Hard Choices and Non-American Football

The World Cup is such a kick every time it comes around. (Yes, that pun deserves a yellow card, I will be more careful). Wonderfully international and egalitarian as it is, watching the latest matches has me thinking through some tough choices. And noticing some of the madness around it.

Speaking of hard choices, by now you’ve most likely seen the recent meme about the trolley problem:

There’s a runaway train barreling down the tracks. You see five people tied up ahead, unable to move. The train’s headed straight for them. Miraculously, there’s a lever next to you which will switch the train to a different track. Tragically, you notice there’s also one person tied up on the other track. There’s no intermediate switch, the train can only go on one track or another. Do nothing, and the train kills five people. Or do you pull the lever, saving five, but killing one? Tough choice. Most people quickly choose #2 — doing less harm.

Here is “The Trolley Song” to listen to while you read the rest. Since we’re talking about Brazil, thank you, Joao Gilberto.

There’s a variation on this enigma called The Fat Man:

As above, the train is hurtling down a track towards five people. This time you are on a bridge overhead, and you can stop the train by dropping a heavy weight in front of it! Also, there’s a very fat man next to you. Your only way to stop the train is to push the fat man over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?

Yikes. Most people pause here because you actually have to actively cause harm this time to stop a worse outcome. What would you do? There is no right answer.

Luckily this is all hypothetical. This is not like having to choose between the Village Vanguard and The Stone, where there are two great bands you’d like to hear. Choosing one means missing the other. Or hearing one your all time heroes at an overseas jazz festival versus going back to the hotel to get a good night of sleep before tomorrow’s early wake up call and travel to the next gig. This happens to me at least five times per summer.

If you’ve been watching the World Cup, like it or not you’ve had to make some difficult choices. This has nothing to do with the chauvinism of Ann Coulter (or with Hillary Clinton’s memoir, “Hard Choices.”). Coulter said, “I promise you: No American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer.” My family’s been here a long, long time and we’re all freaking out over the Brazil games. My friend Marc Ribot responded by saying:

Most of the Americans I know whose great grandfathers were born here are Black. Most of my African American friends certainly seem interested in soccer. But somehow I don’t think they were who Coulter had in mind.  I don’t know many whites whose great grandfathers were born here. Of the ones I do know know, some seem to like watching soccer. Are my friends representative? I don’t know. But that begs the questions:  Why exactly would anyone care what a dwindling minority of politically marginal white American non-soccer watchers does or thinks? And who still believes Ann Coulter’s ‘promises’?

No, the choice is whether to simply appreciate the awesome skills and brilliant teamwork of the sport, as opposed to honoring the suffering and displacement caused by the games (by boycotting and protesting them).

Billions of dollars are spent on stadiums that may never get used again. These billions get spent in a country of rampant poverty and inequality–in the favelas people could really use the money. In addition, there are preferential contracts for FIFA that eliminate any leverage for workers and displaced families. Yikes indeed.

And yet, it’s a remarkable year for the sport. The USA has a viable team this time around and has joined the group of 16. It’s hard not to be enthusiastic for Tim Howard and the squad. There have been thrilling matches. South and Central America have been dominant this year. Epic battles have eliminated big traditional giants. It’s like a hundred degrees and 95% humidity and these guys run for ninety minutes straight. Amazing.

So, what to do? (If you’re England, go home, apparently. Sorry, Nick).

It’s one of those moments where you have to hold two competing thoughts in your mind. The matches are good, the message is good. The management is exploitative, the money corrupts, inequality abounds. How much is my decision to patronize the games complicit in the problems? Who knows? Maybe not at all.

I’m a musician, lucky with the kinds of choices I get to make. If you could keep the trolley from hitting anybody, that’d be good, right? You could catch the first set at The Stone and the second set at the Vanguard. Hear Sonny Rollins and then hope to take a nap tomorrow afternoon before the gig.

Tuesday we’ll find out whether our team can vanquish Belgium. I’ll be rooting for USA, but I also love Belgium, and I am grateful our team has come even this far.

And we can all hope some good comes out of this for Brazil and Brazilians.