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The New York Times Has a Soccer Problem

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The issue is bigger than Jay Caspian Kang's disastrous article in the NYT Mag: the Grey Lady downplays the very relevance of the sport in its own backyard.

Mike Coppola/Getty Images

I wonder if the staff of The New York Times Magazine is yet capable of understanding the depth of the mistake it made in budgeting, editing, approving, and publishing Jay Caspian Kang's July 12th article, "The Dark Side of American Soccer Culture," a gross misrepresentation that effectively cast Seattle soccer fandom as a cabal of "stunted" white men desperate to co-opt a European flavor while largely excluding Latino fans from the process.

As Tim Hall summarized on First Touch Online:

"Mr. Kang went to one game, and then saw some other people fighting on Youtube and made a connection out of tissue paper and stale bubblegum. There were no facts, there were no studies or citations, there was no effort to look at any of the more diverse communities where MLS plays such as Los Angeles or New York (which, we should remind the New York Times, is where the New York Times ostensibly publishes from) where the fans might draw inspiration from their constituent multiethnic parts."

I wonder if the folks at the Times even get precisely why soccer fans, dignitaries, and pundits were so thoroughly up in arms with indignation over the author's downright crass characterization of Seattle's Emerald City Supporters -- and, by extension, much of the main stream of American soccer fandom -- as well as his and the Times' surprising disdain for an evidentiary standard.

I wonder about these things because NYT's record of soccer coverage was plainly insufficient long before Jay Caspian Kang was even offered a contract with the company following the dissolution of his former employer, Grantland.

Here's an uncomfortable question: if the Grey Lady mostly refuses, willfully, to cover the two Major League Soccer teams and fan bases in her own back yard, how can she presume to possess any ability to cover a team and a fan base three thousand miles away on the west coast? Does that prioritization make even a lick of sense?

Let's be honest, NYT doesn't really care about New York City FC, the New York Red Bulls, or Major League Soccer. Not very much, anyway. And I have proof:

  • Routine reprints of Associated Press recaps for NYCFC and Red Bulls matches, as opposed to original, locally-derived coverage.

  • Frequent refusal to send credentialed journalists to cover matches at Yankee Stadium (35 minute drive from NYT headquarters) and Red Bull Arena (40 minute drive from same).

  • An irrepressible urge to paint real, authentic American soccer fans as hipsters/snobs/frat boys united in their desire to come off as British/European.

  • A research and fact-checking apparatus that utterly failed to prevent Kang's article from seeing the light of day in its current, lamentable form, belying the Times' sterling reputation for factual accuracy.
This is all of a piece, and the message is clear-- honest depictions of soccer culture are not important to The New York Times.

Why, then, was Kang's article commissioned in the first place? What purpose did it intend to serve, other than to perpetuate NYT's manufactured narrative of racial prejudice and hipster Brooklynite Euro-snobbery? What does it say about the paper and its in-house magazine if it's willing to invest in this story, but not much of anything substantive about first-place NYCFC or the defending Supporters Shield winners from Harrison?

The mind doth boggle. To help illustrate just how terribly wrong it was to publish that piece, let's read a few reviews:
"I thought it was factually incorrect, poorly written, not even remotely researched and didn’t in any way, remotely reflect the supporter culture in our league or the demographics of our supporters. I was absolutely astounded by the article.... I read an article like that and I’m just so disappointed by the lack of professionalism, the lack of research and the recklessness of it."
NYTimes.com commenter "allora":
"I have been to almost every single Sounders match since the Sounders joined the MLS, and I can tell you several things: there is no grand conspiracy to keep a large Latino contingent from attending the matches or sitting in the ECS section. That Latinos are not a large, unified presence at the matches proves exactly zero. The "large Latino community" you think should be one unified group of people without individual tastes and motivations simply doesn't support the Sounders en masse."
NYTimes.com commenter "Tom":
"All of this is shoddy writing, doing nothing more than for King [sic] to assert his unearned victimhood fantasy and dictate to people with which he clearly has almost no real-world experience. This is tourist journalism at its worst."
Our SB Nation colleague, Sounder at Heart editor Dave Clark:
Some more Sounders fans:
I want to be clear: putting aside the fact that he was really effing condescending toward Dave Clark, widely recognized as a preeminent expert on all things Sounders, I'm not mad at Jay Kang. I very much enjoyed his work at Grantland. I'm not mad at The New York Times, either. I don't sense any malice in any of their failings; just heaps and heaps of ignorance and dismissiveness.

