing here) for the soccer team in this battle for the hearts and minds of the city, but screw it – last night was fun to watch in every way possible (unless you’re Texan).

What happened through the first six innings of the game was still a fabulous game: it was close (in fact tied after 6), two great pitching performances, home runs, and what on TV seemed a great atmosphere inside the Dome. But then the 7th inning happened and made this game a legend that will be passed down in oral histories long after the end of human civilization. The 7th inning offered agony, injustice, karma, and redemption in 53 minutes of Torontonians or any baseball fan looking for meaning in the world. If there are gods, apparently they watch baseball.

But other processes were going on in Rogers Centre that are worthy of some examination:

  • Why I hate video review. Before the 7th inning had even begun, the Umpire crew had resorted to video review, or at least a conference about calls multiple times. Sport is not perfect, nor is it always just, but the entry of video review into sport has served to undermine the ability of any official to do their job. The crew’s reliance on video review sewed seeds of doubt in the minds of both teams and fans long before there was any need for the use of video on an actually controversial decision. Once the fans, teams and umps see judgement as fallible, everything becomes questionable. This is why there is Papal Infallibility: if you can’t be wrong, nobody can argue with you. Oddly enough it works in most cases – there may be occasional bad games, but those then stand out so badly that the officials are not allowed to work that level again (ususally); injustices (real or perceived) then become part of the legends of the game (Hand of God anyone?). By the time Martin bounced a throw of Choo’s bat allowing Odor to score on the weirdest error in post season history, there was little authority left for Umpire to fall back on. Instead we were treated to multiple arguments from the two managers over whether the run should count or not, and that doubt also fed the fans anger when the (correct) call was made. The umpire messed up by calling the play dead when the ball bounced off Choo’s bat. He compounded his error by reversing his call. He further added to the mess by then going through the charade of consulting with video review and the Head Office before sticking to his decision. It was the right call made in the worst possible way.
  • Home field matters. I mean really matters. I have argued about the affective power of fans before – the ability of a large crowd to change the emotion all the way down on the field of play, but the bottom of the 7th was a more convincing case than one that I could ever make. Following the bizarre events of the Rangers at bat, the mood was by all reports hostile or even dangerous – a number of beer cans had been tossed onto the field (or worse, onto those sitting near the field). It seemed just a fraction under the potential for full scale riot (which has been seen in Canada before following painful sporting losses – looking at you Vancouver). The Jays seemed perilously close to forfeit due to crowd behaviour. Instead, the Rangers cracked and caved under that pressure – three errors in three at bats, and then a bloop over the 2nd baseman tied the game. One error can be caused by anything, but three in a row – something that has never happened in over 100 years of post season baseball – must be down to the crowd. Affect and the intensity of it in that moment matter.
  • How do we read aggression in sports? Whoa. How race, masculinity and class intersect was on full display through that inning. The edge of hooliganism provides a fascinating look at what is considered acceptable behaviour and by whom. The beer tossing as an act of aggression and the woman who sheltered her baby from the flying beer (baby was hit by beer not beer can) provided the media with a wonderful narrative about masculine aggression in that moment as a helpless woman cowers to protect her child.  As much as the Toronto prides itself on being a multicultural city, it seems pretty clear from the TV that the typical Jays audience (and perhaps moreso in the playoffs) skews white. Would there have been such tolerance for the beer throwing at a Raptors game – which has a much more diverse crowd? While there were arrests for a whole series of incidents, they were for mischief, not anything worse (thankfully). Through the whole inning my twitter feed was jammed with tweets of “Stay classy Toronto” and that is just the point – class. Those with class would not behave so viscerally, those with class would not throw $12 beer, yet the camera then focused on none other than the brother-in-law of Senator Linda Frum, who was pointed out by the Rangers bench as being one of the individuals they wanted ejected from the game – yet he managed to talk his way out of it! Class, knowing our betters and how they would behave was on full display. But that doesn’t even touch on the actual game itself and how to read Texas pitcher Dyson’s words in response to Bautista’s bat-flip seen ’round the world. Following the game Dyson said that he wishes Bautista would, “Just kind of respect the game a little more.” How to read that outside of the context of Dyson just getting posterized by Bautista is in the idea of respect – how did Bautista disrespect the game in that moment? He didn’t. He is often characterized as a hot-tempered latino player (yes, that has long been a stereotype) and therefore in such a moment his actions are read in the context of that type and his own history, but really Bautista didn’t try to pick a fight with anyone as Dyson himself did with both Encarnation and Tulowitzski after the home run.
  • Some moments are just better than any Hollywood script and wouldn’t be believable if they were in a script. That Bautista come up and cranks a three run homer to give the Jays back the lead that many thought they had wrongly lost was too perfect.

