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Rabbi Joshua Hess

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U.S. Women's Soccer and the Problem of American Exceptionalism

Posted: 07/17/11 08:03 AM ET

As I write this article a few hours after the U.S. Women's Soccer team beat France in the World Cup semifinals, I know that if they lose in the finals, the American excitement toward soccer will wane once again. To be perfectly honest, soccer in our country will continue to be considered a boring, low-scoring game that rarely generates interest or excitement among American sports fans.

But, for now, U.S. Soccer -- nay, U.S. Women's Soccer -- is the talk of the town. Some have argued that it's the talk of the town by default, because all the other sports are involved in contentious labor disputes; and baseball, well, September is still far away. Others contend that they have become the darlings of our country because of their flair for the dramatic and the thrill of their quarterfinal victory over Brazil. While these factors have contributed to the sudden popularity of soccer in the U.S., I believe that there is a far more significant reason why the country is captivated by these women, and it serves as an important reminder to us about our priorities and goals in life.

We Americans have this obsessive need to be the best at whatever we do. We are the most powerful country in the world, and we never miss an opportunity to remind others of our superiority. Our culture and politics are based on "American Exceptionalism," which means that we believe that we are better than everyone else. Therefore, if there is an activity or program that we aren't the best at, we tend to quickly rationalize and explain that our deficiency should not be confused with our inadequacy. "Who needs soccer," we say to the rest of the world. It's not that important to us. We play football, a real man's sport.

However, in our heart of hearts, we know the reality -- that soccer is the world's sport. And we really want to be the best at soccer. The U.S. Men's Soccer team is improving, but they are not a championship-caliber team quite yet. We get excited when they win a couple of games, but we don't expect anything more than that. With the Women's Soccer team, though, there is a different feeling in the air. We really believe that they can win and that they can be the best. We, therefore, don't feel ashamed or timid to cheer and brag about our Women's Soccer team to the rest of the world. We jump on the bandwagon with great enthusiasm.

I believe this tendency to jump on the bandwagon when our national team is enjoying success is representative of the American sports culture. We aren't interested in mere competition; the thrill of participation is not satisfying enough. What matters is that we win -- not just one game, but everything. Indeed, after the U.S. Women's thrilling victory against Brazil, the sportswriters were questioning the team's ability to regroup and refocus, and predicted that if they don't win the World Cup, no one will remember the dramatic goal scored by Amy Wambach in extra time.

Our collective attitude toward tennis, golf and the Olympics are illustrative of this cultural phenomenon. In years past, when the top tennis players were American, like Connors and McEnroe, tennis boomed in this country. More recently, with no transcendent American star, interest has waned. The same is true in golf. Now that Tiger Woods is no longer dominant, golf is not as big a draw as it was just a few years ago. Similarly, ratings are routinely higher for the Summer Olympics, where the Americans usually win the medal count, compared to the winter games in which we are constantly bested by other countries.

We American's revere the great football coach Vince Lombardi, who famously said, "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." But is this credo something we really want to live by? When we teach our children to play sports, we stress the thrill and value of competition, not winning. We teach them "that it's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game."

Unfortunately, that ideal is often forgotten once we actually begin to compete. By and large, American culture no longer believes that maxim. Instead, we have become a nation wedded to the concept that "winning is the only thing." How sad. We have lost the joy that comes from challenging ourselves to compete, and from knowing that we have given our best effort, even if we didn't win.

The unhealthy emphasis placed on winning in our society, conflicts with one of the basic precepts of Judaism, which values the journey toward perfection and recognizes that true perfection is only found in God. This idea is evidenced by the biblical commandment that every Jew study the Bible. It doesn't matter whether he or she will become a scholar, rabbi, businessperson or mailman. From the Jewish perspective, the pursuit of knowledge is far more important and commendable than being the best or most knowledgeable. Every person is obligated to study Torah so that he can become the best Jew he can be, even if he never achieves renown or greatness.

So while we revel in the achievement of the Women's Soccer team (for now), we should learn to appreciate athletes who give their all and compete to the best of their ability, even when they fall short of their goals and our national dreams. Win or lose, good or bad, we would be wise to show the same excitement and zeal when we observe valiant competitors in any walk of life, striving for excellence, so that our children will learn to appreciate the thrill and joy of competition. That's the true American spirit.

 

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