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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Kidney transplant patient Robert Waddell, center, with his wife and children after being off immunosuppresants; photo aken last summer in Perdido Key, FL. Left to right: Christian, Bailey, Rob, Karen (wife), Robby and Casey.

Photo courtesy Rob Waddell

Rob Waddell dreaded getting a kidney transplant. He suffers from a genetic condition called polycystic kidney disease that causes the uncontrolled growth of cysts that gradually choke off kidney function. The inherited defect has haunted his family for generations, killing his great grandmother, grandmother, and numerous cousins, aunts and uncles.

But he saw how difficult it was for his mother and sister, who also suffer from this condition, to live with the side effects of the drugs they needed to take to prevent organ rejection, which can cause diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer, and even kidney failure because of their toxicity. Many of his relatives followed the same course, says Waddell: "They were all on dialysis, then a transplant and ended up usually dying from cancers caused by the medications."

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Linda Marsa
Linda Marsa is a contributing editor at Discover, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and author of Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Harm Our Health and How We Can Save Ourselves (Rodale, 2013), which the New York Times called “gripping to read.” Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Science Writing, and she has written for numerous publications, including Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Nautilus, Men’s Journal, Playboy, Pacific Standard and Aeon.

The White House in Washington, D.C.

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This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.

We invited Nobel Prize, National Medal of Science, and Breakthrough Prize Laureates working in America to offer advice to the next President on how to prioritize science and medicine in the next four years. Almost universally, these 28 letters underscore the importance of government support for basic or fundamental research to fuel long-term solutions to challenges like infectious diseases, climate change, and environmental preservation.

Many of these scientists are immigrants to the United States and emphasize how they moved to this country for its educational and scientific opportunities, which recently have been threatened by changes in visa policies for students and researchers from overseas. Many respondents emphasize the importance of training opportunities for scientists from diverse backgrounds to ensure that America can continue to have one of the strongest, most creative scientific workforces in the world.

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Aaron F. Mertz
Aaron F. Mertz, Ph.D., is a biophysicist, science advocate, and the founding Director of the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, launched in 2019 to help foster a diverse scientific workforce whose contributions extend beyond the laboratory and to generate greater public appreciation for science as a vital tool to address global challenges. He completed postdoctoral training in cell biology at Rockefeller University, a doctorate in physics at Yale University, a master’s degree in the history of science at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and a bachelor’s degree in physics at Washington University in St. Louis.