Take the high road

Cold and petty

Since we’re in a (seemingly interminable) international break before embarking on a three week stretch where we’ll play every three days (scheduling!), I thought I’d take a moment to discuss a couple other recent events in the football world. After all, this was originally intended to be a broad football blog and not “just” Liverpool. The first event begins close to home with the USMNT’s qualifying campaign for the World Cup which was awarded via bribery and is being held in a petrostate that uses people just this side of slave labor to accommodate the biggest sports event in the world. Am I setting the stage obviously enough? Good. Because we’re going to be talking a bit about ethics here.

USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter scheduled the final match of this window, against Honduras, in Minneapolis. In the first week of February. Any casual observer of climate and weather patterns in the US should know that Minnesota is pretty ferocious at this time of year. In fact, it can get pretty extreme in other parts of the year, too, since it’s basically dead center in the middle of the continent and doesn’t have ocean currents to ameliorate said climate. That’s a long-winded (Me?!) way of saying: “It gets really cold there in the winter.” Game time temperature was just above 0° Fahrenheit and the wind chill reduced it well into the double digit negatives. I don’t know how many of you have done any serious labor or sports in extreme cold but it’s pretty uncomfortable. It’s harder to move. It’s harder to breathe. Every time something impacts you, you feel it much more than you would in saner temperatures. And, of course, if you don’t keep moving and doing those harder things, your core temperature drops and you end up physically impaired. That latter situation is exactly what happened to two members of the Honduran squad, including their starting keeper, who were unable to continue after the first half and had to be subbed out.

This whole situation occurred because US Soccer, as an institution, is small-minded. They don’t think about the bigger picture that accompanies their actions. They don’t look beyond their provincial perspective. In short, they’re petty and this was a perfect example of that pettiness. Berhalter’s response when confronted with the aftereffects of the match was to essentially say “They hit me first!”, just like a child. To wit: “When we go down to those countries, and it’s 90 degrees and 90% dew point and it’s unbearable humidity and guys are getting dehydrated and cramping up and getting heat exhaustion, that’s the nature of our competition.” To that I can only say: Take the fucking high road.

It’s not the “nature of our competition” to put players in dangerous situations. Hate to be the geography teacher here, but Honduras only has one climate zone. Costa Rica only has one climate zone. If we play a match in those nations, it’s often going to be hot and humid because they’re in the tropics. The US is large enough to have the luxury of many different climate zones. This match, in fact, was originally located in Portland, OR, which still would’ve been cold, but wouldn’t have been insane. Gregg decided to move it to Minnesota. His pre-match justification was that he’d picked the three sites in this window (Columbus, OH; Hamilton, ON; Minneapolis) because of the short flight times between them. Putting aside the laughable idea that spending one more hour on a plane would somehow impact the preparation/readiness of professional athletes, let’s examine the actual numbers. Minneapolis is ~1400 kilometers from Hamilton. You know where else is 1400 kilometers away? Atlanta. So, no, travel times had nothing to do with it. He knew it was wrong and just assumed that most people wouldn’t question his math when thinking about flyover country.

Instead, his reasoning was that this was “home field advantage” for the US. Most of the responses I’ve gotten to my posts on Reddit have been along those same lines. “They do it-!” “Elevation-!” “Humidity-!” One was even more specific: “In Minnesota, they throw snowballs. In those smaller countries, they throw bags of piss.” So, what you’re saying here is that you want to be compared alongside the people who throw bags of piss? Or maybe we could, instead, take the high road and just beat the weakest team in the Octagonal straight up, like everyone knows we can? Because extreme weather conditions don’t just affect their players. They affect ours, too. In essence, what you’re doing with those conditions is introducing variance to the game that already has more variance than almost any other organized team sport. As the favored team, what you want is to reduce variance, not increase it. In normal conditions, this US side should overwhelm this historically poor Honduran side, full stop. But with the ball bouncing funny off frozen turf or headers making people slow down a step because it hurts or that step being even slower because of the cold, you’re just setting up potential moments in football matches that can often contribute to a loss or draw that shouldn’t have happened.

So, no, there’s no reasonable basis for it whatsoever. And, again, the cold impacted both sides. What Gregg and his fellow provincials at US Soccer decided was that we were going to lower ourselves to the petty tactics that many of these smaller nations use because they know they’re at a disadvantage, especially now with the current generation of talent that the US has on hand. But that lowering of USMNT meant that he was endangering the health and safety of his own players in order to prove that he and US Soccer could be just as petty as anyone else in CONCACAF. I mean, I know it’s kind of a joke to assume that concern over the safety and well-being of the players should be at the forefront of everyone’s minds (Premier League scheduling rant incoming…), but it should probably be something to at least consider before something like this happens again. The fact that Berhalter was responsible for this and apparently no one at US Soccer thought it was a moment to step up and suggest that this wasn’t really a good idea is just endemic to the whole organization. From choosing Berhalter in the first place on down, it’s just a series of bad decisions that simply screams for an outright purge of the entire executive level and the exorcism of the similarly provincial MLS from it, as well.

