June 19, 2014
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Thursday, June 19, 2014. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
1) World Cup popularity evidence of democratizing effect of soccer
2014 is hardly over (we’re at about the halfway mark), but already we know what the biggest event of 2014 will be—at least the biggest event in terms of being a spectator event. That event is the 2014 World Cup games currently being held in the nation of Brazil. Why do we already know that it’s the biggest event that will take place this year? It is because right now roughly one-half of all living human beings on the planet will watch at least part of the World Cup games.
What we’re looking at here is also an indication of why the United States and many other industrial nations are basically outliers in terms of the most democratic sport currently enjoyed by the world. Soccer is one of those sports that simply defies the kind of logic that has played out in America over the last century or century and a half. For many years now, Americans have been told that soccer is the next big thing in this country. We were told that in 1975 when the New York Cosmos signed the Brazilian star Pelé. We were told that again in 1994 when America itself hosted the World Cup—something that most Americans no longer even remember. We were told that again in 2002 when British star David Beckham signed with the Los Angeles Galaxy team. We’re being told that again, but we’re being told that in a very different way, and this time it’s almost surely true, but in a way most Americans don’t expect.
But, first of all, back to the World Cup and why it matters. Perhaps no one explains this better than Matthew Clark of the Christian Science Monitor. He explains:
Rich nations and poor compete on a level field in a simple, fluid team sport controlled by players, not coaches. No timeouts. No hands. Just 90 minutes of hustle, skill, strategy, and cooperation.
As he continues:
In soccer loving nations, people live for the World Cup. Kids skip school. Workplace productivity plummets. Populist presidents call national holidays. Then, clad in their nations’ colors, fans gather around giant screens in city parks, pack into small living rooms, or swarm fuzzy TV sets in slums. With faces painted, they bite nails, gnash teeth, scream at referees, and erupt into spasms of glee if their team wins.
That explains about half of all humanity as the World Cup games are currently going on in Brazil. In a very extensive background coverage of the World Cup games, The Economist of London explains:
An interest in getting a ball to some sort of goal, by one means or another, over the opposition of another team has been shown by all sorts of cultures throughout history. But the particular version codified in Britain in the 19th century, which ruled out moving the ball with hands or anything held in them, quickly won the hearts and feet of industrialising Europe and many of its colonies, current and former. Simple rules (offside provisions notwithstanding) and no need for equipment, apart from whatever might pass for a ball, have allowed the game to flourish in the favelas of Brazil, the shanty towns of South Africa and the jungles of Myanmar. The notorious corruption of the sport’s governing body, FIFA has not stopped it enrolling more members (209) than the United Nations (193). In 2006 FIFA estimated that the game’s players, both serious and casual, totaled 300m [in terms of the team’s sport].
Now from a historical perspective, here’s the incredible anomaly. Here’s what’s so surprising. When Britain codified this sport and named it as football, commonly known in the United States as soccer, it did so in a way that basically reflected its own imperialistic ambitions, and yet it has taken off in the very lands were British imperialism was overthrown. Even where the British influence no longer remains in virtually any other aspect of life, in soccer it remains in a big way. In one sense, soccer may well have been Britain’s long-term greatest and most enduring import to the rest of the world. And one of the reasons for that is exactly what The Economist describes: it is the world’s most democratic sport. All you need is a ball or, as National Geographic magazine made very clear in a famous set of photographs just a few years ago, all you need is what might pass for a ball.
The frenzy for soccer explains why people will cross swamps, jungles, mountain ranges, and just about anything else in order to play the game or to see their favorite team play it. In some parts of the world, fathers and mothers throw their sons into the game of soccer in hopes that they will become that breakout star who just might not only escape the poverty of a village, but might make it big on the world scene.
That points to another anomaly in terms of the world picture of soccer, or what the world calls football. The richest nations don’t do very well. Of the largest nations in the world, Brazil and the United States are the only two that actually have teams involved in the World Cup.
There are some incredible peculiarities to the way soccer plays out in the world today. For example, in the United States, soccer is played, but it’s not watched. In China and India, the world’s two most populous countries, it’s watched, but it’s not played. But as The Economist summarizes, “The world does not just play football—it watches it, bets on it, argues about it and spends money on it.” Two different books have been offered in the last several years trying to explain football, but, more importantly, trying to explain why the world is as it is, explained by football. Franklin Foer’s book, How Soccer Explains the World, and David Goldblatt’s book, Futebol Nation, both attempt to explain why the democratic power of soccer has such a hold on the peoples of the earth and why this week roughly half of all humans will drop just about everything else in order to watch the World Cup or at least part of it. It also explains the nationalist frenzy that often turned into the kind of competition that ought to be played out in terms of team sports rather than in military hostilities. There’s something healthy about that. For the same reason that it is healthy that young people be involved in this kind of athletic endeavor and, in this sense, avoiding some of the hostilities and energy that might be directed elsewhere in less productive ways, the same thing is true, as it turns out, among nations. That’s what makes the World Cup itself as an international event also so interesting because nations that wouldn’t talk to each other, nations that have no diplomatic relationship whatsoever, nations that haven’t had any kind of contact ever in some cases, will find themselves facing each other, in terms of their national teams, playing out on the field of the World Cup.