The rest of the game held the intensity of that 7th inning, and on the final out there was an collective exhale from the city. No game will measure up to that for a long time. But as a final plug for why you should also devote some attention to TFC through their October please check out their answer to Bautista’s homer with Giovinco’s golazo.

 

Courting the Sport Vote – or not

Where does sport fit into the current Canadian election campaign? I throw that out there having heard much about climate change, niqabs, debt, and refugees, but nothing about sport (and little about healthcare) – there have been a few references to arts funding, but sport seems to be left out of this election entirely. So I’ll stand up a say why we should at least articulate something about it and leave it up to the parties to figure out what they believe would fit with their platforms.

To begin with I shouldn’t say that sport is completely absent from the politics of this country. The current Conservative government has made it clear that they will not contribute any funds to sports construction around the country – there have been many opportunities over the past few years – Toronto, Regina, and Quebec City have looked to the federal government for money for stadiums or arenas without success (and I’m inclined to agree that we shouldn’t be throwing massive amounts of money at huge corporations or the millionaires that hold cities for ransom with pro sports teams). The Conservatives have also brought in that tax credit for registering your kid in sports. This sounds great, hockey is not cheap, but of course this is one of those benefits where you have to spend money to get money – it disproportionately favours those that already have the means to pay for their kids sports and does nothing to improve the lot of those families that have limited means yet also want to have active kids. It also turns out that many of our great athletes that have left the country to ply their trade professionally elsewhere may have lost their right to vote, most famously Wayne Gretzky cannot vote yet endorsed Stephen Harper and the party that disenfranchised the Great One. So sport is there, but not in any way key to the debates. Sport is so absent that one of the main reasons that Mayor John Tory did not bid for the 2024 Olympics after the success of the PanAm Games was that he could not secure federal promises of support during the current campaign (so maybe we dodged one there with our extra long election campaign).

But what is new with sport? In this season of outlandish and unrealistic promises, why is there no platform for sport? Hey, promise that you’ll bring the Stanley Cup back to Canada and you’re sure to bring in a few votes, right? Go to a baseball game and show that you’ve jumped on the Blue Jays bandwagon with thousand of other voters. Actually, don’t.

Looking through the main parties platforms, only the NDP have thrown sport anything – a $28 million promise to fund sport for disadvantaged youth. Nothing from the Conservatives, Liberals, Greens, or Bloc. But sport matters. Even going back to a 2005 Conference Board of Canada report “Strengthening Canada: The Socio-Economic Benefits of Sport Participation in Canada” highlights the benefits of encouraging the entire population to be actively involved in sport. This is not just the health benefits associated with active lifestyles, but the authors also cite benefits to social cohesion, skills and the economy – buzzwords that all politicians love!

C’mon federal party leaders, hop in there and do something crazy that can snatch a headline for a day: promise a proper Challenge Cup for hockey (like the original Stanley Cup), get the CFL to work on that soccer league that is supposedly in the works, fund an infrastructure program that includes public pools, create cycling networks in major urban centres, expand and more fully fund the National Park system, there is an endless list of ways that sport can be worked into great policy for Canada, all it takes is some vision.

Work or Play?

FIFA 16 coversTomorrow is one of the most important soccer days in the year, not for any game in the calendar, but for the release of EA Sports FIFA16 video game. While it is just a virtual game, the importance of it to many kids (and yes, adults too) is in its ability to draw fans deeper into the real game. Many discussions between the boys at my son’s soccer practices have revolved around getting the game, who they want to play as, and which version or console they have. These boys already have a strong interest in the sport, but through playing the game it creates an attachment to teams and players that they may not have developed otherwise (why does a Canadian 10 year old regularly check on the results of Exeter City [English League 2] for any other reason than he spent most of a virtual season as their leading scorer?).