But I can guarantee one thing: if Kang had stayed right here in New York City, saving his employer thousands of dollars in the process, he could have met personally with:
  1. The Third Rail, the largest and most diverse NYCFC fan group, whose president happens to be black (that's but one detail, but Kang doesn't mention black soccer fans in his article whatsoever, preferring the ridiculous White vs. Latino narrative)
  2. Los Templados, a group largely influenced by Latino barras and recently profiled by The Guardian
  3. Hearts of OakNYC12, and NYC SC, each one with its own distinct flavor
  4. The self-explanatory Blue Ladies
  5. The Red Bulls' Viking Army and Empire Supporters Club, whose history reaches back to the very beginning of MLS
If Kang had spoken to any of these groups -- really, if NYT had ever heard of any of them besides Third Rail, they probably would have sent the author their way -- he could have avoided the intense soccer fan wrath that rained down on him yesterday.

(In fact, he could have learned a lot just by watching one of Hudson River Blue's many, many original videos illustrating the diversity and unity of soccer fandom in his own home city. It requires mere minutes, and costs nothing. A lot less than flights, accommodations, and expenses.)


Here's what I know: neither Kang nor the Times would likely be much better off, tangibly speaking, by accepting the advice of a destitute journo-satirist like myself. But this incident was really bad (due to how preventable it was), and I still can't answer the biggest question within it: if NYT lacks the desire to cover soccer culture comprehensively and effectively, why try to do it at all? What is there to prove here outside of World Cup years and the European Championships? Why continue to flail around in defiance of the legendary paper's formidable standard of quality?

Yes, I know, the fact remains that even the most devoted Times readers aren't coughing up that subscription fee primarily for sports. That makes perfect sense. Hell, it was never the same after Buster Olney left, anyway. But the sheer extent of NYT's soccer culture failures is puzzling.

To the point, I want to share something I haven't written about before.

Last year, I sent an email to a legitimately talented Times sportswriter whose coverage has included some soccer topics. My message was in reaction to the spring 2015 match between NYCFC and the Seattle Sounders at Yankee Stadium, in which Clint Dempsey, who was captain of the U.S. National Team at the time, and goal-scoring phenom Obafemi Martins brought some serious fireworks to the proceedings. The Times had a space reserved on press row, but sent no one to cover the game (New York City FC hates this; every sports team does).

I meant to ask this writer what the Times' outlook was on the brand-new team, and whether they'd be ramping up their coverage over the course of the year. After all, I was new as a sportswriter, and wanted to get to know the big guns of the industry! Unfortunately, the response I finally yanked out of the writer was along the lines of, 'we cover a story if it's important.'

Oh.

Fast forward to the end of the 2015 MLS campaign, when Hudson River Blue pivoted towards season post-mortem mode. I made a list of soccer writers that I'd try to talk to about the team, so as to snag a couple of varying perspectives on the ups and downs of the inaugural season, transfer priorities, the managerial change, future projections, etc. Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl and Guardian/ESPN's Graham Parker were both happy to make time for us and chat.

I also reached out again to the aforementioned New York Times writer, who had a handful of stylish, eloquent, well-written soccer-related bylines over the course of the season. Did he want to chat about the famous Year One of New York City FC, too?

Here was the writer's response:

"Not sure what I could offer. I really haven't been around the team a ton this year."

Indeed, at NYT, nobody was.



Of course, less than two weeks later, that same writer's byline appeared on a Times article covering a New York City FC offseason news item.

'Welcome to Soccer at NYT: where we sometimes write about things we don't even follow very closely.'

Really, then, we should have seen this week's Jay Caspian Kang disaster coming from a mile away. The environment at the Times simply isn't prepared to guarantee accurate, useful, or fair soccer writing beyond the rare in-house game recap. As it stands, as soon as NYT half-tries to dig below the surface to find the compelling cultural narratives that animate the Beautiful Game, soccer fans are almost guaranteed to lose.

Based on available evidence, the Times can't be bothered to care about who soccer supporters really are, how they think, or what they stand for.

If they did, they would have asked.

UPDATE: Kang's piece was commissioned by the New York Times Magazine, not the Sports Desk. We've updated the piece to reflect that. -- RNyR