Rooting for Your Ancestors Doesn’t Make You Racist

A group of people waving flags in a World Cup theme.

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Editor's Note: This op/ed is in response to our Big Question of the month: "Should shared genetics play any role in encouraging sports fans to root for a certain team?"

A soccer fan can usually explain why he chose to love his team, but there is seldom any logic to it.

If it takes a mail-order DNA test to get you into the game, then swab your cheek and join the party.

Maybe he likes the colors, or maybe his mom grew up in the city where the team plays. Maybe a certain elegant Dutchman (Marc Overmars) played for a certain London club (Arsenal) during the most impressionable years (the late '90s, roughly) in the life of a young person (me), and that poor child continued to follow that poor club decade after losing decade, even though he lived in Florida, where games were only sometimes shown on TV and he missed most of them anyway, and, besides, this was long after the Dutchman had ceased being an employee of that club to which the young Floridian had absolutely no spiritual or economic connection.

I digress.

Maybe the fan simply picked the most dominant team at the moment he discovered the sport, thereby choosing Manchester United, which is just another way of saying he gets off on the suffering of others. Or maybe he took a mail-order DNA test, found out he was 1/12 French, and decided it would be Les Bleus or bust this summer at the World Cup.

A company called 23andMe hopes that millions of American fans, casting about for a team to support since their own failed to qualify for the World Cup, will take that last path. The TV spots hawking the service are already blanketing Fox Sports. And while I happen to think that soccer is a highly interesting sport for lots of better reasons, my position is that if it takes a mail-order DNA test to get you into the game, then swab your cheek and join the party.

The point is, soccer is an exercise in the arbitrary. Your favorite player will probably miss the goal. The referee will probably make the wrong call. Your team will probably lose. You will probably get angry and then you will get sad and then, next week, you'll start the cycle again, over and over, ultimately infecting your offspring with the same illogical obsession so that you'll have someone else to be miserable with.

Choose misery with a chance of joy, I say. Choose empathy and random connection.

Maybe, because of a DNA test, you'll choose to care about the national soccer team of Egypt or Colombia or South Korea. The best that can happen is that you might plug in with a group of people who live far away in Egypt or Colombia or South Korea. You might, for a moment, share in their suffering and delight in their triumphs. You might empathize with strangers for no other reason than the fact that your great great great great great great great great great great grandmother was born in a crude hovel somewhere in the Nile Delta.

Whoa! Cool! That's the splendor of soccer… and advances in our understanding of the human genome, I suppose.

A leading bioethicist has suggested that 23andMe's campaign could inflame racial animosity, but that seems unlikely to me, because if we could alter the allegiances and behavioral patterns of actual soccer hooligans—for better or worse—by appealing to science and reason, they would already be extinct. No, the worst that could happen is that you'll waste a few hours of your life screaming at a TV show featuring two groups of men who are being paid millions of dollars to determine who is more proficient at placing a small orb between two sticks.

Choose misery with a chance of joy, I say. Choose empathy and random connection. Choose Iceland, even though it's unlikely you have any Icelandic ancestors, because it's the smallest country ever to qualify for the World Cup and what did Iceland ever do to you? Just don't choose Germany—they don't need your help.

[Ed. Note: To read the counter viewpoint, click here. Then visit leapsmag on social media to share your opinion: Who wins this debate?]

George Quraishi
George Quraishi is the founder and editor of Howler, a magazine about soccer. His writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, Fortune, and Vogue.
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Emily Mullin is the summer editor of Leaps.org. Most recently, she was a staff writer covering biotech at OneZero, Medium's tech and science publication. Before that, she was the associate editor for biomedicine at MIT Technology Review. Her stories on science and medicine have also appeared in The Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, National Geographic and STAT.