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Just follow the ball / July 09, 2014
It has come to my attention that soccer-bashing has become a sport unto itself in certain precincts of the Internet. (Trivia question of the day: Who is Ann Coulter? Answer: Who cares.) It pains me to say that I’ve caught only a little bit of World Cup action on TV, because, y’know, life’s busy, but the international soccer tournament is the planet’s greatest sporting event and nothing else comes especially close. Does this simple declaration call into question one’s bona fides as a red-blooded American who believes in only the right kind of football? I can’t imagine any normal person would buy into such nonsense, so the answer, obviously, is no.

At the time of this writing, the World Cup had winnowed down to the round of four. Go, Netherlands! (At first I invested in my hopes in the U.S. team, natch, then when our guys lost out I rooted for Colombia, because now there’s a country that could use some friends, plus I saw YouTube clips of the otherworldly play of James Rodriguez and was summarily hooked. The Colombians’ loss to Brazil was cause to shift allegiances to Costa Rica — great place to visit! — but with the exit of the CONCACAF darlings I’m now down to pulling for the Dutch. Although you just know the Brazilians are going to win it all because how can they possibly lose with a dude named Hulk on the roster?) I suppose the patriotism question comes into play because world futbol is different than American football and apparently this concerns some people. To which I say: Pffffttt!

That an indisputably cool spectacle such as the World Cup would give rise to faux controversy, fueled by the likes of Ann Coulter, isn’t particularly noteworthy, except to demonstrate how people can argue over just about anything. Boring! As much as the next person, I can become invested in controversies that strike me as meaningful on some level, but the non-stop outrage thing is just too much to stomach. And we all know where the world’s most ulcerous behavior is found these days: in the realm of politics.

Readers of this column likely can identify the issue that has gotten my goat more this year than any other: the refusal of the General Assembly to expand Virginia’s Medicaid program. We won’t beat that dead horse again except to note, once more, that expansion opponents have yet to offer one decent reason for their obduracy, while continuing to mislead the public about the stakes involved in the Medicaid fight. This alone ought to tell you all that you need to know about the merits of their position.

The only apparent reason for the obstruction is visceral dislike — that’s the kind way of putting it — of anything associated with Barack Obama, with the health care law topping the list. After a terrible rollout, the Affordable Care Act has worked reasonably well, and it could function even better if Republicans would drop their dead-end resistance and do their part to offer improvements. As it is, they’ve only succeeded in painting themselves into a corner; does anyone seriously believe that in three, five, ten years from now, Virginia still will be blocking Medicaid expansion? Sheesh. It’s one thing to end up on the wrong side of history. It’s quite another to know that you’re going to end up on the wrong side of history.

Give it up, Virginia Republicans: Medicaid and Medicare have been around for almost 50 years and neither program is going away, regardless of the alarmist noises emanating from the conservative movement’s fiscal quacks. By opposing Medicaid expansion in Virginia, lawmakers only are hurting the innocent — people who need health care coverage and when, hit with emergencies, receive treatment in the most costly and inefficient way imaginable — while making the GOP look bad in the process. Just stop it!

Yes, yes, I know: Good luck with that. In normal times the checks and balances built into the American political system promote stability and encourage compromise, but a potentially fatal flaw is the ability of the minority to wreck the works with a deeply cynical, nihilist strategy of scorched-earth opposition. It’s all been very depressing to watch, as we have been forced to do for over the past six years: Congress is a disaster, everyone in politics despises everyone else, half the statehouses in America have descended into partisan hell, and political vitriol is so abundant it spills into soccer — soccer! — for Pele’s sake.

Fortunately, there’s a bright side (there’s always a bright side!), and you see a sliver of it with America’s changing tastes, preference in sports very much included. The country is becoming younger, more diverse, less set in its ways, and the impact is becoming more profound with each passing day. To the extent that soccer has become a proxy issue in America’s culture wars, it’s a pretty one-sided fight: no one cares if some yahoo chooses to draw attention to himself (or in the case of Ms. Coulter, herself) by arguing that popular interest in soccer signals the demise of American exceptionalism or the national character or other such nonsense. The yakking is ever less relevant: the reactionary tide is rolling out as people grow more comfortable with previously-unthinkable social norms such as gay marriage. True: a considerable segment of society remains appalled by the shift in attitudes. But it’s entirely conceivable Virginia will have legalized gay marriage before the year is out. What then?

Politics is a lagging indicator of where the country’s headed, not the tip of the spear. For all the disgust it inspires, there’s no alternative mechanism for reconciling our differences and getting on with the business of public life: what the Founders referred to as the general welfare. One of the more fascinating (if dismaying) expectations with the current political scene — broached at times by both Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives — is the sense that ultimate victory lies somehow close at hand, as if a titanic, exhausting struggle will inevitably end with the losing side collapsing in a heap. (Think arm-wrestling.) This is all very silly, of course. I personally happen to believe demographic and social trends are working against the Republican Party, but I don’t expect the time will ever come when one party lords triumphant over the other. We have disagreements; we’ll always be working them out, one way or another.

Funny thing is, most people are fairly adept at negotiating disputes and controversies in their personal lives, unless politics or religion or some other hot-button cause creeps into the picture. Politics may be cynical and politicians may be slow, but there’s always hope for lowering the hostility levels and restoring balance to governing, because this is what the system ultimately demands. With matters far more important than soccer to worry about — the economy, jobs, income inequality, climate change, education, the list goes on and on — stalemate ultimately becomes untenable, and the ground beneath the combatants can shift awfully fast. If the challenge of governing proves more than the current cast of characters can handle, there’s always a new team coming along to root for.

World Cup notwithstanding, I’m more a baseball-basketball-football kind of guy. (In order of preference). What little I know about soccer comes from coaching eight-year-olds — so you can just guess the level of understanding that entails. (In addition to introducing many Americans to an exciting sport played with incredible passion the world over, the World Cup has also affirmed the American talent for acquiring expertise in any subject in a span of weeks. No, I don’t coach the German national team, but I did stay at Holiday Inn Express last night.) World Cup soccer is an amazing game: non-stop action, incredible physical endurance, loads of drama, not-too-shabby acting, and outrageous personalities galore. There’s nothing hum-drum about it. And the fact that no one ever knows what’ll happen next only makes it more fascinating to watch. It’s hardly the only game that can unfold in unpredictable ways.

Two weeks ago, I slipped up near the end of this column — with a historical flub on the Battle of Staunton Bridge, a.k.a. the Battle of Old Men and Young Boys, the Civil War clash between Confederate defenders and a Union cavalry force at the railroad bridge at the Charlotte-Halifax line, nearby Mecklenburg County. Due to a hurried misreading of the fine single-volume history on the battle by the late Halifax County historian, Carroll Headspeth, I wrote that a contingent of Clarksville students fought in the conflict. In fact, the Clarksville volunteers were grown men who worked at the ordnance factory in town and rushed to Staunton River bridge after the call for help sounded across the region. Very stirring stuff. The unfortunate snippet from my column, not so much. Thanks to James Sheppard for pointing out the inaccuracy, and my apologies to all concerned.

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