Each annual iteration of the game consists of some minor tweaks to game play and controls, but the most important change (and the reason people keep buying it) is the updates of team rosters to stay current with the latest changes in the transfer market and inclusion (and subtraction) of the stars of the game. For the first time the game will include a group of playable women’s teams – not the club teams, but the national teams of many of the participants in last summer’s Women’s World Cup. When EA first announced the women’s teams that were to be included in the game, one entry – Canada – stood out; Canada would be the only country in the game where the women’s national team would be playable, but the men’s national team would not. Sigh. Granted our women are consistently ranked around 10th in the world, while our men have spent most of the last few years ranked around 100th. So somewhat belatedly, EA Sports – based in Vancouver and therefore largely a Canadian game – announced that the Canadian men’s team would be playable in FIFA16. This is great for men’s and women’s soccer in Canada, being able to win the World Cup as Canada in this game (yeah I know there are already jokes about  how you’d probably have to turn the difficulty way down) gives the future players of this country a chance to dream, but it also gives them a chance to learn who currently plays for Canada. While Christine Sinclair is already familiar to many Canadians, now kids can follow the development of Cyle Larin, Ashley Lawrence, Kadeisha Buchanan, Tesho Akindele, and Jessie Fleming. If there is one thing the national teams need, it is to become that team that you want to be a part of as a fan or as a player. The women have that – just consider how they were treated throughout the WWC that Canada hosted this year, but the men have still struggled to find a strong following. The men’s team has the acute problem right now of not just needing to fill the stadium during its current World Cup qualification cycle, but needs to do so without its games having any current broadcasting deal. Despite the ratings that the women’s team brought in over the summer, the CSA and Sportsnet terminated their broadcasting deal just before Canada began its road to (hopefully?) the 2018 World Cup. FIFA16 with its ability to play as Canada helps can help to build that supporters base not just this year, but far into the future.

But not all has worked according to plan since the announcement that the Canadian Women’s team would be included in FIFA16. Last week EA was forced to announce that 13 players that were to be included were being dropped from the rosters of their national teams because they are currently players in the NCAA and their inclusion in the video game would affect their scholarships and eligibility to play on their US college teams. This affected 1 Spaniard, 6 Mexicans, and 6 Canadians – including Lawrence, Fleming, and Buchanan. Now EA made it clear that the players involved were not being paid in any way for their participation in the game (and with the thousands of men’s players the game includes there is no way they could compensate players and still make a game), yet the NCAA has held firm and insisted these women not be included in the game. What makes this so odd is that the women listed were not going to be included in the game as NCAA players – those teams aren’t part of the game anyway – the women were solely being listed as part of their national teams.

Don’t think for a moment that this is in any way about protecting the amateur eligibility of 13 women, this is entirely about the several thousand men that participate in NCAA college football and basketball. Or more precisely, protecting the NCAA and its billion dollar sports industry from having to compensate the thousands of football players and basketball players in their system. College sports is extremely lucrative, look at the success of March Madness or the BCS for how much college sports brings in through TV and advertising revenue. Yet its players receive no pay for their play. Well, okay they get scholarships and a college education for their efforts, but the NCAA as it currently functions, brings in billions in revenue for rather minuscule labour costs. It is such a successful system because for both football and basketball it is largely the only route to a professional career in the sport later on. Student-athletes (as the NCAA calls them) are trapped working on their athletic skills (and yes academic skills, but there is also a lot of controversy about that) for very little actual pay, in careers that already have limited timespans, in the hopes of becoming a pro after school. Yet players are not considered employees or workers by the NCAA. In

At least the US values its post-secondary education system (?)

At least the US values its post-secondary education system (?)

fact the players of Northwestern University recently lost a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision where they attempted to claim they were workers and therefore entitled to unionize. Now belonging to a union isn’t simply about pay, it is about many other protections from abuses of employers, and the ability to work as a group of employees to make working conditions better, but consider the discrepancy between how the players and the coach of these amateur players is compensated. Players receive a generous scholarship – as long as they are athletes at the school, but this is not actual pay. Pat Fitzgerald, NWU football coach, receives a $2.48 million pay package and only ranks 39th on the list of highest paid football coaches in the NCAA. Look across the NCAA and you will find that the highest paid state employees in most of the US are football and basketball coaches – yet players are not entitled to a fraction of the revenues that they generate for their schools. That is what drives the need to prevent 13 women from being able to virtually participate for their national teams in a video game – the need to prevent football and basketball players from similar participation – or compensation.

