A Student of the Game
He’s both a pro-soccer referee and Spanish lit professor. The same skills apply.
He’s a professor of Latin literature and author of two books and a host of journal articles. But J.P. Spicer-Escalante has already settled on the title of his next book: Everything I’ve Learned in Life I Learned on a Soccer Field.
Theoretically, that is. If anyone ever invents 25-hour days.
Spicer-Escalante’s summer months will be a blur of domestic and international travel, thanks to his moonlighting job as a world-class professional soccer referee. This fall semester, though, he’ll settle in to teach a capstone class on those soccer-field lessons and what they say about the world at large.
The new course, Soccer and Culture in the Hispanic World, is designed for Spanish majors. It’s a fitting – and first of its kind – endeavor for an academic who’s long lived a double life. Some know him as Dr. Spicer-Escalante, a popular college professor who in 2015 was named the top undergraduate mentor for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Others see him in strictly black-and-white terms, as a referee and trainer for the U.S. Soccer Federation.
The new course, he says, allows him to “make this passion for the game part of my passion for teaching and for research.”
He wants students to understand the role soccer plays in our American culture and internationally. It’s become the No.1 participation sport in suburbia – eclipsing football, baseball and basketball – in part because of the opportunities it opens for girl players.
Yet, the sport is so much more than a Saturday-morning ritual. A soccer game, he says, is “like a baroque spectacle. It’s orchestrated as theater – a big stadium where you’ve got colors and sounds and songs and chanting and movement and people.”
Dual lives: a playbook
On the soccer field, you’ll encounter RCM (right center midfield), CAM (center attacking midfield), even a GK(goal keeper). You won’t, however, find a Ph.D. When Spicer-Escalante is asked how many other university literature professors are among the referees, he leans back in his chair. “None,” he says.
He pauses contemplatively. “None,” he confirms.
Spicer-Escalante began playing soccer as a 4-year-old in Wichita, Kansas. By his teen years, he was reffing youth soccer games and considering a job at McDonald’s. Then came the epiphany: “I realized I could make $10 for a 40-minute soccer game,” he says. His teen career plans were set.
In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Kansas State University didn’t have a program for soccer. (Major league soccer wasn’t even played until 1993.) The young KSU student made the cut for the club team. But, Spicer-Escalante says now, studying took up the time he should have been at practice. He took up for single-game refereeing gigs.
It paid off. As a grad student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, “my career as a referee really took off,” he says.
“I worked my way up all the way to major league soccer,” he says. “I did my first international matches in Illinois and made my way up into the professional ranks” – as in, FIFA and U.S. Soccer.
(Perhaps coincidentally? It was also at the University of Illinois that he met his wife, Maria Luisa Spicer-Escalante, a professor of Spanish and linguistics at USU.)
Spicer-Escalante brought this professional duality with him when he began at USU in 2003, retiring from active refereeing and moving into the role of “coaching” top-level referees. At USU, his teaching and research focus on Latin American literature. He’s also the founder and co-director of Decimononica, an online journal in Spanish on 19th-century “Hispanic cultural production.”
There’s not much difference, he says, between how he approaches a soccer game or a literary text. “It’s all analysis,” he says. “When I watch a game, I analyze it like I analyze a book. A soccer match is a text I read.”
The building of a referee ‘coach’
These days, professional soccer asks a lot more from its referees then it did from history’s stereotype of the gentleman umpire who directed action “much like a headmaster,” Spicer-Escalante says. “The people who worked the highest-level matches actually weren’t very athletic – they even wore blazers.”
Today, says Spicer-Escalante, a referee must be as much an athlete as any player. Consider this: A center referee can run as much as 8 miles during a single game.
Spicer-Escalante is a driver in the global movement to promote the professionalism of soccer referees. His official employer, the Professional Referee Association, “now has a whole crew of support scientists,” he says.
Only in the 1990s, said Spicer-Escalante, did refs begin to train like athletes – weight training, careful diets, restful sleep. But, he says, “there wasn’t a support network.”
Today, he adds, “all pro-soccer referees wear a watch that monitors every time we exercise, when sleeping, before games and during games. You’re always going to have 18-year-old players, but you’re not always going to be 18.”
We can thank technology for the ever-rising bar for referees. “The speed of play, the technical aspect of play,” he explains, “the strategies have all changed and become much more sophisticated.” Indeed, professional soccer in 2017 introduced a fifth “referee”– a video camera that sees 17 different angles.
And, we can thank big money. Miss one instance of a player handling the ball, and you’re on the hook for slumps in fortunes, fans’ hope and careers.
