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John Green reviews teddy bears and penalty shootouts.

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Hello and welcome to The Anthropocene Reviewed, a podcast where we review different facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale. I’m John Green, and today I’ll be reviewing teddy bears and penalty shootouts.

Let’s begin with teddy bears, a plush children’s toy that’s been around since 1902.

The English word bear comes to us from a Germanic root, bero, meaning “the brown one” or “the brown thing.” Scandinavian languages also don't use a direct name for bear, instead referring to them as “honey eaters.” Many linguists believe these names are substitutes, created because speaking or writing the actual word for bear was taboo. As those in the wizarding world were taught never to say Voldemort, northern Europeans did not say their word for bear, perhaps because it was feared that saying the bear’s true name could summon one.

In any case, this taboo was so successful that today we are left with only the replacement word for bear—essentially, we call them “You Know Who.”

Even so, we’ve long posed a much greater threat to bears than they have to us. For centuries, Europeans tormented bears in a practice known as bear-baiting—bears would be chained to a pole and then attacked by dogs until they were injured or killed, or they’d be placed into a ring with a bull for a fight to the death. England’s royals loved this stuff: Henry VIII had a bear pit made at the Palace of Whitehall. 

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But by his time, Britain’s brown bears had been extinct due to overhunting for centuries, and so bears were imported from mainland Europe.

It would, then, be inaccurate to say that our dominion over bears is a wholly recent phenomenon—we’ve long lorded our power over them. Still, it’s a bit odd that our children now commonly cuddle with an animal we used to be afraid to call by name. It’s easy to forget how incredibly weird humans are.

Okay, so, here’s the story of the Teddy Bear as it is usually told: In November of 1902, U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt went bear hunting in Mississippi, which was an extremely Teddy Roosevelt thing to do. Roosevelt was an avid hunter and for a while had been something of a cowboy in the American West--his Presidency saw the establishment of many national parks and wildlife refuges in the United States--at any rate, the hunting party’s dogs chased a bear for hours before Roosevelt gave up and decided to return to camp to eat lunch. But then the dogs cornered the bear. The hunting guide blew a bugle to alert the President’s party to come, but before Roosevelt arrived, the guide had to club the bear with a butt of a rifle because it had mauled one of his dogs.

So by the time the President got to the scene, the bear was tied to a tree and semi-conscious. Roosevelt refused to shoot it, feeling it would be unsportsmanlike. And word of the President’s compassion spread throughout the country, especially after a cartoon in the Washington Post by Clifford Berryman illustrated the event. In the cartoon, the bear is reimagined as an innocent cub with a round face and large eyes looking toward Roosevelt with meek desperation.

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Morris and Rose Michtom, Russian immigrants living in Brooklyn, saw that cartoon and created a stuffed version of the cartoon cub they called “Teddy’s Bear.” The bear was placed in the window of their candy shop and became an immediate hit. Curiously, a German firm independently produced a very similar teddy bear around the same time, and both companies ended up becoming hugely successful. The German manufacturer, Steiff, had been founded a couple decades earlier by Margarete Steiff, a stuffed animal designer who’d been paralyzed from the waist down before her second birthday. Her nephew Richard designed the Steiff teddy bear, and by 1907, they were selling nearly a million of them per year.

In Brooklyn, meanwhile, the Michtoms used their teddy bear sales to found the company Ideal Toys, which would go on to manufacture a huge array of popular 20th century playthings, from the game Mouse Trap to the Rubik’s Cube. Ideal also made the first Betsy Wetsy doll in 1934. When you poured water into Betsy Wetsy’s mouth, the doll would kind of drip that water out of its pelvis into a diaper, a trick that at least the American children in my home still find fascinating and hilarious. But we’re not here to review two and a half star urinating dolls; we’re here to review the teddy bear.