The need to protect the NCAA from its players has affected the possibilities for another Canadian as well. Sprinter Andre De Grasse won two bronze medals at the recent IAAF World Track & Field Championships in Beijing, yet was forced to forfeit his prize earnings from the meet as it would have prevented him from keeping his eligibility status in NCAA. Again, this has little to do with De Grasse receiving his rewards as one of the world’s fastest men, and everything to do with the idea that one of the more lucrative sports might find a way to pay their athletes. And this isn’t about some ideal of amateurism in sport – fans don’t care one way or the other if athletes are paid for their efforts, consider the eyes fixed on any major sporting event such as the Super Bowl, Olympics, Champions League, World Cup, etc. – amateur or pro, people watch.

It is a shame that one big step for the representation of Canadians and of women in a video game has been derailed by the greed of an organization “protecting” their amateur athletes.

Sports, Jingoism, and Refugees

I came across an article about Islamophobia and sport from Al Jazeera the other day, and while much of what is said in there rings true of how sport leagues and specifically in an American context (yes that includes Canada) promote a certain militarized patriotic ideal, the world of sport is more complex than Khaled Beydoun presents.

Supporting troops or selling war?

Supporting troops or selling war?

Yes there are problems with how sport is used: the close links between the military and teams – as much as I support the individuals who do put on military uniforms and serve, I am very uncomfortable with the constant tributes to serving Forces members at games and cannot stand the use of camoflage versions of team uniforms. It becomes too much and yet not enough, because I’m curious what sort of support the owners would give to individual soldiers outside of their using these troops as marketing opportunity. Taken too far it becomes a pantomime that you see in WWE. I remember the WWF (as it was at the time) vilifying the Iron Sheik – perpetual badguy in the staged wrestling and his transformation into Col. Mustafa during Operation Desert Storm. His defeat by Hacksaw Jim Duggan devolved into a orgy of American jingoism on the eve of war. Good theatre, but ugly sport and racism.

Question why we sing the national anthem prior to a game for a moment. I will be going to a Canada vs Belize 2018 World Cup Qualifying match tonight and will sing the anthem of the team I am supporting tonight. The national team represents the country and so I’ll grant it here. But when it comes to a Toronto FC game, or any other city based team in a professional sporting league for that matter, why am I singing the national anthem? Toronto FC does not represent Canada, it is one of three Canadian-based MLS teams, the rosters of which contain a smattering of Canadians. I won’t even argue the Blue Jays or Raptors represent Canada as the sole Canadian teams in their respective leagues (West Coast upbringing, so I’m a Mariners fan). Why should I sing the national anthem for a game between Montreal and Toronto, both of whom are based in Canada and can claim the anthem? At that point they don’t represent the country, they represent the city. Listen to the beginning of the next Premier League game you watch, there is no God Save the Queen – not even a Rule Britannia – instead the only anthem you’ll hear is the team’s anthem (if they have one).

Beydoun is right where he speaks about how sport is politicized by leagues (North American context again), and yet at the same time we are constantly reminded that sport is not the place for politics. Hence the NFL allowing the Washington franchise to continue to use a racist epithet for its mascot, yet sanctioning players who demonstrated solidarity with #blacklivesmatter. We are told that sport is an escape, and leave the politics out, but politics cannot stay out when sport is held up as a symbol of our culture and society. North Americans view sport as passive entertainment and nothing bigger than what it is, yet for all the fans’ and media talk of the “12th man” “home field/court advantage” we have not yet acknowledged that sport creates affect that extends beyond the stadium/arena. We watch sport to feel a part of something, for a sense of belonging; now that we belong what are we going to do with it?

bvb refugeesCompare that to football/soccer in a just about anywhere else in the world context. Sport means something – intensely. “Mes que un club” (More than a team) as FC Barcelona says. Groups form and bring politics to the sport and sport to politics because you cannot separate the two. I will admit this is not always a positive thing, you will get groups that promote racism and hatred, but they exist regardless of whether sport is involved or not. So while its easy for Beydoun to point at the monkey chants that black players face in places, I wish he had seen the other side of football supporters that is there. As the Syrian refugee crisis has worsened and thousands have made their way to Europe, only to be harassed, marked with numbers and literally walled out of different countries by governments, yet supporters at games around Europe have show solidarity with the refugees. It has even reached into the league organizations as the German Football Association (DFB) have begun a “Cross out Prejudices” campaign focused on the inclusion of refugees, and the dominant club in Germany – Bayern Munich has announced they will hold a training camp for refugees while donating 1m euros to refugee initiatives. Does this absolve sport of its wrongs? No of course not, but there is far more nuance to sport than Beydoun grants it.