“Rape Rovers”

And speaking of needed purges to boards of directors… Raith Rovers is a club in the second tier of the Scottish pyramid (known as the Championship, just like their southern cousins) which is pushing for promotion to the Scottish Premier League. But they’re lacking a bit on the offensive end and decided to try to adjust that in this window by signing David Goodwillie, a striker of some repute who’s talented enough to have spent time with Dundee United, Blackburn Rovers, Crystal Palace, and Blackpool. David also has a bit of a problem with the old ultra-violence, having been convicted of assault three times. That problem also included the rape of a woman alongside teammate, David Robertson, back in 2011. The Crown Office didn’t bring charges, but the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority determined that she had been raped and awarded her £11,000. She later sued in civil court and won a further £100,000 judgment. Goodwillie appealed and was denied. With that on his record as of 2016, Goodwillie’s tour of the PL was over and he ended up playing amateur football for a season and then joined Scottish League Two side, Clyde, which isn’t that far above amateur ball.

Enter Raith Rovers, who were apparently so determined to climb the ladder and so oblivious to decent society that they decided to sign a confirmed rapist to their roster. It took a vote of the board to get the deal done, with four in favor and two against. The two against promptly resigned. So did the captain of their women’s team, followed by their squad asking to remove the badge on their shirts and looking to play elsewhere. So did their radio play-by-play announcer, who’d been a supporter for 40 years. So did their main shirt sponsor, author Val McDermid. So did another sponsor. In response to the furor, Raith’s remaining board issued a statement:

“The management team is familiar with David’s career and background and – in particular – his footballing ability. That is our foremost consideration, and we believe that he will strengthen the Raith Rovers playing squad. First and foremost, this was a football-related decision.”

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That was two days ago, at which point it was difficult to know whether to laugh at the absurdity or try to process the complete detachment from reality that said statement embodied. You’ve just signed a rapist and your club is in complete revolt, but because it’s a “football-related decision”, it should be OK! A few hours ago, they backtracked (We got it wrong!) and decided that they won’t commit club suicide for the sake of a few more goals. The reactions in public fora have mostly been in step with the outrage (with the club’s name adapted into the epithet above), but there have been a few outliers muttering about “cancel culture” and “rehabilitation.” I’m firmly in favor of rehabilitation if the offender has shown remorse and a desire to change their ways. There are many better methods than the punitive US prison system which does little more than make harder criminals and regular recidivists (for profit, of course.) But Goodwillie has never expressed any kind of remorse. He’s continued to insist that he’s done nothing wrong, despite the decision of the civil court and the CICA. So, this isn’t about tarring someone for the rest of their life for one mistake. It’s been, in fact, multiple “mistakes” and he’s never bothered to apologize for making them.

Another frequent response has been to suggest that people should sympathize with the woman and understand the response to Raith and Goodwillie because “what if it happened to your mother/wife/daughter?” My response to that would be: No! This is how people get removed from one another. This is how social barriers are created. No one should have to have a personal connection to someone else in order to sympathize with a wrong that’s been done. You can have empathy for a woman who’s been traumatized whether you have a daughter or other female in your life or not. One of the main points of the #MeToo movement was respecting women because they’re people, not just because they’re women. Football, of course, has a long way to go in that respect, as the Guardian Football Weekly’s podcast about the difficulties women face just trying to attend matches elaborated upon, among many other examples.

And this, of course, returns to the conception of football clubs as community institutions, rather than faceless moneymaking machines. The people who make up Raith Rovers include women (including their main shirt sponsor…) and signing a confirmed rapist should be objectionable to everyone who’s a part of that community, whether they identify as female or not. All of those whining about “cancel culture” and “denying someone their chosen profession” aren’t making the connection here. No one is denying Goodwillie anything. The members of the private club of Raith Rovers have stated that they’re not interested in having him on their pitch. Communities can do that. If our larger community could be a bit more diligent about denying bad elements a space, the world would be a very different place.

Alright, back to more pleasant ideas about the game. Cardiff City is the early game at Anfield on Sunday, so drag yourself up at an abominable hour on the weekend for thrilling FA Cup action. Woo.

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