howardnlby Howard Stephenson

Once in this column I made the mistake of writing about professional sports. It was when Kobe Bryant rape accusations were hitting the media and Karl Malone had decided to leave the Jazz and go after the NBA championship ring with what appeared to be a sure-fire opportunity in Los Angeles.

That week I gained a new respect for sportswriters – especially sports opinion writers. I learned that to survive sports writing, as with football, you’ve got to be able to take a hit. And boy, did I take hits.  As a result of this experience, I now consider tenured sports writers as warriors in defense of freedom of the press. They have my utmost respect.

I received more criticism from readers on that single column than all other columns I’ve ever written, combined. And that’s really something, considering the fact that I’ve written about some very controversial tax issues, political issues, and even religious issues.

Speaking of religion, I learned the hard way that the “dominant religion” in Utah is not the LDS Church: It’s the LDSF Church (Loyal, Dedicated Sports Fans Church). I knew the sports fans who responded to my column were religious because they used so many biblical words in their phone calls, letters, and emails. I promised myself that I would never venture into the sports writing territory again.

But with ReAL Salt Lake (RSL) soccer team’s first season in Utah, I’m quite comfortable venturing into sports writing one more time. After all, how threatening could it be to write about a sport which “King of the Hill” TV’s Hank Hill explained to his son Bobby was invented by English women to give them something to do while their husbands fixed dinner? Living in football-crazed Texas, Hank didn’t want to admit to his neighborhood drinking buddies that Bobby had joined a youth soccer team.

I figure too, that since RSL fans who were patient enough to tolerate a drought of 557 minutes – almost 10 hours of play – without a single goal from their team would not get too upset by anything I might say about their team or their sport. With the lack of excitement on the field as evidenced by 6 straight ninety-minute games without a score, surely RSL fans would welcome any attention off the field.

Excitement in the Stands

In fact, I learned in England when I attended a Crystal Palace soccer game during two-years of volunteer service, that there can be a lot more excitement in the stands than on the field. It’s a lot like American baseball in that respect. There were a few fights and loud cursing between rival fans and a lot of smoking by people with nicotine-stained fingers and bad teeth. But on the field, all was peaceful and calm and each performer behaved himself like a real gentleman.

Professional soccer is the only sport I know of where the most interesting thing happening is the spontaneous singing done by the men and boys in the crowd. Each side tries to drown-out the other with their songs. There are no cheerleaders to initiate the singing so I spent most of the Crystal Palace game trying to figure out how the fans knew when and what to sing. At least with baseball there’s an organ to signal the fans to clap to “La Cucaracha” or whatever that song is, or to sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

To this day I don’t know how the English initiate the soccer songs. If any readers know how that happens or how “the wave” gets started at U.S. football games, would you let me know?

I took my family to a ReAL Salt Lake game to broaden our cultural experiences and see if Major League Soccer (MSL) could take hold of our interest.  It was a great night and I think everyone should attand a game to expand their horizons. There were surprisingly nearly 15,000 in attendance at Rice-Eccles Stadium on a cold, rainy evening. Thankfully, there were four goals scored during the match but even though the game ended in a tie, by the reaction from the fans you would have thought we had won.

I figured out at the RSL game why soccer announcers shout “G – – – – O – – – – A – – – – L !” after each goal and hold out the word for as long as their breath will allow. It’s clearly because there is so little excitement at the game that somebody has to do something to liven things up. Speaking of announcers, it’s nice that there are two of them, one who announces in English and the other who announces in Spanish. And they don’t trip over each other trying to keep up with the play-by-play. Can you imagine Hot Rod Hundley’s play-by-play interspersed with play-by-play in a second language?  Based on my memory of seventh grade Spanish, “Ya gotta love it baby!” would be translated, “(upside down exclamation mark) Tiene que amarlo baby!”

My Personal Coaching Experience

I should disclose that I coached each of my five kid’s soccer teams and that we even had some winning seasons. This is where I first got the idea that soccer was not intended to be a competitive sport. It seemed to me to be a form of exercise with a few spectators giving encouragement. The orange slices and juice at halftime was also nice. I learned there are no losers in soccer – everyone wins. This became clear at the last game of my first coaching season when the organizers brought me a box of 15 trophies, one for each child. I whispered to the organizer, “I think there must be a mistake, we’ve won only one game.” She assured me that there was no mistake, that each player gets a trophy. That’s when I knew this was a Democrat sport: Rather than having winners and losers, they all just want to have a good time and get along.

Seriously, my real purpose in writing about soccer is to propose a win-win solution to providing RSL with the stadium they’re seeking without using taxes to do so, and to offer some tongue-in-cheek ideas for making the game more exciting. I sincerely hope ReAL Salt Lake finds success in Utah because their being here enriches our quality of life. They provide one more way for our people to come together. I’d like to offer some suggestions for making that a ReALity. However, since I have limitations on the size of this column, I’ll have to share those ideas next week.