I’m Still Here…and Why I’ve Been Away

Finally I feel I can resurrect this blog and keep it going again for a while. A quick explanation of why I’ve been away – most of my writing energies over the past year have been devoted elsewhere.

First, my Master’s thesis, and a related conference paper. So in October 2014 I defended the thesis titled: Global Game, Local Identities: The Social Production of Football Space in Liverpool. In it I make an argument that the city of Liverpool has come to depend on football as a means to build its economy around, and that the tourism that football generates creates different reactions in the local supporters of the game. I was very interested in the supporters trusts that I found in England and what they are looking to do with their involvement with teams, and that interest has spurred me on to continue my studies.

So the last year has been the first year of my PhD (still at York University and still in Geography). It has been a rush of courses (along with the defense), a student strike (during the frigid Toronto winter), and buying a new house (not recommended during a 1st year of a PhD – just in case you ever consider it). Now that I move into second year I am thinking that while the course burden is less, I’ll need to write something as I begin to study for my comprehensive exam sometime this winter.

The purpose of this blog may shift a bit as part of this, while before it was largely focused on the culture of football, and so is my PhD, I’d like to use this as both tool to work through the stack of papers and books for my exam, and also to place the culture of football within a wider context of sport in general. This will require some reorganization, so in the coming days/weeks I’ll be splitting the two interests into different pages here. I am very aware of how much this blog helped in my MA writing just as a place to process thoughts, but when faced with producing a thesis, it became difficult to justify the time spent writing a blog when I had something else to write.

On the Sexism of Football Scholars and Sports Critics

An excellent and insightful reflection on sexism, sport and (sigh) academia. I would have liked to have attended this conference except for the inconvenience of already being at the AAG in Tampa at the same time. I like to think I would have been arguing for the women’s game, but it makes me think about my own writing and how I incorporate my own postionality in the game.

The Sport Spectacle

“People want excellence in sports, and the quality of women’s soccer is not there.”

“Nobody wants to watch women’s sports.”

“The top women can’t take on the top men.”

These three things were said by attendees at a recent congress of leading scholars and journalists working on soccer.

The organizers of Soccer as the Beautiful Game deserve a lot of credit for bringing scholars and sports writers together. What follows is not a criticism of that conference, or of its organizers – quite the opposite. At this moment, it is not possible to organize a conference at which the above statements would not be made, unless one either excluded women and women’s football from all discussion, or invited only feminists to the table. The conference’s organizers worked to make sure that feminist scholars like myself were in the room because they are committed to changing the field.

As long as people writing about the men’s game write only about men, they can maintain…

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Ukrainian Ultras Update

(Love the alliteration)

Since my last post, things in the Ukraine have shifted dramatically. Maidan is over (sort of), Yanukovich has fled, and now the country is threatened with invasion by Russia – the Crimea already has been invaded.

Geopolitics aside, this is a soccer blog, so the quick news is that in the previous round Dynamo Kyiv had their home match moved to Cyprus due to the protests in Kyiv, but all the other Ukrainian teams managed to play their home dates. Kyiv, Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, and Odesa were all knocked out of the Europa league leaving no teams left to play in Europe. With the threat of war, the Ukrainian Premier League has decided to suspend play indefinitely and has cancelled its friendly against the US – which had already been relocated to Cyprus.

But soccer does go on. One of the suspended matches was Dynamo Kyiv vs. Shakter Donetsk, with the Ultras already having purchased tickets, they decided the show must sort of go on. They managed to convince the Olympic Stadium to open for a Ultras vs Ultras match in a show of Ukranian solidarity. Remember that Donetsk is in the ethnically Russian part of Ukraine that Putin is so worried about. Check out the link above for photos of the match. (From Ultras-tifo.net)

Update – Mar. 5. So despite rumors that the Ukr – USA friendly was cancelled, it’s game on in Cyprus.

