Sunday, July 10, 2011

Culture vs. Institutions: The Soccer Edition

Brazil and the United States battled today in soccer. Brazil: a nation of 200 million dedicated exclusively to soccer – perhaps the #1 soccer-nation in the world. VERSUS The United States: a nation that devotes most of its vast resources – its time, money, and best athletes – to... baseball, football, and basketball. Let's face it, we don't even call soccer by its proper name.

But this was also a battle of culture versus institutions. Of markets versus states. And when it comes to supporting sports, markets have a bias towards testosterone. Without government intervention, men have many more incentives than women to devote their lives to sports. And Brazil doesn't intervene on behalf of women. The United States does.

Yes, I'm talking about the 2011 Women's World Cup Tournament.

To understand today’s match, we need a little history of US institutions. In 1972, the United States passed a law called "Title IX," which requires educational institutions to devote equal resources to male and female athletics (or any education program/activity receiving Federal financial assistance).

American universities were spending a lot of money on their men's American football teams, and they wanted to continue to do so. But how can you maintain football expenditures and also find money to spend on women's sports teams? Well, first, you cut expenditures on other men's sports... like men's soccer. (This helps to explain why we lag behind the rest of the world in men's soccer. Title IX implicitly encourages our best male-athletes to play something else.) You also, obviously, increase the money that you spend on women's sports – on any women’s sport you can find.

Title IX thus produces incentives for millions of little girls to play various sports. Think about the incentives for parents to support their daughters. Take my cousin, for example. He was coaching his amazing son to be a bowler. (They’re both really good, having both bowled perfect 300 games on pro-shot lanes.) His younger daughter was tagging along at the lanes, bowling for fun. Somebody in the bowling alley noticed that she was pretty good, so he mentioned something to my cousin. "Ever heard of Title IX?"

This question set in motion a bowling career for Jennifer Vreeland. She wasn't so keen on joining the school bowling team at first. Frankly speaking, it wouldn't have happened without the motivation of her father, who, in turn, was motivated to get her a scholarship because of Title IX. Yet, Jenn grew to love the bowling team. By her senior year in high school, she was team captain and enjoyed self-esteem, camaraderie, and good health thanks to Title IX. Today she is an NCAA bowler on scholarship at St. Francis College. In her first season, she set a new team record, scoring 288 in an important match.

This is a personal anecdote, and there are literally millions more like it across America. Mothers and fathers recognize that by encouraging their daughters to play sports, they give them a better chance of getting into college – and getting scholarship money.

And that brings us back to today's AMAZING victory of the United States over Brazil. Yes, you guessed it. Today, institutions triumphed over culture. And it's not the first time. US women's soccer is a dominant force in international sports. If you haven't heard what happened in today's game... well, find out. This game is one for the movies. I can't do it justice here. Seriously, if you had pitched today's story to Hollywood, they wouldn't have taken it because they would have thought it unbelievable. And the victory is due, in part, to Title IX.

The case I'm making here is not meant to diminish the powerful influence that culture can have. Brazil has a smaller population and a smaller economy than the United States. Still, they have an incredible team, including, arguably, the best player in the world. But Brazil doesn't invest in women's sports the way that the United States does. (Interestingly, the American broadcasters on ESPN questioned just how great Brazilian women's soccer might be if only their country actually invested in it.)

The bottom line is that there are a number of factors that determine how well a country's national team does. The obvious are population size, income, and culture. But one factor that should not be overlooked is government action, especially when it comes to women's sports.

With this in mind, I believe that the United States has one of the greatest soccer programs in the world. Our nation may not yet have won a men's world cup trophy, but we don't really need national teams to inspire boys to play sports. Millions of fans tune in to watch high-testosterone professional league games. Ultimately, sports should promote self-esteem, camaraderie, and good health for the whole population. If you rely exclusively on markets, you only provide incentives for half of your population to play. You should thus judge a nation by the policies it puts in place to incentivize the other half of its population.

Congratulations to the US women's soccer team. Score another victory for Title IX. And God bless the United States of America.

7 comments:

  1. How funny, I was just reminded of your comment in class last semester on Title IX when I heard the news about the US women's victory!

    I'm curious about why many parents enroll their kids in soccer programs, rather than football or basketball or our more popular college sports. Perhaps that's where culture might provide an answer?

    -Stephanie Lio

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  2. Don't really buy the underlying argument.. My thoughts: http://www.rolandstephen.com/WordPress/2011/07/11/not-really/

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  3. @Stephanie- I think you might be right.

    @Rolo- Thanks for taking the time to blog on this! You make excellent points - esp. about men's football taking up more resources from men's soccer than women's sports ever will. As for the growing interest in men's soccer in the US... compared to where it was, it's a huge jump. But compared to where it is in other countries, it's nothing. As for a fan-base for women's sports, I'm pessimistic too, which is why I think Title IX is so important. We got enthusiastic about our women's team in 1999, but then the interest disappeared. Now it's back... I would love to see it continue, so I hope I'm wrong about this :-)

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  4. You really need to learn more about the derivation of different abbreviations of the name of the sport before you make silly value judgments about association football's "proper name".

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  5. @Stephanie- Just a theory I'm throwing out there (I'm no expert), but perhaps many of the parents enrolling their kids in soccer may have immigrated to the US or are themselves children of immigrants.
    With "futbol" being such a dominant and popular sport in many countries outside the US, I could definitely see myself (if I was hypothetically a parent who grew up abroad before moving to the US) enrolling my child in a soccer program. Unless I was fascinated by American Football or Basketball from the get-go, I would definitely lean more towards seeing if my kids had any talent or interest in soccer first.
    The US is a historically younger country and different sports got a chance to "grow up" along with it. But perhaps because of so many people enrolling their kids in soccer, give the US a bit more time and I wouldn't be surprised if we soon all catch the futbol bug as well! Judging by the reactions of the country after the last women's and men's World Cup, we may have been bitten already. =)
    This could make an interesting research project: will the data, if any, reflect some kind of relationship between kids' soccer enrollments and whether they have foreign parents (and perhaps more so from some countries in particular over others)?

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  6. amazing information, I really like to read about it

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  7. I agree about spending a lot of money on their men's American football teams,.

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