The standard contemporary teddy bear looks approximately like the 1902 ones did—brown body, dark eyes, a round face, a cute little nose. They are soft and squeezable. When I was a kid, a talking teddy bear named Teddy Ruxpin became very popular. But what I loved about teddy bears as a child was their silence. They didn’t ask anything of me, or judge me for my emotional outbursts. One of my only vivid childhood memories is of my tenth birthday, retreating to my room after an exhausting birthday party, cuddling with a teddy bear and thinking that it didn’t really work anymore, that whatever had once soothed me about this soft and silent creature no longer did. 

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I remember thinking that I would never be a kid again, not really, which was the first time I can recall feeling that intense longing for the you to whom you can never return. Sarah Dessen once wrote that home is “not a place, but a moment.” Home is a teddy bear, but only a certain teddy bear at a certain time.

The bears of our imagination have become increasingly sweet and cuddly since the debut of the teddy bear. Winnie the Pooh first arrived in 1926; Paddington Bear in 1958. The Care Bears showed up in 1981 as the ultimate unthreatening ursine friends. Characters like Funshine Bear and Love-a-Lot Bear starred in aggressively saccharine picture books with titles like Caring Is What Counts and Your Best Wish Can Come True.

In the broader world, at least those of us living in cities, began to see bears as we thought Roosevelt had seen them—creatures to be pitied and preserved. When I forget to turn off the lights when leaving a room, my five-year-old daughter will often shout, “Dad, the polar bears!” because she has been taught that minimizing our electricity usage can shrink our carbon footprint and thereby preserve the habitat of polar bears. She’s not afraid of polar bears; she’s afraid of their extinction. The animals that once terrorized us, and that we long terrorized, are now often viewed as weak and vulnerable. The mighty bear has become, like so many creatures on Earth, dependent upon us. Their survival is contingent upon our wisdom and compassion—just as that bear in Mississippi needed Roosevelt to be kind.

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And so in that sense, the teddy bear is a reminder of the astonishing power of contemporary humanity. Like, it’s hard to even understand how dominant our species has become, but I sometimes find it helpful to think of it purely in terms of mass: The total combined weight of all living humans currently on earth is around 300 million tons. That is our species so-called biomass. The biomass of our livestock—sheep, chickens, cows, and so on—is around 700 million tons. But the combined biomass of every other large animal on earth is less than 100 million tons. All the whales and tigers and monkeys and deer and bears together weigh less than a third of what we weigh.

For many species of large animals in the 21st century, the single-most important determinant of survival is whether they are of more use to humans dead or alive. Passenger pigeons were more useful dead, so they’re all dead. Chickens are more useful alive, at least for a while, and so there are a lot of chickens.

But if your life can’t be especially useful to humans, the second-best thing you can be is cute. You need to have an expressive face, ideally some large eyes. Your babies need to remind us of our babies. Something about you must make us feel guilty for eliminating you from the planet.

Can cuteness save a species? I’m dubious.

The part of the Teddy Bear story that often doesn’t get told is that right after Roosevelt sportingly refused to kill the bear, he ordered a member of his hunting party to slit its throat, so as to put it out of its misery. No bears were saved that day. 

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And now there are fewer than fifty bears in Mississippi. Sales of teddy bears, meanwhile, have never been higher.

I give the teddy bear two and a half stars.

After the break, we’ll turn our attention to penalty shootouts, but first...

[AD BREAK 10:28-11:30]

And now, back to the show.

A note before we begin: In this review, I use the word “football” to refer to the game Americans commonly call soccer. I’m doing this in a blatant attempt to seem worldly and sophisticated.

Right. So. I know a lot of you hate sports, and I get it. Contemporary humanity has invested a tremendous portion of its limited resources into developing extremely sophisticated strategies for placing a usually round object through a hoop or into a hole or past a line, and then billions of people offer gobs of their attention to watching and discussing and arguing over the exploits of these balls and the people who get paid astonishing sums of money to move those balls around. 

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And how can anyone allow the absolute meaningless of sports to occupy so much of what Mary Oliver called “your one wild and precious life”? What if we turned our attention instead to researching malaria treatments, or planting gardens, or developing strategies to limit climate change?