Shaktar fans at the ultras friendly.

Shaktar fans at the ultras friendly.

Ultras and Uprising in Ukraine

Soccer again is at work in organizing protests, this time at EuroMaidan in Kyiv. The protests at Independence squre have been going on for months, yet the media coverage this has received in Canada has been minimal at best. Surprising, considering the amount of coverage the Orange Revolution received nearly a decade ago, and that even then the strong historic ties between Canada and the Ukraine were invoked by both the press and the Canadian government. As the crackdown in the last few days has at least been mentioned in passing in media reports I started to get curious about what was happening and turned to the ol’ web to find out what was going on.

EuroMaidan protester. Jan, 2014

EuroMaidan protester. Jan, 2014

Not surprisingly, one of the first photos I came across was from an Al Jazeera photo gallery of the protest, with a protester hurling something while standing in front of a burned out vehicle with the single word “ultras” sprayed across it. I don’t know the exact context of the “ultras” here, but again it reminded me of the importance that soccer’s ultra supporters have played in protests over the past few years in Egypt and Turkey. I have already written about the organizational capacity of these groups, and their experience in battling security as key reasons they have been at the front lines of these protests. No doubt the political leanings of these groups and tendencies for them to support anarchic causes has also played a factor in their involvement in protests. Of course, being supporters of specific clubs that have their own historic identities in some way influences the outlook of the ultras as well. I doubt Lazio ultras would rush to the barricades to support a socialist revolution in Italy, just as St. Pauli fans wouldn’t be joining in a right-wing protest in Germany (well, they might, but on the other side).

So a quick search through other sights quickly showed me that the “ultras” photo, while not definitively linked to soccer ultras, likely has some tie to them. A December counter-protest organized by the Party of Regions (President Yanukovich’s party) was described by one witness as farcical as they attempted to mock the Maidan protests not far away (from Maidanua.org):

The program of the Party of Regions demonstration was somewhat comical. I watched the very long (20 minutes) and boring speech by Parliamentarian Oleh Tsariov on Ukraine’s First National TV channel (the state-owned broadcaster). He attempted to ridicule the Euromaidan demonstrators’ chant “Khto ne skache, toy Moskal”, but many in the crowd misunderstood, and actually started jumping. The chant that Tsariov was ridiculing originates from the “Ultras” wing of the Ukrainian National Football fan club, and roughly translates as “who is not jumping is a Russky” (“Moskal” is a term that connotes Russians, but is about as demeaning as “Yankee” or “Newfee”). During the original Euromaidan demonstrations (prior to November 30), the chant was popular among students, and playfully used by them as a way of keeping warm. Clearly, some Party of Regions Parliamentarians missed the young peoples’ humour.

Here the counter protest mistakenly seized on a chant of the opposition that itself originated from soccer ultras. Considering the history between Russia and the Ukraine you think the officials would have been more careful in their selection, but seeing that it was a demonstration composed largely of Russians from Eastern Ukraine I wonder if language was a cause of the misunderstanding.

But I do not mean to imply that this is simply a division between the two main ethnicities of the Ukraine. While the east tends to support the government, it is not definitively so. The ultras of Metalist Kharkiv, Dynamo Kyiv, and Shakter Donetsk issued a statement that, “All anti-Maidan supporters are whores.” Bluntly put, but they have made it clear to their members not to participate in any actions against EuroMaidan. Again, as in Cairo, as in Istanbul, the groups of ultras that are normally bitter rivals have found common cause in supporting public protest. Note that both Donetsk and Kharkiv are cities in the supposedly pro-Yanukovich East.

As I write, the government has announced concessions. I don’t know what the short term or long term prospects are based on how rapidly things seem to have changed over the past few days, but as the protests begin to spread to other cities and if this draws into February, it will again touch on soccer. Both Odesa and Donetsk are taking part in the Europa League – where the eyes of football fans and the media will be on the game and the stands of two Ukrainian cities.

 

Tigers vs. Watermelons

So while a whole list of things have happened in the time since I last posted, the one that I choose to start writing about is the other – other – football: the CFL.

