A star is born

soccer field ii.jpg

I intend to post “Advice for Democrats III and IV” on Monday and Tuesday respectively. But the weekend is for happier things.

A note of praise for Robert Andrew Powell’s “No Yelling, No Cheering. Shhhhh! It’s Silent Saturday.”

It’s hard to say how good “No yelling” is. It’s an account of what Powell calls a “low level national trend;” the practice of insisting that parents remain silent while watching their children play organized soccer.

There is no shouting, no yelling, no threatening the officials or swearing at fathers from the opposing team. With the sidelines silenced, there is no pressure. The children are free to have fun. At least that’s the idea.

Here’s a glimpse of how completely innovative American culture can be. What is more utterly American than cheering at a sporting event? How many movies have we seen in which the last scene shows everyone in the stands cheering wildly as the victory is snatched from the jaws of defeat? (About 3,500. Yes, I’ve run the numbers.) Cheering takes the “spectator” out of spectator sports and puts the stands in play. Thus do sports become participatory. This is how joy comes to the world…for many Americans every Saturday morning…and Sunday afternoon…and Monday Night…

But America is reflexive as almost no culture has ever been. Suddenly, someone asks “is cheering (and swearing, groaning, booing) a good thing? Perhaps it puts too much pressure on the kids.” (I can’t remember ever hearing anything from the sidelines when playing football and baseball as a kid. But never mind.) So Americans, bless them, create Silent Saturday. They change one of the fundamental rules by which their culture is organized.

Now the frustrating thing from an anthropological point of view is that the attending journalists and social scientists can be relied up to join in noisy judgment of cultural practice. Their vaunted reflexivity turns out to be not very reflexive. It ends almost always in the same criticism: existing practice is bad. Silent Saturday is good. In point of fact, journalists and social scientists will never agree to a Silent Saturday of their own. They will stand on the sidelines of American culture and keep up a noisy barrage of criticism.

In most hands, “No Yelling. No Cheering” would have toed this line. It would have been a sternly approving of the innovation, with a good deal of hand ringing about how viciously competitive kid sports have become. Cue Bill Moyers. Roll the documentary. “America has always been a culture that cares about competition. But are our children paying too high a price? Tonight, we will go to a little town in Texas where…”

And we can some of this from Mr. Powell, no cheerleader he. He gives us several glimpses how terrifying it must be for a six year old to hear his parent scream at umpires and what a relief it must be to left to their own devices on the field. We can’t read this article without admiring the motives and the accomplishments of Silent Saturday.

But Mr. Powell forgoes glib criticism and pat reflexivity for the real effects of the innovation. He shows why cheering is so, well, cheering. He shows how sincere and probably well advised are the innovators. And then, bless him, he gives us the contradictions that must ensue when a culture is prepared to change this dramatically without ever sweeping up after itself.

No Yelling, No Cheering documents what it is to live in a culture that creates innovations without ever quite letting go of the past. Powell gives us soccer moms and dads stretched between the good in the new idea and the good in the old one. This is American culture, something caught, more often than not, between the “x” of tradition and the “not x” of innovation with the “culture bearers” spread out, and sometimes, stretched tight in between.

As Faulkner might have said, in America, the past is not dead, it is not past. Everything is in play. For every cultural precept there is its opposite. For every clarity, a contradiction. This is no place for platitudes, for vapid social science and journalism. This is a job for someone with a feeling for what it’s like to live in a culture that can reinvent itself continually while taking all the old ideas with it as it goes. A few writers have risen to this challenge. If this piece is anything to judge by, Robert Andrew Powell is a writer who might some day join the pantheon.

There are the grace notes, as when Powell says, “When the ball is blown into play, the players on both teams follow it around as iron filings would trail a magnet.” Come on. Big points on the rhetorical score board for this one. And the crowd goes wild.

I haven’t done the article justice. Have a look for yourself. And we must encourage Mr. Powell to liberate this piece from the “subscription required” clutches of the New York Times, that we may all gather in wonder, a crowd now silent with admiration.


Powell, Robert Andrew. 2004. No Yelling, No Cheering, Shhhhh! It’s Silent Saturday. New York Times. November 5, 2004. subscription required here.

3 thoughts on “A star is born

  1. spencer

    What is different that you remember is that you were talking about high school when you had yelling.

    But here we are talking about much younger kids that use to play the games by themselves without adult supervision or intervention. The old way taught a lot of things beyond competition that the new over supervised play does not.

  2. Grant

    Me-L: thank you, very useful, Grant

    Spencer: I don’t remember any yelling from high school: we were concentrating too hard. But I think you are right to say that kids have a harder time sealing themselves off. On the other hand, the piece in question does describe the kids as having badly distracted conversations on the field, so maybe they are more sealed off than we think. A friend of mine used to say that his kid used to put on his “magic cape” and go swooping off on some private fantas every so often, and forget the game entirely. Who needs sports when you’ve got fantasy. Thanks, Grant

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