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Bar News - August 20, 2014

Opinion: Soccer Games, Piano Tops and Rules That Are Made To Be Broken


I never liked soccer when I was young. A game requiring that you hit a large ball with your head hardly screamed ďplay meĒ to a kid who needed glasses to see his own two feet. But that didnít stop me from joining many others who took a sporting interest in this summerís World Cup. I think I was rooting for Ghana. I couldnít really tell. The games were a big green blur.

A boring blur, in fact. Too much running with too little effect. So I read a few articles about it, to understand why the rest of the world loves this activity and we Americans do not. It turns out there are many theories. Some believe itís a matter of custom; that once we play it, weíll like it. Some say we need physical violence to be entertained. And some think it moves too slowly for our pea-brained attention spans. (What?)

But I also learned that high-level players often pretend to be injured, to gain advantage on the field; that the players actively distrust the referees; and that the referees have a terrific amount of power, including the ability to extend play in what often seems like arbitrary fashion. You can reach the end of the game and be given extra time; you can want extra time, and find you are done. In short, the rules of soccer seem malleable in a way that the rules of football and baseball do not. And that has to matter.

I remember visiting a friend in Germany before the wall came down. We went to a club, and there was nowhere to park, so he rode his car onto the sidewalk where many other cars were also perched. He explained they didnít have much parking in Berlin so the locals simply parked wherever they could. No, the police did not mind. And if someone parked behind you, blocking you in, they would leave their key in their ignition so you could move their car as necessary. A beautiful system, and a completely lawless one. When I showed my surprise at that, he further explained to me that Germans had great experience with rules and as a result they did not much respect them.

That also sounded odd to me at first, of course, because Germany is probably the most well-ordered nation in the western world. But I soon realized that a countryís government is separate from its culture. Cultures last and last in Europe. They stay in place across centuries. Yet the governments on that continent tend to come and go. France does us the courtesy of counting its republics; they are up to number five by now. Italy and Germany and Spain donít bother. Their changes have come too often and been too complete. I believe it is true, then, that the continental way is to not overly care about rules. They see them as man-made, utilitarian things, only as good as the results they give you, unless those rules are cultural ones, in which case they belong on a different level.

Contrast our American land, where culture changes not only decade by decade, but also city to city, and family to family Ė while our form of government has become sacrosanct. We hold our Constitution to be above the grit and the grime of life. We think our rules are special.

And maybe they are. Another memento of the European attitude: in law school, in Michigan, waiting to enter a concert hall with a friend from Slovakia, who could not believe she was doing just that: standing in line. It took all her will power to not walk to the front, find someone she knew, and cut in. She felt that our not doing so meant we were fools. I tried to explain ďfairnessĒ to her, and she thought I was joking. Yet fairness matters to us Americans. Our biggest battles Ė with each other, and with the world Ė concern little else.

In many other ways, however, our love of rules harms us. Because we sometimes lose sight of the simple fact that rules are fallible and donít always work. When Governor Rockefeller of New York changed his stateís drug laws to call for harsh penalties, for instance, it was a disaster for untold thousands of young men. It had terrible racial and class overtones. It was seen as unfair and brutal, from the beginning. Yet if his error canít be held against him, because he had the best of intentions, why has it taken 40 years for the federal government to begin fixing that mess? Because Rockyís mistake became entrenched. It became the rule others followed.

The famous engineer Buckminster Fuller once wrote of a man on a giant ship, whose vessel went down in a terrible storm, and who later found a piano floating past him in the open sea, a piece of furniture from the wreckage of his craft. He climbed on board and he made it to safety. And his descendants, ever after, made boats in the shape of piano tops. Not because they worked well; they didnít. But because they had inherited the idea that boats had to look like piano tops.

Our society is filled with piano tops. From our criminal courts to our healthcare system, from our transportation and farm policies to our housing and our banks. And sometimes it seems like only the Tea Party is calling for radical change in the way Buckminster Fuller suggested was necessary for our society to progress. So another tip oí the hat to the Tea Party, today.

With a suggestion that we should all watch more soccer on television, too. Itís boring, but it gives you time to think.

Michael Davidow is a staff attorney at the NH Public Defender office in Nashua and the author of Split Thirty, a novel about politics and advertising. The authorís opinions are his own and do not represent the opinions of his employer, or the NH Bar Association.

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