For perhaps the first time ever, it seemed like the whole country had World Cup fever last week. The U.S. Men’s National team was doing great, the media was abuzz, and massive watch parties popped up in major cities. It was a far cry from the 2006 games, when I watched with friends in empty Chicago bars. I distinctly remember one game where two valets kept popping in, fingering continuously shifting sets of keys as they sipped Coronas in between retrieving peoples’ cars.
Although the U.S. couldn’t quite edge out Belgium, they truly inspired the country. Heck, my husband’s office even closed – closed! – for the afternoon of the big game, which we watched with 2,000 of our closest friends at an outdoor watch party. A single name was on everyone’s lips and has remained a fixture of conversations in the days that followed: Tim Howard.
“A national hero,” one friend said. The newspapers went wild. Barack Obama called to congratulate him, warning that he was now so popular he’d have to shave his trademark beard once he returned home or else he’d be mobbed. An anonymous Wikipedia reviewer listed Howard as the U.S. Secretary of Defense, which prompted a call from actual Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Fans ate it up, as did I. Sports will do that. They mobilize and capture publics – lifting spirits, pulling viewers in with sometimes spontaneous passions and loyalties, and, of course, providing excellent fodder for chitchat with people with whom one might normally have nothing in common. As an anthropologist, sports demand to be reckoned with. Not by me, necessarily, but that’s okay. I’m content to be a novice fan.
Tim Howard sparked my anthropological interest, however, because of his candid attitude toward having Tourette’s syndrome. The headlines couldn’t get enough: “How Tourette’s-afflicted Tim Howard went from international ridicule to World Cup history” (Washington Post); “Who, what, why: Could Tourette’s syndrome make a goalkeeper better?” (BBC); “Why Tourette’s May Be Tim Howard’s Secret Weapon on the Field” (Daily Beast); “Why Tourette’s Could Help Explain Tim Howard’s Ridiculous Goalkeeping Skills” (Health.com). Although Howard’s athletic genius was undisputed, the media seemed strangely intent on using his diagnosis to explain his performance. But why? And how curious that the press in a society so deeply committed to modern biomedicine’s mind-body split insisted on using Howard’s neurological disorder to make sense of his physical prowess.
Acknowledging curiosity about difference is a critical part of building awareness, respect, and equality, and Howard’s openness regarding his condition has undoubtedly taught many people that Tourette’s is not synonymous with its popular image of a strange person yelling curse words on the subway. Howard puts a human face on our folkloric, quasi-medical understandings. Howard shows us that a true hero can also be atypical, and this is incredibly important. (It’s been a big year for this. Remember this ad by Seattle Seahawk’s fullback Derrick Coleman, the first legally deaf offensive player in the NBA? Or, for that matter, Mizzou’s Michael Sam becoming the first openly gay football player to be drafted by the NFL?) I cannot help but wonder if previously unthinkable forms of difference are making headway in professional sports and, in turn, in the public eye. I am hopeful.
However, I am both concerned and curious about the seemingly widespread urge to explain his incredible athletic abilities in terms of his diagnosis. An incredible athlete can excel in his or her own right, but an incredible athlete with a disability will be coded in terms of difference no matter what the outcome. We have much to learn from Howard, but also much to learn about our own collective reactions to witnessing his achievements.