With the World Cup in view, a fundamental question needs to be answered. Why, from the Christian worldview perspective, is sport such a big event among human beings? Why is it such a preoccupation? Here’s a good answer for that: God, to His glory and for our flourishing, gave us the gift of sport, created us physically in such a way that gave us the ability to play such sports, and gave us the relational ability to come together and create team sports. Everywhere there’s evidence of human civilization, there is, in some way, evidence of athletic activity and of some kind of sport. This tells us something about who human beings are and why there is such delight in such things. And, in my case, admitting that I pay very little attention to soccer or any other sport most of the time, when something like the World Cup comes around, I want to know why so many people are so interested; why half of humanity will give this event so much attention during these days. It tells us something about humanity and something about why children all over the world find their way to a ball they kick around as a team in order to score.
2) Heart, rather than parental pressure, foundation of successful athletes
And speaking of sports, there’s something that seems just to be true, and that is a ball on the ground appears to demand to be kicked and played with, done something with, not remaining on the ground stationary. There’s something about us that makes us want to do such things, and there’s something about children in particular that leads them almost immediately, when something like a ball appears, to be involved in very natural play. It’s the unnatural state of youth athletics in so many parts of America that has led David Epstein to write a very important article that appeared last week in The New York Times. As he writes in the headline, “Sports Should be Child’s Play.” He writes:
The national furor over concussions misses the primary scourge that is harming kids and damaging youth sports in America. The heightened pressure on child athletes to be, essentially, adult athletes has fostered an epidemic of hyperspecialization that is both dangerous and counterproductive.
He’s writing about the fact that many American parents now force their children into very specialized athletic activities, either individual or team sports, very early in life, and then they start to invest all kinds of money and all kinds of time and, thus, all kinds of expectation on the child involved in these athletic activities. One New York City soccer club proudly advertises its development pipeline, as it’s known, for kids under age six. They call it U6. The coach picks stars poised for an elite-level soccer, graduate to the U7 pre-travel program. “Parents, visions of scholarships dancing in their heads,” Epstein writes, “enable this by paying for private coaching and year-round travel.” And then he makes a central argument:
Children are playing sports in too structured a manner too early in life on adult-size fields — i.e., too large for optimal skill development — and spending too much time in one sport. It can lead to serious injuries and, a growing body of sports science shows, a lesser ultimate level of athletic success.
Epstein, who is the author of the book, The Sports Gene, makes very clear that the science is demonstrating that the parents who press their kids so hard, especially in elementary, middle school, and high school, actually produce the athletes that turn out in the middle tier, not the top-tier. The athletes that show up on the first team of the Olympics, the athletes at the very top of the game, are those who at some point in their childhood or adolescence adopted the game themselves or the sport and said, “This is mine,” and they gave themselves to it out of joy, not out of parental pressure. And furthermore, as Epstein writes, there is grave danger to children who are being forced into too much specialization, into too much athletic expectation to early, and brain concussions are just one part of the physical pathology that is now showing up in children who shouldn’t be showing up with the kinds of injuries and physical problems that they now have. There are those who are in their twenties who now, according to Epstein, are showing up needing serious orthopedic surgery and things such as hip replacement in their twenties. Epstein also explains that parents that force their children to choose one specialized attack sport, something that has a very clear offensive maneuver, often miss the point that the child can do far better in another sport if the child is allowed to experiment and to participate in a broader range of athletic activities.
The reason I draw attention to this article is not to give parental advice when it comes to athletic activities and children, but rather to point out the part that sport ought to play in an individual’s life. And the point that is made in this article is profoundly consistent with the Christian worldview: the player who adopts this sport for the sheer joy of it is going to do far better than the one who is simply forced and pressured to specialize and to excel. It turns out that success in sport requires not only the kind of athletic skills and abilities we associate with athletics, but also a deep investment of the heart and soul of the player in the game or the endeavor. And as David Epstein points out, with the World Cup in the background, that might go a long way into explaining why people from underdeveloped countries, with very little other than time and an open field and a ball, excel over industrialized nations pouring millions of dollars into organized soccer.