Tonight is the 101st Grey Cup, the Canadian Superbowl of mounties, bilingual anthems, and roughly 80 Americans running around trying to win a game for the two smallest-market teams in a small-market league: Hamilton vs Saskatchewan. Now I like the Grey Cup, I’ve got my boys into it by bribing them with chicken wings, potato chips and pop, but it is distinctly Canadian in its spectacle. The week prior to the game involves multiple parties for all of the eight teams in the league, a parade, pancake breakfasts, horses being taken into bars for a drink, and finally a game, but knowing that the hosts would also be playing in the game this year made it that much more special. Regina is a city that loves its team, but also with generations of people from Saskatchewan moving elsewhere in the country (the demographics only recently reversed) it seems that the rest of the country also loves the Roughriders (apparently they sell more merchandise than the rest of the league combined!). Going to a ‘Riders game means that they are the home team just about wherever they play. Fans hollow out watermelons to wear as makeshift helmets and the stadium tonight is a sea of green. So here it is. This is success for a small market team, they have become the biggest thing in the league by being the smallest.

After a scuffle, stewards allowed the banner to be shown

After a scuffle, stewards allowed the banner to be shown

The lesson here is transferable to soccer. One of the stories I have been following over the last few months is the drama of Hull City AFC and the changes being made to the team by their owner Assem Allam. He has taken the small team and with some big investments managed to lift them into the premier league, but the cost to the club is the name and the sense of ownership by the local fans. While he hasn’t messed with the colours  or personnel the way that the owner of Cardiff has, Mr. Allam has decided that the name that the team has had since the beginning of time will not help him in building Hull City’s global brand. Hull City AFC will henceforth be known as Hull Tigers. The change has been explained by Allam as one that is necessary to distinguish the team at a global level: he says that nobody understands the AFC, or Athletic Football Club, so that is gone. Next up, the ‘City’ in the name is nothing special and kind of redundant, so that’s gone too. That leaves lots of space for the mascots, the Tigers. Now changing a name and making it sound like an American franchise team was bound to go over like a lead balloon with some of the fans, and many have protested the changes. I should note that the change from Hull City to Hull Tigers is not official, as it will not be approved by the Premier League prior to April. In the meantime, there will be a fair bit of noise from the fans that don’t approve of the change: at the weekend match against Crystal Palace stewards scuffled with fans who unfurled a “We are Hull City” banner across the front of the seats.

So the motivations are that Allam wants a financially stable team, one that can stand on its own and that can compete on a world stage. Now I haven’t seen the Hull financials, but judging by the fact that they’ve been around for over 100 years I’d say they’d been fairly stable prior to Allam’s involvement. Jumping them up to the Premier League took a significant investment by Allam, and the sort of funds that many a team could only dream about having access to, but then the stability becomes reliant on the largess of their benefactor. And that’s where things so often fall apart, Allam expecting that football is somehow an investment strategy. Yes clubs are raking it in off the fans that pass the turnstyles every week, but don’t get into club ownership because it’s a place to make a quick buck. I had sailing described to me as standing in a cold shower and throwing money down the drain, football is not so different: you still get wet and your money drains away. I don’t think many owners do look at it as investment, they see it as an ego thing (Abramovich at Chelsea being a classic example), rarest of all is the one that does it just for the love of it all, I’m thinking Dave Whelan at Wigan. Whelan was so excited at the FA Cup, he looked like a kid, but then he was a player and seems to value the importance of stability in a team, even if it means a relegation. Allam clearly got involved for ego, and now wants a financially stable ego, but at a level he finds more appropriate to his needs and unfortunately for Hull that means the EPL.

But in trying to sell the Hull Tigers to the world, Allam is forgetting that perhaps it is the first word in that name that hurts the marketing the most: Hull. It takes years, even decades to build a fanbase of the sort that Allam wants and is no instant sell based on cute stuffed animals that will available in the gift shop. Hull just isn’t the global draw that Allam wants it to be, yes they are the 2015 City of Culture (or is that Tiger of Culture?), but it’s not London, Manchester, or Liverpool – cities that mean something around the world. In the globalized world Hull is a distinctly second or even third tier city, without the global punch that those other cities have. He can change as much as he wants but without the major trophies – a League title minimum, or success in Europe. Hull will just be one of those other teams that people are aware of but don’t really back.

