The popularity of the Houston Dynamo has helped bring some attention to the sport there.
“Kind of neat, huh?” Those are the words Houston Chronicle sports columnist Richard Justice used to end his column yesterday regarding the ‘club or country’ question that invades soccer like no other sport. The phrase is a perfect proposal for Justice, a writer and sometime television and radio guest, who in this world of sports talk insanity where two guys yelling at each other goes for journalism is a beacon of honest reportage and sincere opinion.
Richard is not a soccer guy, but he’s long been one of my favorite baseball writers (I’ll apologize right now if this sounds like some lauding celebrity profile, but…). He delivers the occasional scoop, but more importantly, he knows what he is talking about and presents it in an entertaining and professional manner, safe for all viewers in a world where journalists are increasingly coming forth with extreme volume if not some lame schtick suited for a PG-13 crowd. He even maintains this persona when placed in the shark tank that is any number of ESPN’s programs.
Not that he is alone in that department, but it’s been downsized in the last few years like Milton at Initech, in turn raising the profiles of writers like Justice to those of us who want our ‘eyes and ears’ to stay the course and avoid the express train to talking-head fame, and nights out on the town with “you’re with me with, leather” or ”lemme know”.”
Now, maybe Richard is a wild man who just keeps his indiscretions far from blogger eyes, but he does not have a catch phrase or a penchant for prescribing nicknames, and I love him for it.
So imagine my surprise yesterday when I came across his column in the Houston Chronicle – a paper, I might add, that has some of the most thorough soccer reporting in the nation. Richard Justice on soccer? I had to know how this happened. How often do top-level, mainstream columnists, who aren’t soccer writers, cover the sport? You know, without it being a complete hack job or rag fest? It took a little convincing – “Adam, I’d talk to you about almost any topic other than soccer. I just don’t have enough knowledge on the topic” - but finally Richard obliged me a few questions.
After the jump, Richard Justice on soccer. Kind of neat, huh?
I really appreciate taking a few minutes for me. We’ll get right to it. What made you decide to write a column on soccer?
Because there is a great interest in the soccer team here in Houston, the Dynamo. And I just found it interesting the different approach soccer players have to international competition. You see a long list of NBA players who don’t want to play in international competitions. They don’t want to play for their country. And in baseball tired its version of the World Cup a year and a half ago, there were teams that didn’t want their players participating. For the soccer players, it’s just a different culture. They’ve grown up with the World Cup as the ultimate experience, and they have no hesitation. When their national team calls, they are ready to go, and proud to go.
In all of your years covering sports, do you have any thoughts on why soccer doesn’t get more attention here?
I think it’s two things. I think the interest in soccer is just not as great. For years and years and years we’ve been saying all of these kids who play are going to grow up and be soccer fans. Well, they’ve grown up to be NFL fans. It seems to me. But I do think, like hockey, it has a tremendous loyal following. And I’ll say this: if fans would go to a game, they will see fans that are passionate in a game that is magnificent to watch. I mean those guys have so much stamina and so much athleticism that it makes you shake your head at times. I would put them up against any athlete in any sport as far as grace and skill.
As you know as well as any of us, maybe because you are sitting next to these guys in the press box or studio, but a lot of people, journalists specifically, out there wouldn’t agree with you, or at least when given the opportunity to address the sport, they tend to attack it. I’m real curious, with your background, to know what your view is on that predicament?
I don’t know. If you see any of the NBA television ratings – they’re terrable. In the last year the World Series and the NBA Finals drew their worst ratings ever. I think we have a splintered audience. I think in the case of soccer and hockey, the sport itself doesn’t lend itself to television. I think football is the perfect television sport. And baseball more so. And the NBA – I think people who go to a NBA game in person find it dramatically better than watching it on TV. Whereas I think in an NFL game and baseball game, you might enjoy them more on TV; you certainly learn more and can understand the way the game is playing out. So, I would guess that is a factor, but beyond that I would think you get into the culture and traditions of this country versus other nations.
In fact, I had one of the players playing for team Canada tell me, it’s not a big deal in our country. We want to make it a big deal, but you don’t feel all that appreciated. You are a soccer player in a hockey country. And I guess U.S. players could say we’re soccer players in, whatever, football, baseball country.
When did first become interested in soccer? When the Dynamo arrived or have you followed it in the greater past?
Well, I’ve always been fascinated by the World Cup. I have friends who love soccer and I have friends who schedule their days around watching World Cup matches. And I got it. I got the size of the crowds and the passion of the fans. But you know, there are only so many hours in the day, and you don’t pay as much attention as you should. I was at the first Dynamo home game, and it was unbelievable. I asked the players later if they were aware of what was going on around them. Did you take a moment to look up? They were appreciative that so many people cared, that they were out there making so much noise. It was a moment when you looked out and saw people lined up 10, 20 yards waiting to buy tickets, you realize, hey, there are a lot of people who really care.
And I think the culture – soccer players don’t make a lot of money. This is the whole idea behind the WNBA. The NBA loves the WNBA because it is a pure sport and players don’t make a lot of money. Spouses for example have to work other jobs, right down the line. And they want it to last as long as it can. When the Dynamo moved from San Jose, spouses had to look for other jobs. They needed help moving.
One of the appeals when I lived in Baltimore in the 60s and 70s, the Orioles and Colts lived in the neighborhoods. They ate at the same restaurants. They drank at the same bars, and worked off-season jobs beside Joe Schmo. I think there is a great appeal in thinking the professional athlete is an everyman, just like you.
I know you don’t think you know this topic, so feel free to obstain with this one, but given that appeal, do you see something, after watching sports come and go, grow and decline, over the course of your career, that MLS can do to teach people about the game, in a similar way that your column worked to spread the news.
You know, I never can figure that out – how that’s going to work. I think it’s a really tough sell in sunbelt cities. Our NBA team in Houston is one of the worst drawing teams in the NBA. Basically, my town, Houston, has a percentage of people who care a lot about the NBA, and a percentage that care a lot about soccer, but the vast majority, judging from the reaction to what I write, it seems to be high school and college football and pro football and major league baseball.
I don’t know how you change that. I’ve thought a lot about that. I was in Dallas when the Tornado came in 1978-79, and we thought this would be the groud swell, and it just for some reason – but I think the MLS is doing things right. The players are in the community. They have all of these youth programs, and I think, I think, it will continue to grow steadily.
Let’s hope so. And let’s hope we get more soccer coverage from you. I think it’s great you’ve written about it, and it means a lot to the soccer community to have guys like you pay some attention and share the unique properties that soccer can offer to the nation. Hopefully in the future, it will be more normal, and I won’t feel the urge to track you down when you write about it. Thanks again for taking the time with me.
No problem, Adam. Good luck