Soccer Mirrors Society…and the ole Art-Society/Society-Art thing

I wrote a post about my day job (soccer referee) and how The Game mirrors society, mainly in society’s problems. At the end I asked what does any of that have to do with writing/Art. I replied “a lot actually” so here is some of that expansion.

I tend to content-conceptualize (create stuff) about 5 years ahead of what actually ends up happening. I was interested in apocalyptic speculative fiction exactly five years before it started showing up in literature (genre or otherwise) to a large degree. I don’t say that as part of ruthless self-promotion—my friends and elders complain I don’t do that nearly enough let alone do so ruthlessly—I say it more as an admission of guilt, a failing of mine I really do need to fix. At this stage of the marketing game, apocalyptic lit is going to be passé before I finish and pitch any of the large numbers of work I’m still wrestling with—or as one colleague put it “foolin’ around with.” Here, this is pretty reflexive for me, maybe I oughtta learn from it, right?

It’s a well-worn topic that art reflects society and vice versa. It’s even been hashed over in a notorious (false) binary that it’s either one or the other—everyone knows it’s both/and not either/or. I’m not going there.

Soccer, “The Game” is not merely sport or athletic contest, it really is an art-form. I’d argue as a reformed super-fan of The Game, soccer is the most artful of all team sports (lacrosse a decent second to it). At the highest levels of soccer, kinetic skill produces a 3D expression via a round ball in space and time. Like any artistic endeavor, soccer is essentially an expression of the body with a focus: scoring goals—in art textual or visual expression with a focus on producing an artifact that interacts with the human community (world). Goals are seen as the possession or artifact of everyone, not merely the player achieving one. Fans and players alike treat goals scored with as much emotional attachment as readers (and writers to varying degree) do to artifacts.

Players like writers perform according to their level of skill. We can see this when a player at the youth level is working on skills that manifest their latent talent, and when a seasoned professional player employs well developed skill as an expression of their passion, desire, and developed talent. Creativity and the process of developing individual expression of it comes with time, how many of those 10000 hours have been committed to playing The Game both formally and informally. Writers have the same challenges and process.

I remember watching “Zizhou” Zidane in the 1990s when he was at the peak of his career. He was magical, every touch of the ball an expression of his creativity and well honed skill to make art in space with his body and with the ball. He had a knack for creating special “moments,” demonstrations of style and flash with the ball at key moments of a match. His goals were often exquisite and emotional experiences of genius, the impossible accomplished and done. Even if one hated the guy, they had to hold their breath as he manipulated other players and opponents merely with his touch on the ball and ultimately cheer with pure unbridled blissful joy when he finally struck and scored. I often found myself feeling pity for the antagonist, the Goalkeeper, who had to muster strength and courage in the face of such kinesthetic artistry and athletic cunning to even try to stop a Zizhou goal only to suffer defeat with the ball rolling beautifully around the back of the net behind him.

Writers like TC Boyle George Saunders are similarly skilled and expressive. When you read one of their sentences you find yourself holding your breath, confident you are witness to brilliance and cannot help but replay it, reread it over and over in bliss from the feel and rhythm of the words in your mind and mouth. Skill and craft combined with talent and creativity to accomplish a result exploding with paroxysmic bliss and triumphant relief.

In the same way as a fan, coach or official can see latent talent, witness the hunter’s instinct for the ball and the comprehension of space and how to use it in a young player who still makes as many mistakes as they perform well in competition, many journeyman writers show through their flaws; you know this is someone special to follow. One possible difference in writing, you almost never see the developing writer in published work, more likely only in workshops, classes and self-published on Amazon. One usually sees only the polished or developed writer’s product. There are exceptions of course if a still-developing talent has the needed connections and networking all capitalistic working writers ultimately require to forge careers. Although, I suppose young players in their journeyman stage don’t garner an audience much either as they develop skill and talent on city parks and back lots out of public view.

As a soccer referee, the art is in management and facilitation. Like writing, officiating a match can resemble an editorial endeavor. A foul is often a mistake (seven of them have to be committed in manner that’s careless) by a player either in judgment or skill. A good editor tries to facilitate rather than dictate how a work is written and flows. Similarly a good referee facilitates and tries to balance the flow or control the players’ behavior and performance demand.

The art in an official’s own performance comes from understanding the match around them, reading the players’ game at hand and responding accordingly to provide the very best platform to empower a player’s best performance. The creativity and talent is expressed in that highly subjective and highly right brained understanding and perception, the skill expressed in the very left brained process of applying Laws to behavior in the course of a defined time and space. Writers have to balance self-editing (left brain work) and creating content that is appealing and infectious (right brain work). The art is the balance of the two.

