The Beckham Experiment Fallout

Sunday, August 30, 2009 | View Comments

In the interest of the free exchange of ideas, Richard Farley of World Soccer Reader and RF Football and I had a little back and forth on the the nature of and the American soccer culture's reaction to Grant Wahl's The Beckham Experiment.

It's not exactly "Friday Fight" (a feature I hope to revive soon), but it is an interesting look into how Richard and I saw everything that surrounded the release of the book, what the reaction might say about us (Americans who love soccer) and whether or not it is having a measurable impact in any regard. Enjoy.

Richard: Do people still care about The Beckham Experiment, Jason?

I ask because when you and I left off, I was an overly-opinionated, under-read pundit. Since then, I've read the book a few times and talked to the author. In some form, I discussed the book with almost everybody I've interviewed and it all ends up the same.

Nobody dwelt on the same crap I did. Without exception, the reaction to the book was positive. And after reading the book, I have to admit: It is a good book.

Granted, I don't think I feel it's good for the same reasons as most, but I'd still recommend it.

What I'm trying to say: You were right. I loved it. As a treatise on Major League Soccer, I loved it.

As an indictment of David Beckham (as it was advertised)? Not so much.

Jason: I could go on about the American attention span, which is naturally as present in its soccer culture as anywhere else, but I'll refrain. In a word, no. People have already moved on, and The Beckham Experiment was just a blip on radar. That shouldn't be viewed of an indictment of the book, which was excellent on many levels while also failing in its marketing-stated goal (I completely agree with you on that. The book was hardly a take down of Beckham and the nonsense surrounding him. But it was a skinning of the Galaxy organization).

Richard: I agree, people have moved on. Wahl did a ton of media, and then the media did a ton of media. Overload happened about a week after the book's release. Ultimately, it was a lost opportunity. Amidst the undo focus on Beckham and Donovan, people failed to discuss the most important parts of the book.

You called it a skinning of the Galaxy. There's no other way to look at it. Wahl did a great job documenting it. More generally, it begs the question of whether any Major League Soccer team is ready to absorb elite talent. If this were Thierry Henry going to New York, would that organization be in a better place to deal with the problems Wahl documents? As much as the egos and the sensitive souls, the book is about how MLS is not ready for the big time.

I don't think that's a bad thing, either. MLS is young, and it serves a great purpose. However, I think we all want to see it grow, and as Grant Wahl shows, MLS is far from ready for prime-time.

Jason: Exactly as I would frame it. If we take the Galaxy as a stand in for any other MLS team, which isn't unreasonable, then it's safe to say that no club in the league is prepared to handle the complications that arise when you bring in a world renowned superstar.

That being said, perhaps the book documenting the unpreparedness of the Galaxy can act as a kind of primer for the rest of the league. MLS, meaning the organization itself, has now been through the ringer once, and should be more able to handle something Beckham-like when it happens again.

Let's also not forget that there's not another player on the planet that compares to Beckham in terms of transcendent stardom. Even Thierry Henry, long rumored to be on his way her eventually, doesn't have the same over-hyped aura that surrounds Beckham, and no other MLS team would be forced to deal with the same level of circus that the Galaxy were forced to.

Richard: The real value of The Beckham Experiment is casting a mirror at MLS. The message will only get across if MLS, LA Galaxy, and Prime Courter for Mr. Henry look at that mirror and find that primer to which you allude.

But it's not just the league and the franchises. It's also the fans.

When I read the book, I felt it was a relatively even-handed, matter-of-fact portrayal - the wide array of anecdotes you collect when you follow a club; yet incidences like Beckham's alligator-armed failure to pay for dinner were the banners waved by ardent detractors. In the press promoting the book, we didn't hear about the Bose speakers Beckham bought for the locker room. We didn't hear about Beckham (later) springing for dinner at a Brazilian steak house. In the book, Wahl devotes close-to-equal amounts of time to each of these incidences (mere paragraphs for each).

Why did the marketing dwell on alligator arms? Sports Illustrated, Crown, Random House knew their market. That's why. They know there was this power-keg of Beckham detractors who were hungry for a legitimate writer to take him to task. They wanted Beckham held to account for his Italian sojourn, his indifferent pace, his disrespect to club and league.

Whether that need for accountability is justified, the pandering to that market misled me about the book, kept me from reading it until I knew I would interview Wahl, and showed me a segment of our footballing culture which, in light of other recent events in our soccer world, needs to be discussed.

In the reaction to Beckham and The Beckham Experiment, there was a large element of clich├ęd fanaticism (to use a euphemism). It's something with which I am not comfortable, and I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.

As the book is a mirror for MLS, will (should) fans see the story surrounding The Beckham Experiment as a reflection upon themselves?

Jason: If you went into the book looking for an out-and-out evisceration of Beckham, you were certainly disappointed. As you say, the marketing led the audience astray, playing off of the desire of American fans who were looking for an expression of their own disapproval of Beckham's actions. Don't forget though, that Wahl found himself covering two very poor seasons for the Galaxy; working with that material, I would argue that it would be difficult to come up with any other marketing campaign that made sense. We can't fault the publisher for focusing on the Beckham portion of the story either, especially as everything (including Wahl's own presence) surrounding the team during the period the books covers is directly influenced by the Englishman's presence. Besides, the name sells books, and it would be a stretch (not that you're accusing them of this) to call is a "bait and switch" situation.

We tend to judge our sports idols on things which have no real world bearing; things like "loyalty" for example, a concept that is perhaps most ridiculous when applied to the ultra-transient nature of world football. Beckham's loyalty to the Galaxy only went so far as his paycheck, and even then he was always likely to put his national team future ahead of his altruistic "grow the game" nonsense. His move to Milan exhibited as much, and while those with a pragmatic viewpoint understand, that doesn't make the attitude of the Galaxy faithful any less valid. In their view, the team and the team alone comes first; when Beckham negotiated a deal that caused him to miss the first half of the MLS season, he directly impacted the most important aspect of the story for them, hence their outrage.

