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A Ground Game for Progress

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I grew up playing soccer and everyone I knew played it. It was the highlight of the week – AYSO owned my city, Ventura, and most cities across Southern California. So I never understood why most Americans don’t love soccer the way the rest of the world does. Until last Sunday.

Of course, I’d heard all of the usual complaints. “It’s a low-scoring, boring, non-physical game.” Is it “low-scoring”? Well, from the American perspective, it is. The average final score is about 2 to 1. But American football could be a low scoring game if touchdowns only gave a team one point instead of six. Football allows for three points just for kicking a ball between two posts.

But is it “boring”? Absolutely not! Who can forget when France’s Zinedine Zidane was sent off the 2006 World Cup final game for head-butting Italy’s Marco Materazzi‘s chest in retaliation to his verbal insults of Zidane’s sister. And non-physical? Really? Soccer players engage in heavy one-on-one contact that results in yellow cards and serious injuries on a regular basis. Yet, the “boring critique” endures and Americans retain their superiority complex against soccer.

Then it hit me when I was watching the U.S. destroy El Salvador in the CONCACAF finals. We won 5-1, and it still seemed sluggish because of the way the camera captured the game. The camera always filmed from a broad, high perspective, and never on the ground near the players. This is very different from what we experience watching basketball, football, and baseball. We feel LeBron James’ heat, we chase after Adrian Peterson’s steps. Soccer fans never get to be on the field where Lionel Messi holds his secrets.

Perhaps soccer is the metaphor of our nation’s moment in history. The “bird’s-eye-perspective” on issues only goes so far before becoming boring and therefore unyielding. “Equality,” for example, is a nice term, but it gets old and useless when there is no ground game. The LGBT community has courageously changed hearts and minds throughout the country because its members have shared their personal stories and have made those experiences real in homes, at school, in the military and all areas of society. It becomes increasingly unmanageable for homophobia to continue when friends, daughters, sons, parents and coworkers only seek what their straight counterparts take for granted under the law.

We see this courage locally in Santa Monica, where hotel workers are standing up for dignity and respect as a whole wave of new hotel development is occurring that may change the entire city for worse. It’s one thing for us to talk about “community benefits” when projects come for city approval. It is another for Edith Garcia, a hotel housekeeper, to share her story of survival, from immigrating to this country to fighting for a living wage against harassment and intimidation. Mahatma Gandhi referred to this practice as “Satyagraha,” loosely translated as the “insistence on truth.” It is bearing witness to that which we may not want to address, but which may be the only path to our goal.

We progressives then need to keep our movements for social change on the ground. We live in tense times, and it is always easy to disengage or keep the conversation broad and therefore insignificant. But we must follow the lead of the LGBT movement and hotel workers and keep the conversation urgent, up close and personal.

(Rachel Torres is a research analyst for Unite Here Local 11.)

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