Marketing the team this way goes against the whole marketing program of the Premier League this season. What happened to #youarefootball if one of the owners can come along and rip the heart out of the team? Or was that whole #youarefootball just some way to get some of the more uppity fans off the league’s back? Never mind, I think I know that answer. For a league that markets itself on the importance of fans and the supporter culture, Hull City (and Cardiff City) are doing a great job of alienating those fans that they say are so important. Fans also crave authenticity and belonging, and if Allam has just kicked many of the most passionate Hull fans to the curb, how does that create the atmosphere needed to draw in others?

Meanwhile in Canada, a team that has always been about small is actually quite big because they haven’t tried to become the Dallas Cowboys. Oh, and by the way, the team is publicly owned – tell me you weren’t surprised.

You and Whose Army?

When is a racist chant not racist chant? That all depends, according to the British Prime Minister David Cameron.

The English FA recently informed Tottenham Hotspur fans and the club to drop references to themselves as Yids in their chants, to the point of threatening banning orders or criminal charges. The team is located in what was once a very Jewish neighbourhood of London, and in other times was branded by derisive anti-Semitic names by opposing fans – this includes hissing at the Tottenham fans to mimic the sound of gas chambers during the Holocaust. Times change and although one would hardly describe the White Hart Lane neighbourhood as Jewish now, the identity has stuck with the club. Fans calling themselves the ‘Yid Army’ and singing songs of their link to that Jewish past are seen by some fans has having reclaimed those derogatory terms and given them a more positive association.

Hotspurs fans hoist their flag

Hotspurs fans hoist their flag

Yet it is this same history and identification with their Jewish history that played a role in the recent troubles some of their fans found themselves in last year while visiting Rome to play SS Lazio, a club associated with fascist ultras and a history of being supported by Mussolini. With the very clear presence of anti-Semitism still around, is it possible to reclaim a term like Yid, even as a sort of historical reference to the clubs old roots?

No. As in the above example, the possibility of real anti-Semitism just makes it problematic for fans to continue to refer to themselves as Yids, especially when one Spurs fan estimates that only about 5% of the current fanbase is Jewish. The word hasn’t been reclaimed, it has been appropriated. Non-Jewish Spurs fans can revel in the idea of being the oppressed minority for the duration of the match and leave the term behind as soon as they remove their scarf or jersey. Actual Jews whether they support Spurs or not do not have that luxury. It may not be intended as hate speech, but it certainly is not free of that racist context – even when used in jest.

In steps the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, who in the past has blessed the electorate with his opinion of Luis Suarez’s suspension for biting another player. Cameron wanting to appear to stand up for the little guy, says that fans using the term should not be prosecuted. How very generous of him. It’s okay to use a derogatory term about a minority religious group with a history of being persecuted because, “it isn’t motivated by hate.” I can’t wait to see a Spurs supporter dragged before the court and use the Prime Minister as his defense witness.

Of course the response to all this from some Spurs fans was to chant “We’ll sing what we want” during their recent game, although the club has opted for a middle road of surveying its fans and hoping they will voluntarily drop the chant of their own accord.

This is very different from the YSA chant that MLS has tried to stamp out. “You Suck Asshole!” while offensive in a potty mouth sense, does not target anyone other than the opposition keeper, nor can you really make this out to hate speech. Maybe the MLS is afraid that YSA is a gateway chant that will lead to harsher chants in the future?

The Yid Army is also clearly different than many of the North American sports franchises that continue to cling to racist mascots endorsed and marketed by the club. Any Jewish associations Tottenham have had have always been informal and adopted by the fans. In North America the endorsed minority of choice would be Native Americans with the Washington Redskins being the most egregious example, but let’s not forget the Atlanta Braves with their tomahawk chop choreography and the Cleveland Indians and their caricature logo. I’ll throw in the Chicago Blackhawks and Kansas City Chiefs as still problematic in their use and depiction of Native Americans as well. All of these are offensive on one level or another, yet completely acceptable to their sports organizations and many in their fanbase. However, I don’t see any of those franchises making any moves to change their identity anytime soon, they’ll cite the history associated with the name just as much as Cameron excuses the use of anti-Semitic terms as part of Tottenham’s heritage.