My approval of the actions (save for choice of one fan to enter the field) of the Riot Squad and other fans that booed/jeered Beckham came down to my belief that fans have the absolute right to voice their displeasure, especially in matters of choice, as Beckham's loan deal was. Throughout the ordeal, Beckham continually repeated his desire help MLS and American soccer grow, only to reverse himself when it became possible for him to return to Europe. Some of it, and I mean the negative reaction he received upon his return, was of his own making. I doubt seriously that The Beckham Experiment, no matter the hype or inflammatory anecdotes released in the lead up to its release, had any real impact on the reception that Beckham received. He was always likely to engender resentment, and that combined with the natural sports fan's (note, not "soccer fan", I'm specifically including all sports) regression to the negative, created the response he received.

If The Beckham Experiment serves in any way as a mirror reflecting the fans themselves, then I'm not sure many of them would be surprised by what they see or be concerned about what it shows them.

Richard: Your last sentence really sums it up, though I'm not sure I can be as sanguine. In all fairness, the West Ham-Millwall embarrassment occurred chronologically between the writing of your last section and my reply (sorry to destroy the proverbial fourth wall). Still, we were already walking that road.

The marketing of The Beckham Experiment and the fans' reaction represents this strange descent on which fans in the States find themselves, and as we move forward, it's only going to get worse. Perhaps I'm dwelling on this because of the stories surrounding the choices Steven Cohen's made. That was the latest opportunity for States-side football fans to prove they can be just as hardcore as their mental images of what a supporter should be. Most of the people you and I speak to are beyond this. You and I are beyond this, but clearly there are a number of people who are not.

The main stream media that ignored football for far too long is partially responsible for this market's continued, exaggerated association of football with hooliganism. Basketball does not get associated with violence after the Pistons-Pacers incident at Auburn Hills or the annual violence in the city which celebrates the NBA title. Outlets like ESPN took the time to put those stories in context. ESPN had a stake in the NBA. It served their best interests to go the extra mile and provide mitigating context. In contrast, ESPN has had no incentive to make sure context was provided for "soccer hooliganism." I'm not suggesting ESPN's approach to basketball coverage is unfair, nor am I suggesting the sporadic violence surrounding the NBA is not a problem. I am suggesting ESPN's approach to association football is unfair and the sporadic violence surrounding the sport is a problem.

ESPN is now on-board with football. We're starting a golden era, but the seeds of this very negative approach to following football have already been sewn. The States' football fan walks around with a huge chip on her or his shoulder after decades of being talked down to by the global community and the media. As a result, we see in some of our football fans the same lack of discussion, thought, and consideration for issues that plagues all of our other sports. Soon, we will be unduly dwelling on MLS DUIs and reports of misbehavior in clubs.

That is the common level of discourse of coverage in the British media (at least, at the coverage's most accessible level). We had a chance to be more than that. With a fan base of relative neophytes, we had a chance to build a better environment. And I'm intentionally using the past tense here (while using "we" in a very self-indulgent way). I think we've missed the opportunity to correct the course. Too many people are out to prove the fan in the States is just as "hard" (to sure a term I hear from Johnathan Starling) as other footy followers.

This was subtly acknowledged in how SI and Random House chose to market The Beckham Experiment. In that way, I suppose it's not just the fans that want to be like their international brethren. The media does, too.

Jason: Perhaps I'm a little more philosophical about the potential for "hooliganism" when it comes to football in the United States. The media certainly does sensationalize violence in a way that only feeds the beast, but there's a different sports fan ethos here than in those places known for their football violence. That ethos is what causes British ex-pats to marvel at our (and therefore their) ability to co-mingle with fans of other teams in every sport without much concern that violence will happen.

Maybe it's the size of our country, the American ideal of individualism, the transient nature of our culture, or the amount of spectator sports we put on that have precluded us from falling into the trap of firms, hooligans, organized fighting, and the various other issues that draw so much of the media's attention. Supporters groups, with their organized memberships and directed aims, just don't exist in our traditional sports, and there's really no clear reason as to why. The groups that exist here now are generally an effort to replicate the soccer culture in other parts of the world; I have my doubts that those groups would have happened organically if American soccer was taking place in a vacuum.

Still, the effect is the same, of course, and there is always the danger that American fans go down the path that leads to what happened at Upton Park. We've already seen a few issues between fans and police, a clear indication that the culture scares the daylights out of authorities, who seem overwhelmed when confronted with something new and different. That doesn't mean, as you said, that violence isn't occurring at gridiron, baseball, or basketball events, just that as the "newcomer", soccer is disproportionately drawing the attention.

It could be argued that The Beckham Experiment, for better or for worse, represents another stage in the growth of the American soccer culture, both because of the way that it was marketed, as well as for the attention it received (though I have trouble putting the relative mainstream weight in context considering the footy bubble I inhabit). This means that the book's value is more in its simple publication rather than in any of the text it contained. That's not to slight Wahl's work, or to say that there isn't significant insight in the story it tells, just that the culture has yet to evolve to the point that a story of a team and their struggles with a superstar can be that and nothing more.

Through our tangential back-and-forth here, I think we've established that until books like The Beckham Experiment are commonplace, meaning that the American sports landscape prominently features soccer in the mainstream, our reaction to the existence of such a book will be more layered and complicated than a simple appreciation or dislike of its content.

What do you make of our viewpoints? Does has The Beckham Experiment exposed nagative aspects of our supporters culture, and do you think we're going down a dangerous path?
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