Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The Language of Football


It was the great philosopher Wil Anderson that first pulled me by the shoulders to tell me that language matters. In his stand-up act Wilosophy, Anderson used the example ofglobal warming and how we’re being spun out of it by politicians and business as usual stakeholders who like us to refer to it as climate change instead. In other words, our opinions on certain matters are often shaped through the language we are exposed to: are they refugees or are they queue jumpers?
The ability of languge to shape perceptions is not limited to spin, of course. Take, for example, the reading the prose written by those with elevated mastery of their language skills. Have a look at Christopher Hitchens, for example: a person I’ve heard Richard Dawkins, himself not a fluke, describe as “well read”. It definitely shows in Hitchens’ writing and his ability to convey complicated nuances with much precision.
Alas, the problem remains: we “the people” are too susceptible to language manipulations thrown at as with the help of the media. Actually, I will argue that the media itself is often the problem, and not only with Murdoch like cases. Take football, for example: why, do you think, didn’t the sport that is known through most of the world as football but is also known as soccer fail to become more popular in countries such as the USA or Australia?
Ronen Dorfan, my favorite sports blogger, came up with an interesting theory there (see here for the Hebrew original and here for the Google translation to English). Dorfan argues against the popular argument that football goes against American culture, and reminds us that Americans are comprised of enough immigrants from football/soccer loving countries to ensure the sport’s popularity despite potential cultural clashes. According to Dorfan, it is the big sports networks that hold football back: they’ve invested a lot of money in cultivating the NFL and other classic American sports, and have no interest in investing more money in other sports that would not see their incomes made larger but would rather divide their income across disciplines.
The beauty of Dorfan’s theory is that I can clearly see it applying to Australia. Have a look at the population of Australia: the vast majority are immigrants, the majority are recent immigrants, and the vast majority have migrated from football’s strongest fortresses (England, to name the most obvious). Clearly, culture is not to blame for football’s relative lack of popularity in the face of local codes.
If culture is not the issue then what is it that holds football back in Australia? As I have argued here before, I would say it’s the media with its demeaning attitude to football. More than other sports, football tends to be covered for its lesser sides: violence, the bogan nature of its supporters (racism always works!), or the relatively low figure score line when compared to AFL or rugby (as if that’s a disadvantage by definition). However, the simplest way for them to downgrade the sport is through the use of language: whereas the sport wants to be known as football, and even has Football Federation Australia running the show at the national level, the media would still have you call it “soccer”. Normally, when someone wishes to be called by a certain name, say “Moshe”, you would call that someone by the name of their choice even if it makes your tongue twist; not so in the case of football. Not when the majority of media reporters are ex AFL or rugby people, who know nothing about football/soccer other than that the day football becomes too popular is the day their income would be in danger. And that’s a strong motivation to apply the language tool for!

Image by beefy_n1, Creative Commons license

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