And I do get that. But I also think humans need games—we’ve created them over and over again throughout our history. But more to the point, I think we need communities, which sports are actually pretty good at creating. I remember a conversation I had once with a fan of AFC Wimbledon, this English football team I sponsor. It’s a long story. She told me that every other Saturday for forty years, her father had sat next to the same people at the Plough Lane Stadium, and for a couple hours they would collectively turn their attention away from themselves and toward something bigger. She told me it was like church, and just like church, when a Wimbledon fan was having hard times, other fans would pitch in to help them out, and just like church Wimbledon fans would organize together to volunteer at food banks or raise money for charities.

“What you have to understand “she told me, “is that when they took our stadium away, they took my father’s church away.” I find it helpful to remember that sentiment when thinking about sports. 

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I’m also reminded of a comment attributed to Pope John Paul II: “Of all the unimportant things, football is the most important.”

Football fans love to talk about history, about the past legends of their club and the ancient glories and tribulations. I’m continually astonished by what we can romanticize—even when talking about the bad old days, football fans can sound nostalgic. “You wouldn’t believe how crap we were,” Manchester City fans will say, almost wistfully. “Our stadium was hideous. Our style of play so uninspiring. We lost so many games. Those were the days.”

But for a game so concerned with its history, football doesn’t actually have much of it. Although the Chinese game cuju, which involved kicking a ball into a net, dates back over 2,000 years, the rules of contemporary football weren’t set until 1863, when the English Football Association was formed, and even then play was vastly different from today. For one thing, if a game was tied and a winner needed to be declared, a coin was flipped, or lots were drawn. In 1954, Spain and Turkey drew in their World Cup qualifying match, and so a blindfolded 14-year-old Italian boy named Luigi reached his hand into a bowl and pulled out the name of Turkey, so Turkey went to the World Cup finals, and Spain did not. In the 1968 Olympics, the Israeli national team lost to Bulgaria on a coin flip, and in response, an Israeli man named Yosef Dagan proposed that ties should be decided not by coin flips, or by 14-year-old Italian boys, but by a penalty shoot-out in which each team would take five spot kicks eight yards from the goal. Whichever team had more goals after five shots each would be declared the winner of the game; and if it was still tied after five rounds, the penalty shootout would continue sudden death-style until a winner could be named.

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FIFA adopted the penalty shootout in 1970, just a few years before I was born. And it has since given us many of football’s most iconic moments—Brandi Chastain’s World Cup winning spot kick in 1999; the 1994 World Cup men’s final in which Brazil overcame Italy in penalties; and Italy’s revenge in 2006, when they won the World Cup via a shootout against France. It’s often said penalty shootouts are a lottery, but they’re less of a lottery than actual lotteries, which is how games used to be decided. Others criticize shootouts for increasing the likelihood of ties, but there isn’t much evidence of that. The penalty shoot-out is an imperfect solution to an unsolvable problem, which is that some games just don’t produce an obvious winner.

I was not present for the most important penalty shootout of my life, but I think offering you some background on it might help to explain how much they can mean. In 1991, the aforementioned English football club, Wimbledon, were forced to move from their stadium, Plough Lane, and share a ground with another club. Wimbledon fans began singing an aching elegy for their lost home, called “Show me the way to Plough Lane.”  They would sing, “I’m tired and I want to go home.”

But a return to Plough Lane was not to be. Instead 2002, Wimbledon’s owners decided that rather than rebuild or renovate the stadium, they would move the team to a town called Milton Keynes. 

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This sort of thing happens all the time in American sports, where professional teams are franchises, but it was unprecedented in England, where football clubs were seen as community assets. Wimbledon fans responded by re-forming a club that they would own. They held tryouts in a public park, hired a coach, found a ground for their games, and started out in the ninth tier of English football.

In most of the world, football clubs can rise and fall through the ranks via promotion and relegation—each season, the best teams in a league are promoted up to a more competitive league, while the worst teams are relegated down to a less competitive one. Only the top four leagues in England are fully professional, so to get back to being a full-time professional team, the reformed AFC Wimbledon, starting in the ninth tier, would need to be promoted five times.

It only took nine years to get one step away. In 2011, AFC Wimbledon made it all the way to the playoff final in the fifth tier. 