Spicer-Escalante’s own role has grown into what you might call a coach for professional refs on a global scale. Plus, he’s now translating FIFA-related material into Spanish.
In addition to the need for athleticism, today’s professional ref has to know more than rules of the game. There’s also psychology, personnel management, research. “Now on the FIFA level, I work specifically with ‘How do you eat?’ How do you sleep?’ ‘How do you exercise?’ ‘How do you prepare for a game?’,” he said. “Mentally, physically, psychologically. We work on all those factors now.”
You might agree those same skills of psychological insights and crowd management would be valuable to school teachers – or college professors. Spicer-Escalante does.
Pro soccer players and college students share much in common, he says. “An effective student is a learner. An effective player or referee or coach is a learner. They’re all learners.”
He encourages soccer players to be “students of the game.” The same advice goes for actual students, too, he says.
“I see this in class. The best students I’ve had at USU were people who said, ‘Oh, I see where I screwed that up.’ They learn to listen. If you can’t learn from mistakes you won’t go anywhere.”
The class itself
Spicer-Escalante’s new soccer-culture course will look at the soccer universe in terms of cultural productions, one of his research focuses. He’ll also explore the sport’s fascinating history.
Soccer in the United States is in a sorry last place when it comes to assessing its popularity among international nations. Yes, you can’t drive through a Cache Valley neighborhood without passing parks where kids in knee highs and oversized jerseys kick balls around.
Soccer, though, is actually a legacy of America’s immigrant populations. The game was something all newcomers shared when they arrived on U.S. shores. “In a lot of countries soccer is a working-class sport,” he says.
“The backbone of soccer in this country were the immigrants who brought it here.” he said. “All these people came here for a better life, but they brought their culture with them, and that was soccer.”
When he was a young referee, Spicer-Escalante says, “I cut my teeth refereeing in Chicago. On any given day I could have Serbians verses Croatians, or multiple Polish teams against Albanians or German clubs.” Down in Miami, he adds, a soccer game may match Jamaicans against Hondurans or Colombians.
Soccer became a true American success story when it moved into the suburbs, “partly because of soccer moms, partly because Title 9 allowed girls to play. But also,” he adds, “because many of those immigrants bettered their lives and moved to the suburbs.”
Students in Spicer-Escalante’s fall course will focus on soccer as a socio-cultural product, he said, “because it’s a product of who we are as societies and cultures.”
That includes hooligans, a term that’s become linked with violence in sports. “Manchester’s big,” he adds, referring to the U.K. city’s battling and bloody fans.
“I think everybody in the college class will go, ‘Wow! I never thought about the fact that sports – like literature, like art – reacts, responds and creates the society and culture in which we live,’” he said.
OK, now back to that hypothetical book, Everything I’ve Learned in Life I Learned on a Soccer Field. Here is the big lesson.
“I learned how to deal with people, how to manage people and your own self,” he says. “I learned how you set limits for yourself and others, and how you engage in the society of the game, which is, ‘I’m going to follow the rules, or I’m going to get kicked out.’”
The professor on famous soccer stars he’s met:
David Beckham, celebrity soccer star:
“A very, very gifted, talented, smart player who I hope will continue in terms of coaching. In many ways he’s very gentlemanly, but he’s also a soccer player, which means you don’t always have to be a gentleman.“
Mia Hamm, two-time Olympic gold medalist and two-time FIFA women’s World Cup champion, whom he’s refereed:
“One of the most talented players I’ve ever seen play — hard-nosed, unforgiving. She’d let you know if she disagreed with your decision on the field, but she’s a true professional in every sense of the word.“
Pele, considered the world’s greatest soccer player, whom JP encountered in 1982 at an international airport in Brazil:
“I see this smaller African-Brazilian guy get out of a car, wearing this beautiful white suit. He’s standing there, looking around, waiting. I say, ‘That’s Pele!’ And my friends go, ‘That’s not Pele.’
“I went up to him and, speaking in English, I said, ‘Please excuse me, sir. I don’t want to bother you, I just want to shake your hand.’ He said, ‘Oh, my friend, you’re American.’ I said, ‘I watched you play for the Cosmos. You were one of the people who gave the sport a heart and soul in our country because of the passion you brought to the game.’
“We spoke for three or four minutes. Finally he said, ‘Well, my friend, I have to go catch my flight. It’s been wonderful talking to you.’ At that point, we shook hands, he walked off. I didn’t have a pen and paper, or a camera or anything.
“He was just a very human person. It was a wonderful experience. “