Saturday, July 08, 2006

Is Head-Butting An Act of Chivalry?

First of all, I never thought in a million years that I would blog about a sports-related topic. It's almost as unlikely as the guys at Progressive America admitting that Republicans have souls. I have, however, gotten fairly invested in World Cup matters over the last several weeks, since I inexplicably won 1st place in a Yahoo! FIFA World Cup Fantasy League against some friends. In case you're like me and frantically change the channel if you accidentally stumble onto one of those cable sports stations, let me fill you in on the recent controversy.

Toward the close of the Championship World Cup match between France and Italy, France's captain, Zinedine Zidane, head-butted Marco Materazzi after the Italian player allegedly insulted him in some way. Zidane was red-carded, or thrown out of the match, which was a big deal for two reasons. First, this was Zidane's last game and last World Cup match ever, as the idolized soccer legend was retiring. Second, France ended up losing the match during the penalty kick phase. Whether or not the loss was Zidane's fault is not what concerns me, although I would suspect that the Ralph Wiggum-like French goalie had more to do with the defeat (seriously, the guy was like a deer in headlights).

The foul has been condemned as a disgraceful, classless and senseless act; a shame, since sports announcers had been lining up to kiss Zidane's boots (that's soccer language for shoes, FYI) throughout the tournament. It's also unfortunate that Zidane's amazing career had to end in that way. Nevertheless, Materazzi reportedly either used ethnic slurs or (according to Zidane's official story) insulted his mother and sister.

The American media's collective reaction to this incident has been fairly predictable, but a particular story on MSNBC had me scratching my head a bit. Essentially, the story's "contributor," who I will call Zeke due to his boorish ideas, has this to say:

As for the claim that Materazzi insulted Zidane's mother, well, on most professional fields of play in the U.S., it's more of a news bulletin if someone isn't insulting your mother. In fact, at times insults to your mother are considered terms of endearment, depending on the tone of who's delivering them. Not to mention his size.

OK, what? Contributor Zeke goes on to belittle Zidane, calling his behavior a "temper tantrum" and employing a fake quote by Zidane that mocks his accent and nationality. He also rather sarcastically calls soccer "a more genteel sporting endeavor" and states that American athletes have tougher skin, therefore making them superior in some way. Later he contradicts himself by making a Sonny Corleone/Michael Corleone comparison. If you haven't seen "The Godfather" by now, you're on your own. Contributor Zeke mistakenly reverses the comparisons, identifying Zidane's head-butt as a Sonny move. If Zeke really thinks European soccer players are pantywastes, shouldn't he liken them to an early, weaker Michael? Zidane can't be a rash thug and an effete girlyman.

If anything, the American sports scene is full of violent, crude Sonnys and ineffective early Michaels. As Contributor Zeke puts it, "..."I do not like your Mama'' pales in comparison to [an Ozzie] Guillen insult on his least profane day." Athletes give and receive insults about their mothers, wives, and girlfriends like it's all business. As a wife, this is disappointing. It's sad that the act of denigrating women is taken with a grain of salt, and that defending women is viewed as unwise strategy on the part of athletes. The most that an American athlete would do in Zidane's situation is wait until the opponent had his back turned and shove him. Zidane had his back to Materazzi, heard a disparagement he could not abide, then turned and faced the man before he got satisfaction.

Would he head-butt him in a different setting? Probably not, but soccer is a visceral, physical sport, and Zidane reacted in a way consistent with his surroundings. If the men had been in a restuarant, Zidane probably would have verbally head-butted the guy instead of literally doing so. The same sentiment would be there, however, and that sentiment was just. Zidane put his mother's and sister's honor ahead of any glory or acclaim he would have received had he "shaken off" the insult and kept playing. Chicks before kicks. If only more athletes would follow suit.