An editor I know used the metaphor of the Bentley-writing. To paraphrase a scathing critique of my own work a few years ago, ‘You have to strive for the Bentley work, crafted, perfection, performance, delivery, quality and everyone starts from the Buick or less in every piece of work.’ In soccer, Howard Webb, Pierluigi Collina—Bentley referees. Zidane, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Robbie Keane—Bentley players. They all started in the Buick realm, quality enough, latent talent, modest creativity and developed through work and focused effort to Bentley level performances, every game a new model or individual car. Tom Boyle, George Saunders… we all have a sense of which writers are Bentleys. Each book or story a model or individual car.

As a referee, I never really know exactly when I come close to a Bentley performance; I doubt I have yet. I know I’ve had some VW, possible Audi games. They’re different. They stand out. Players notice, even those on the losing side. I need those games, they motivate me to pull the whistle out of my bag the next time. The badge is the evidence that somebody believed based on my performance and knowledge that I was competent enough to be there in the first place.

Writing-wise, I’ll admit I’m still looking for a badge though I’ve had a few VW artifacts published. Maybe in writing the best game performance is that badge as well, a combination of an editor’s approval or belief. However, the few pieces I’ve scored publication, I’m not sure I call them VWs even. I still fume and spit over them. I can find sentences that are truly fucked up, at least in my own estimation even where others shrug and don’t notice (or care).

It’s hard to come away from a game where I performed competently but not brilliantly, and even in brilliant games with respectable feedback because the nature of officiating soccer in the US is such that the fan base is populated with a lot of bullies and thugs and it’s a rare game indeed to not be abused during the experience. Likewise a rejection from a publisher or a scathing critique session in a group workshop may or may not actually be an accurate indicator of the quality of my performance in the text. There are other variables involved that are often not at all about the work or even the writer at issue. All of that makes it hard for a journeyman to know where they are in the process. I only know when it works; when something gets through and ends up in print or on a URL.

As for art and soccer mirroring society: some of that’s the marketing part: does the artifact resonate with readers, with enough of them to part with money to cover the cost of doing it in the first place? Does the writer form and tell a story well enough that another editor sees the value that work exhibits and is persuaded to publish another work? Did the game thrill and delight the fans? Did the players’ performance sell out the stadium? Did the officials manage the game well enough to merit the next match assignment?

I talked in the other post about fans and ignorance, misunderstandings and how it doesn’t have to be that way, about fans and it being up to them to educate themselves. In the same way readers of Suzanne Collins’ highly filmic work are not likely to give a rat’s ass to educate themselves enough to appreciate David Foster Wallace’s less filmic work (they both have value and function, both are quality; though I’m biased toward the latter in saying it’s a Bentley vs. the former which is at least an Audi or Mercedes(?)). It takes a little work intellectually to process and conceive written works that are purely and essentially textual, not filmic. They have a niche audience.

I expressed frustration with the lack of education from established institutions of The Game and with universities and literary circles, there is at least some form of formal education accessible to readers when it comes to writing. However, even there, cultural boundaries and elements conspire to support or denigrate an educated reader who can appreciate more than the merely filmic genre slum bestseller. FWIW, I’m no snob. I loved it when Michael Chabon coined the term “genre-slumming” because I get that deeply, I dig “The Hunger Games” as much as I dig “Drop City.”

I am caught in the challenge of knowing where I am in the process, the arc of success as a writer as much as I’m caught in the challenge of knowing where I am in the success-arc as a soccer referee. Knowing that seems to be a key component that is vital to forging success. More than a million times I want to just bail out and quit. But like my day job, I have to feed a family and both jobs pay peanuts (because frankly society doesn’t give a rat’s ass about us, until we don’t show up) so I just keep doing it even if I don’t exactly know where I am and how I fit or don’t fit.

Perhaps my brother’s push to get me to risk venturing onto Amazon will help me more accurately place my work in the process.

At this point, I’m focused on the quality of the work; striving, or more accurately “straining,” to bang out a Bentley rather than a Buick or even a VW/Audi. That’s the day-to-day effort, the hours toward those golden 10,000 committed and accomplished.


Soccer Mirrors Society

“Hey, Ref! How could you not see that?”
“You’re supposed to protect the players, Ref!”
“Hey Ref! Which car is yours?”
“I hope you’ve got business cards, sir!”
“You’ve got to be the worst referee in the sport!”
“I’ll make sure you never referee again!”

These are just a few of typical invectives hurled at soccer match officials. The last four are actual threats intended by bullies to intimidate the target, and are technically and legally considered “Referee Abuse.”

Abuse is not an isolated experience for soccer referees on every level of The Game. In other countries, things have gone so far beyond the level of abuse reflected in those six common “critiques.”

