Every Tuesday in Touchdown Jesus, staff writer Valerie Dunham engages with the popular and polarizing world of sports from a Christian perspective. This week, we welcome a post from guest columnist Ethan McCarthy.About a year and a half ago, I wrote an article for this site called “Is it Time to Quit Watching Sports?” I talked about the deep-seated corruption that taints FIFA, world soccer’s governing body. I mentioned the NFL’s ongoing concussion scandals. I could have brought up baseball’s ongoing doping problem, or the academic controversies that haunt the NCAA. I could have gone into the persistent racism that still stains many sports, in both obvious and more insidious ways. Confronted by the inexplicable, our reaction—strangely enough—is joy.
At what point, I asked, given the greed, corruption, and scandal plaguing our favorite sports, is it best to just turn them off for good? At what point are we obsessing over—or worse, actually subsidizing—institutions that are more of a menace to society than any positive good?
The English Premier League—the top tier of English football—has its own share of problems. Unlike most American sports, European soccer leagues have no salary cap, which means the gap between rich and poor is vast. If American sports are a democracy based on a relatively level playing field, then European football is analogous to the medieval feudal system, with clubs like Arsenal, Liverpool, and Manchester United playing the role of the landed gentry. In recent years, Chelsea and Manchester City have been bought by foreign billionaires and, with the wealth of entire small nations at their disposal, have forced their way to the top—the league’s nouveau riche.
Because of this, the Premier League championship routinely goes to one of a very familiar cast of characters. Since the formation of the modern Premier League in 1992, it has had only had five different champions.
Until this year. This year, Leicester City won the title.Leicester City is not even a perennial Premier League team. They’ve spent much of their history bouncing around in England’s lower leagues, and were only promoted to the Premier League from the Championship (the second tier in the English football system) in 2014. A year ago, they narrowly avoided being relegated back to the Championship again. They began this season at 5000-1 odds to win the title—odds that made a very few foolish bettors very, very happy when, last Monday night, they clinched their first-ever top-tier title.
— Christian Fuchs (@FuchsOfficial) May 2, 2016
Leicester City’s players, gathered at Jamie Vardy’s house, watch Tottenham draw with Chelsea, officially guaranteeing Leicester the title. Video tweeted by Leicester defender Christian Fuchs.
To put their accomplishment in perspective, consider this: Manchester United has spent more money on new players in the last two years than Leicester City has spent in their entire 132-year history. Leicester City’s title-winning team was scrabbled together from the bargain bin. It comprises rejects from bigger teams like Danny Drinkwater and Danny Simpson, lower-league players like Jamie Vardy and Andy King, and anonymous players from the continent like Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kanté. Vardy was famously playing deep in England’s lower leagues just a few seasons ago while working in a factory to supplement his income; now, there’s a Hollywood biopic about him in the works. Mahrez, this season’s PFA Player of the Year (the Premier League’s MVP), began last season in France’s second division.
Their manager was a similarly uninspiring choice. Brought in last summer, the Italian journeyman Claudio Ranieri had recently been fired as the manager of Greece’s national team after losing to the Faroe Islands. Elderly, dignified, and with a reputation as a kindly if somewhat doddering gentleman, Ranieri was immediately the target of skepticism and ridicule. One writer called Leicester’s appointment of Ranieri “baffling.” “If Leicester wanted someone nice, they’ve got him,” he wrote. “If they wanted someone to keep them in the Premier League, then they may have gone for the wrong guy.” It was a common sentiment, and most pundits picked Leicester City as the most likely team to go down.So how did they do it? What did Leicester City have, exactly, that enabled them to pull off what’s being called “the greatest sports story ever”?
Not superior talent, certainly. As fabulous as the likes of Mahrez, Vardy, Kanté, and Drinkwater have been this season, Leicester’s players are easily outstripped by the expensive, world-class squads at Manchester City, Chelsea, and Arsenal. Nor was it their flawless tactics. To be sure, Ranieri and his assistants got their game plans exactly right time and time again this season, but you’d be hard-pressed to argue that Ranieri was more tactically astute or inventive than any of the much more accomplished managers at the so-called top clubs.
What about the players’ desire and togetherness—the most important things, according to all our high school coaches? Again, the Leicester team was truly remarkable in this regard, as pundits pointed out all season. And did the players on the other top teams—players with superior pedigrees and more experience—really want to win any less than Leicester’s players? That’s difficult to prove either way.
Like anything else, Leicester’s title could possibly be explained as the product of a complex equation of circumstances and luck: Leicester was under less pressure than the big teams, their key players managed to avoid any long-term injuries, other top teams (Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United) had relatively down years, etc. Sportswriters will be churning out variations on these themes for years to come.
But all such explanations fall short. There’s something unaccountable—transcendent, even—in Leicester’s championship season. It’s not reducible to circumstances, economics, or sabermetrics. The word unbelievable is a tired cliché, but in Leicester City’s case, it really applies. It would be pointless to say that no one predicted it. Of course no one predicted it. It was impossible.In that earlier article, when I asked whether it was time to quit watching sports altogether, I concluded that no, it wasn’t. This wasn’t because there’s any excuse for the greed and systemic corruption so deeply ingrained in these institutions. There isn’t. But every human institution is both full of desperate evil and capable of great good, and it’s possible to appreciate and work for the good even as we condemn the bad. For that reason, I talked about the community sports can foster: the selflessness, teamwork, and camaraderie. I talked about the positive impact sports can have in our communities.
But as good as these things are, they don’t really explain the enduring popularity of sports. For all their problems, sports are also a window that looks out on something inscrutable. Leicester City’s title comes as close as anything I’ve ever seen to epitomizing the inexplicable wonder of being a sports fan. All the elation in the wake of Leicester City’s title, all the headshaking, all the goofy grins (and not just among Leicester fans—everyone’s happy for them), they’re all born of the sheer impossibility of their achievement. Confronted by the inexplicable, our reaction—strangely enough—is joy.