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One game from being back to a full-time professional team. And at the end of that game, it was tied. So it went to a penalty shootout. Wimbledon’s goalkeeper was a 19-year-old kid named Seb Brown. Their captain and star player, 27-year-old Danny Kedwell, had never before played a game in England's top four leagues. Wimbledon’s assistant coach was also a cab driver.

Imagine that. After a decade in exile, singing “I’m tired and I want to go home,” having lost your stadium, you’re told by rich and powerful people that your community itself no longer exists.  You refuse to accept that. Every week, you spend two hours with people who otherwise you maybe wouldn’t love—you don’t necessarily have the same background or values or political perspectives, but because your love and passion and attention and humanity are focused in the same direction, you come to love one another despite all the differences. You sing together in the ninth tier, in the eighth, and the seventh and the sixth: I’m tired and I want to go home. You sing that song for so many years, until finally you’re singing it in the playoff final. At the end of this penalty shootout, you will either be a full-time professional club again, or you’ll be stuck once more in the semipro wilderness.

But this penalty shoot-out is not only about the people in that stadium. It is also about the people who are gone, including your father, who went to this church those forty years, who brought you into this game, and whose love you still feel most intensely when you are watching the team that he loved.

You think how strange it is that something so important to you can be so entirely out of your control. But then again, that’s life. You’re never really steering the ship of yourself. You’re shouting requests, pleading with the unseen captain, please go this way. Please go that way. Please do not run into that iceberg. Often, the captain listens, and you say thank you. Sometimes, the captain does not listen.

19-year-old Seb Brown saves two of the five penalties he faces, and now Wimbledon are just a single spot kick away from the Football League. Danny Kedwell, Wimbledon’s captain, places the ball eight yards from the goal. The opposing keeper stands on the goalline, arms tense at his sides. The referee blows his whistle, and there’s this quick moment when you realize how lucky you are to love anything this much, this purely.

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And then Danny Kedwell absolutely drills the ball into the back of the net, and AFC Wimbledon are back in the Football League, and your world erupts into the purest joy ever known.

Of course football isn’t fair. Those who love the opposing team love it just as purely and just as much. I often wonder what might’ve happened if that shootout had gone the other way. On a personal level, I probably wouldn’t have ended up sponsoring Wimbledon, which has been among the great joys of my life. But more importantly, without the return to the Football League, Wimbledon might never have been able to grow enough to purchase and develop their new stadium, which will be built next year, across the street from the old Plough Lane. These days, you still hear “Show Me the Way to Plough Lane” sung from the stands. You still hear “I’m tired and I want to go home.” But even more often, you hear the fans exulting, “We’re on our way home. We’re on our way home. AFC Wimbledon. We’re on our way home.”

I give penalty shootouts four stars.

Thanks for listening to The Anthropocene Reviewed, a co-production of WNYC Studios and Complexly Media. This episode was written by me, edited by Stan Muller, and produced by Rosianna Halse Rojas and Jenny Lawton. The music was composed by Hannis Brown; Joe Plourde is our technical director. Thanks also to Kaitlyn, who wrote to suggest I review stuffed animals, and Michael, who suggested a review of something football-related. If you’d like to suggest a topic for review or just say hi, please email us at anthropocenereviewed at gmail dot com. 

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You can also find us on Twitter or Facebook. My favorite fact that didn’t make it in to today’s reviews: In 2015, AFC Wimbledon were promoted again via a one-game playoff, although mercifully that one did not go to a penalty shootout. I was in the crowd that day, with Rosianna, several friends, many strangers, and my father. Thanks again for listening; we leave you today with the sound of Radio WDON’s iconic call of that Danny Kedwell penalty.

Radio announcer 1: Deep breaths deep breaths deep breaths
Radio announcer 2: Come on Danny! 
Radio announcer 1: This for League Two it's Danny Kedwell...
[Both scream] YES! 
Radio announcer 2: They've done it! They've done it! We're in League Two! They've done it! They've done it! They've done it! We're in League Two!
Radio announcer 1: [laughs delightedly]