3) Report on stay-at-home fathers reveals resilience of God’s plan for human flourishing
Shifting from sport to the issue of family structure, just about a week ago we discussed the Pew Social Trends Research report that was released, indicating a doubling of the number of so-called stay-at-home dads between 1989 and 2012. Such stay-at-home dads are still a minority of American men, a very small minority, but there was a sizable increase, about 100%, between 1989 and 2012; jumping from 1.1 million stay-at-home dads to 2.0 million stay-at-home dads. Now there was a shortfall between the years of 2009 and 2012. The high watermark was about 2008, and that was also the high watermark of the recession that started in 2008, a recession that has been called by some economists a “man session” or a “he session” because of the inordinate impact of that recession upon male-dominated areas of employment.
But what I talked about when this story was first discussed was this: there was a tremendous amount of media spin on this as if this report indicates a massive shift in gender relations. The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN—you name it—just about every major news outlet was talking about this as if it is a major sign of change in gender relations. At the time, I warned that the data appeared to show no such thing. That, as a matter of fact, even though many of those fathers are at home and there was a vast increase, a doubling from one million to two million, of the fathers who were at home, this was not necessarily a sign that they were at home to take care of the kids, the customary use of the phrase stay-at-home dad. And now Pacific Standard magazine is out with a major analysis demonstrating that very point. As they write, “It is reasonable to call a father staying at home with his kids a stay-at-home father, regardless of his reason.” But when you look at the reason, it’s clear most of them, the vast majority of those who are counted a stay-at-home dads, aren’t there primarily to be dad. As a matter of fact, 21% of the stay-at-home fathers report that their reason for being out of the labor force was caring for their home and family. So that 21% of a very small percentage. That’s 21% of about 2 million. But 23% said they couldn’t find work; 35% said they were home because of health problems; and 22% were home because they are retired or in some form of workforce training or school. So when you look at this, about 80% of those who were counted as stay-at-home dads aren’t there to be dad. They’re there for some other reason, usually related to health or unemployment.
Now America is undergoing a very significant revolution in many moral and gender issues, but what we need to note here is that even as America is undergoing a vast moral revolution, a revolution that is indeed touching even the issues of gender and gender roles, there’s something that remains rather inflexible about the way people actually live. The vast majority of Americans, even when they say they agree with the simultaneous moral revolutions, still, in their own marriages and in their own families, in the workday decisions that they make and in the family structures they choose, basically choose a very traditional pattern. And even when you’re looking at a 100% increase in stay-at-home dads, even if every single one of them was choosing to stay at home as a dad, taking the place of what had previously been a stay-at-home mom, the reality is that that would be a very small percentage of American men and of American families. And then when you find out that the headlines, notwithstanding, about 80% of those who were counted in that number are there for some other reason than to be dad, you come to understand that this society seems to be, especially as driven by those who are its influencers, absolutely determined to declare that there’s a gender revolution in our midst.
One of the most interesting aspects of this is how the actual way most of us live demonstrates the reality of the Christian worldview. That biblical worldview tells us that God created the world and gave us the structures, even the structure of family and community and church, the structure of family, in particular, and the institution of marriage, for our good in such a way that every human society has found its way into a recognition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman and the family is the outworking of that marital bond. And, as it turns out, in most societies, even the most so-called progressive and liberal societies today, there is still a distinction between the roles of mothers and fathers and of men and women. There’s still a distinction between the husband and the wife. There is still a distinction in things such as the dominion of the home and housekeeping responsibilities. There is still a distinction when it comes to family and grocery shopping. There is still a distinction when it comes to child rearing and the different ways that customarily mothers and fathers are influencing their children, disciplining them, teaching them, playing with them, doing all the other things that parents do. In other words, there is a very important affirmation of the Christian worldview even in a report like this that is declared by the national and international media to be representative of a vast revolution in gender roles. It turns out that the big story isn’t a revolution. The big story is the continuity. The big story is the fact that the structures that God, in His sovereignty and in His mercy, gave us in creation still tend to be honored in life even by those who reject them in theory.
4) D-Day veteran escapes nursing home for 70th anniversary
Finally, my favorite story in the news of recent days: The Observer, a major newspaper in London, reports that one D-Day veteran was told by those who were tending to him in a nursing home in Britain that he could not attend the D-Day celebration in terms of the 70th anniversary. And so, Bernard Jordan, age 89, broke out of the nursing home, found his way to a fairy, crossed the English Channel, and attended, wearing all of his medals from D-Day. When Mr. Jordan escaped from the nursing home in Brighton and found his way upon a fairy, he charmed the crew into giving him a birth and a meal, and then he charmed the people on the other side of the English Channel as well. And there he stood with his fellow veterans, wearing his uniform and his medals, proof positive that when you have a veteran who stormed the beaches of Normandy in 1944, you have someone who is not going to be held down by authorities in a nursing home in 2014. God bless him.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com. Remember that we’re taking questions right now for the upcoming new season of Ask Anything: Weekend Edition. Call with your question in your voice to 877-505-2058. That’s 877-505-2058. That new season will begin in late summer. I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.