Last month a Dutch club-linesman died from his injuries accumulated by two players who had attacked him after a match that they allegedly felt or believed did not go their way. There appear to have been indictments, sanctions and bans against the perpetrators in the aftermath and a great show of support for the man’s family and for officials in general.

FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, weighed in on the debate about how such an attack could happen.

“Football is a mirror of society and sadly, the same ills that afflict society – in this case violence – also manifest themselves in our game,” Blatter said on Tuesday in a statement. “Nevertheless, I remain convinced that football – through the example set by the tireless efforts of people like Mr Nieuwenhuizen – is a force for good, and we must continue to use its positive example to educate people against these wrongs.”

It is interesting to me that Nieuwenhuizen was apparently a volunteer… I wonder if it was an AR role or Club Linesman role (ARs are neutral referees with the duty to indicate offside infractions among other things whereas a CL indicates only whether the ball has is in or out of play). If he was working his own kid’s game, it’s likely he was a CL rather than an AR, however, Dutch club football seems to be a little different than it is here in the US.

What I found important in the article was the Sepp Blatter quote about [association; i.e. “soccer”] football mirroring society. I do see that in my job everyday:

• people tend to respond emotionally to stimulus,
• people do it mostly out of ignorance of the LOTG (failing to: research and know relevant info, apprehend/comprehend what it means to the players fans are watching and for the officials managing them),
• people don’t know how to disagree with another human being (or a highly trained expert) without it being essentially adversarial (and hypercompetitively so),
• people lack discipline emotionally and socially,
• people are inherently violent when they experience frustration with intense emotional components.

It doesn’t take more than a few days on a typical working class job site in the US, a few minutes on US highways, notice of the latest gunmen-on-a-rampage event (we have far more of them than any other 1st world nation), or the pervasive and perpetual bullying problem in schools, and political & corporate corruption to know what kind of society Americans in the US actually live in. We pretty much totally suck at things like emotional literacy, cooperation, healthy competition, justice and fairness, and intellectual actualization despite the fact that we do profess to care deeply with a high standard in all those areas.

Like American society, so goes The Game in the US. As match officials we are on the sharpest end of it. Thankfully I haven’t had anyone hunt me down or commit battery against me. I HAVE had the ole abusive gem, “hey ref, which car is yours?” [I was tempted to ask, “why, you wanna buy me a new one? I sure could use it.”] And that was during a match where I and my crew made almost no technical mistakes and managed an exciting match the players clearly wanted and deserved. I’ve had my worst-nightmare match and learned from it despite that the experience nearly ended my career (every soccer referee has at least one of those). I do make mistakes that I am quick to recognize and endeavor to remedy right then and there on the pitch. Others have endured worse. But there is just no legitimate excuse for the abuse we are subjected to. Not ever.
Even if an official does make an error in applying the Laws to the match at hand—trust me, we know when we do and work very diligently and hard to avoid making such mistakes in the future; many of us are professionally assessed and take a methodical approach to minimizing errors in future matches—those human errors can never be justification for others to commit abuse against a match official, volunteer or professional. If players & coaches can screw up (and they sure do) and garner fan forgiveness, so should referees be ultimately given that same sort of pass.

Unfortunately the goal presented at the end of Mr. Blatter’s statement has yet to be fully realized at any level of The Game. The general fan public is woefully undereducated about The Game, and most criticism of officials stems from gross ignorance of The Laws of The Game (LOTG) and from officials being prohibited from speaking in public about their decisions post-match. In the match environment, even immediately post-match, explanations and teachable moments are truly rare and usually impossible given match schedules and the emotional tensions lingering from the incidents that led up to the abuse committed.

As a Referee Instructor and Assessor (AYSO) and a paid match official (USSF & NFHS—my “day-job”), I find this failure to educate extremely frustrating. Almost every disagreement with match officials by fans and coaches alike stems from ignorance. The worst part for me is, it just doesn’t need to be that way.

Fans and coaches (and some players) do have resources to educate themselves, they can and should work on their emotional literacy and social skills, and many could use a little anger management education and practice. Unfortunately no one, with the exception of coaches (and players), can make fans do any of these things. Those are often subject to cultural elements that support or denigrate (de-motivate) such efforts. Unfortunately in the US, cultural elements conspire to denigrate such efforts to a wide and varied degree.

As match officials, we just have to keep doing what we’re doing and work to inspire our institutions to upgrade our processes and protocols. In the meantime we continue our formal and informal training on and off the pitch to the very best of our ability. My experience and that of my more senior colleagues, things aren’t going to change any time soon, so we keep up with skill sets that deal with the problems in the best way we know how.

What does this have to do with art or writing?
A lot actually. But that’s something for another post.