Japan has recently witnessed a few sports revolutions, some that may rival even that great Greek innovation where athletes started wearing clothes. Japanese soccer, for instance, has risen from obscurity to become a premier spectator sport. Remember the exciting World Cup victory of the Japanese women’s team last summer against the USA? For about two weeks afterward my friends in America pretended not to have been paying attention. One even claimed to be confused about the final score:
Japan 2 (3 – 1) 2 USA
He thought there was something fishy about the Americans losing a point, i.e., going from two points to one. While his confusion seems laughable to those of us in the know, it highlights a problem I’ve always had with soccer scoring. Specifically, why do all goals have to be worth the same number of points? But I’ll get back to that later.
Baseball was once the primary source in Japan for ball-passing, low-scoring team sports entertainment, but soccer has replaced it in many markets around the country. Seemingly this is because soccer doubles the fun by doubling the number of scoring areas, but for some reason in spite of this—and in spite of the much larger size of each goal—soccer scores still usually run far lower than baseball scores. You’ve seen how crazy fans can get over a meager 1 – 0 final.
There may in fact be a connection between low-scoring sports and hooliganism. The long intervals between interesting developments in a soccer game leave many fans with nothing else to do but scream obscenities at each other. Contrastively, baseball hooliganism is practically nonexistent. Baseball derives from the English gentleman’s game of cricket, which typically includes tea and naps during each match. Baseball’s seventh-inning stretch is not for fans to stretch their legs during an intense game, as some would believe, but rather to wake them up and remind them that soon they’ll have to clear the stands and go home. Many of them don’t even think about the final score until they turn on their car radios in the parking lot.
If I sound dismissive of soccer and baseball it’s because I grew up in a very different set of sports traditions: basketball and American football. Basketball is like soccer except that the players are allowed to do what every soccer player in the world instinctively wants to do, which is to stop kicking the ball around and pick it up with their hands. Basketball’s two goals are also placed at more reasonable distances from each other, not only allowing for more scoring but also allowing city sponsors and team owners to put a roof over the fans’ heads.
Basketball is admittedly simple and repetitive, and arguably only stimulates the lower portions of the brain. American football, however, has turned into one of the most complicated sports in human history. There are rules governing everything from where to place your foot before play starts to how you can celebrate after scoring. They have rules about the ways and places you can touch your opponents, about who can touch the ball, about when you can move and when you have to stand perfectly still. Crossing the goal line with the ball gives you either two or six points, depending on the situation, and sometimes even gives two points to the other team. The only real “foot” and “ball” connection is when you’re surrendering the ball—punting—to the other team. It’s all very confusing. If football players weren’t wearing helmets they’d probably be scratching their heads much of the time.
My choice for the simplest sport in the world would have to be planking. Equipment: a camera. Rules: lie facedown and motionless in the oddest or most dangerous place you can find. Training: strengthen stomach muscles and reduce human dignity to zero. In the cosmological scheme of things, planking can’t be any sillier than covering your clothing with advertisements and running back and forth on a pitch for 90 minutes.
Go! Plank! Win!
There’s no “I” in “Sport”