In Praise of Gamesmanship
by Dominic Molon

From the exhibition catalog Wendy White: Pick up a Knock, Andrew Rafacz, Chicago, IL (2013)

Aside from low scoring, no provisions for commercial breaks, and a perniciously un-American cosmopolitanism, one of the cardinal sins committed by soccer in the eyes of these United States is the perception of rampant diving that its players seem to do at the slightest touch or provocation. Perfectly content to abide peculiarities of its own "football"—in addition to the very misleading name, I offer the pointless anticlimax of the extra point and the "roughing the kicker" infraction, which rewards similarly wussy behavior -- soccer haters frequently hone in on the often overly theatrical manner in which players go down to try and manufacture a foul (particularly in the penalty area.) Granted those of us dedicated to the sport also despise these pantomime spectacles, preferring that players "man-up" and play the game rather than the referee. That is, unless a member of whatever team we support—national or professional -- succeeds in getting away with a foul resulting in a free kick from a dangerous area or, better yet, a penalty kick. In this instance, it becomes "gamesmanship"—the ethically slippery if actually legal use of deviant means in competitive events to achieve a desired result. In less glamorous terms, cheating by the rules.

While sporting fans across the board would most likely denounce the tactics of gamesmanship as a menace, we must concede two things: one, it is an absolute human failing that 99.9% of us would succumb to should the opportunity present itself, and two, it's an endeavor that requires a well-developed combination of tact, skill, and effort. One is reminded of the TV comedy “Seinfeld,” where terminal loser George Costanza finds himself working harder to stay unemployed than he would at an actual job. Setting aside principles of how the game should be played, gamesmanship opens the door to possibilities of how the game can be played, becoming as much about the player’s ability to think and react in the moment as a beautiful pass or goal. In further distinction from American football, is it more perverse to craftily feign an injury, or to engineer “hit squads” to maim players or to deny the pernicious effects of concussions that have plagued the sport? (Grant- ed the NFL has cracked down on the former, but the impulse on behalf of player and fan still lingers.)

Seen from another perspective, gamesmanship functions positively on numerous levels. It rewards a part of the game that Spanish-speaking cultures consider to be a poetic and strategic gesture (they refer to it as “clavado” or “nailed.”) In cultures where the opposite is true—Great Britain, for example—it separates the workmen from the showboats, almost to the point where it reflects or confirms certain notions of mas- culinity as it relates to an appreciation of sport. (Although notably—and without any scientific or statistical proof—my own casual observation of women’s soccer has seemed to reveal an almost absolute ABSENCE of flopping and diving.) Finally, it underscores soccer’s ability to reflect the world as it really is – where “cheaters” often win and where the human frailty of the referee is allowed to determine an outcome (in contrast to the over-administration of American “instant replay.”) Such moral and sporting gray areas have frequently proven difficult for a United States of Sports Spectatorship that—like so much of its country at large—can only see things in black and white.

One of Oscar Wilde’s most celebrated quotes is often paraphrased as: “Deceiving others. That is what the world calls a romance,” revealing as much of the Irish writer’s thinking on love as it does on his interest in the virtues of artifice and masks in art. Wendy White’s work does not necessarily center on the notion of deception, per se, although like much work of and since the modern and post-modern eras, it encrypts layers of codes and meanings through a combination of abstract forms and textual elements. Her work suggests a clavado prospect of its own, prompting the viewer to untangle interconnections between different phenomena—references, mostly in Spanish, to soccer, aerosol, dates, and addresses—much like the referee sorting out the truth or fiction of a player’s tumble onto the pitch.

Dominic Molon is the Richard Brown Baker Curator of Contemporary Art at the RISD Museum, Providence, Rhode Island.