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Football: A Global Sport

by Photo of Kevin Leonard

Not so much in the United States.

Football: A Global Sport

Nope, not that thing with wideouts and quarterbacks, where the least appreciated player on the team actually touches the ball with his foot. It's the one where the least appreciated player is the only one that can touch it with his hands.

Football's global. Football's more than global: countries divide to play football (The UK splits into England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales for FIFA tournaments.). People die for football. The FIFA World Cup is, by far, the biggest sporting event in the world. 

So why don't we care enough to call it by it's proper name (Soccer come from the "SOC" in "Association Football")? Ironically, the World Cup in 1994 still has the highest total attendance for a World Cup. Clearly, we love competition, and can get being the national team from curling to cross country skiing. But culturally, soccer isn't important to us.

Football has never been very popular in the United States, despite the women's team's national dominance and the MLS, though thriving in the niche Pacific Northwest, is still something of a joke, despite the league valiant efforts to import washed-up stars.

Our Sports

A good place to start is in examination of our own sports. What do we need, what do we like? Look at the four major North American sports (with hockey swiftly slipping into obscurity), we can notice a several superficial favors that unite most of them. 

Scoring: Boy, do we love to score. Points all over the place in these games.

Physicality: Excluding baseball and most of basketball, here.

Team play: Let's come back to this.

It's harder than it seems to really unite the sports we love, other than calling them "ours" or "American". Of course, there is the intrinsic pride in creating games that have survived and we can call our own. But what makes them "American"?


What makes anything American? Sure, we throw out examples all the time: McDonald's, Vegas, democracy, Nike, capitalism. There's the archetype of the muscular American, and Westerns that show good old boys going into the frontier solo to take care of indians. (I once read that American men vastly overestimate the amount of muscle attractive to women - European men were more on the ball, understanding that women prefer lean muscle over Jersey Shore-esque meatheads.)

This value does, at first, make sense in terms of American sports. I mean, look at football. Plenty of brawn there. There's even some legal contact in basketball these days (or so I hear). Boxing and MMA also support the claim that machismo is the primary facet of American-ness in sports, as does our history as a militant nation.

But the argument is quickly modified when looking at other sports. Baseball is rarely macho -- a home-run and hit batsman here and there. We have not only an interest in non-contact sports, but tons of success in them: golf, track and field, swimming, and tennis, to name a few. 

The truth that masculinity is a draw for Americans - but not the primary draw, is best exemplified in two international sports.

Track and Field and Rugby

Americans have dominated track and field internationally from the beginning. The U.S. has won more medals in the sport than any other nation, on both the men's and women's sides in both Olympic and World Championship meetings.

General American emphasis is on the more masculine events - heavy throws (shotput and hammer), sprinting and jumping. These events tend to have the most muscle and require the most power, and we've had the most success in these disciplines. People compete in, and watch, what they care about, and ignore what they don't: a guy on my D3 college team would've won the 5K at the Jamaican national championships.

What's interesting, though, is that Americans don't always ignore more feminine (superficially) events. The U.S. has had 3 marathon winners at the Olympics, and Frank Shorter's victory in 1972 sparking a distance running boom in the United States. 

Grown men with chicken legs running around in short shorts? What's macho about that? But, the country ate it up.

Conversely, rugby has suffered even more than football in the United States. This has always baffled me: why wouldn't a sport that has no pads, but lots of hitting, be popular here?

The answer to this, and to what we value in sports as a culture, lies in team play.

Safety First, Then Teamwork

Team play in sports that are popular in the United States is fascinating. In the Big Four, team play is more like star play with some helpers orbited the periphery. In any of these sports, there are not only players, but positions designed to have dominant roles in the game. Pitchers, quarterbacks, point guards, and goaltenders -- have responsibilities that far outweigh those of their peers.

All of these players can take over their respective games, and are usually expected to do so. Baseball's not much of a team game when you take the perspective that only 1 out of 9 guys on the field gets to pitch. And look how the game is played: 1 batter at a time. Football is played one snap at a time, and one player touches the ball each play, and makes the decisions.

Hockey and basketball are not as designed for this rise of the individual, but we still reinforce that value in these sports. Look at basketball - who do we respect more -- Dirk, for doing it "by himself"', or Lebron, for "getting help"? And when are fans most excited about a hockey game? When two players square off to fight, one on one.

We flock to the individual in sports just as we do celebrities in a more general culture, which ironically reflects the general sense of being American - individuality and individual freedom.


What we culturally value in team sports in not the unity of the team as much as the rise of the individual above the team. Really, this is the principle our country operates on -- the rise of the individual, free, above the masses. It's just the Revolution all over again. The setting of the team and the game is the perfect place for the individual to rise up and become the hero.

Individuality is not as intimately built other team sports like football, rugby, lacrosse and volleyball. The emphasis is more fundamentally on team play. Of course, any coach worth his weight will know this, and any great team, regardless of sport, will have a balanced contributions and unity.

But the gameplay in these other team sports requires more balance than the Big Three - football, baseball, and basketball. In the four sports mentioned above, and in hockey, the ball or puck must be passed constantly, and possession is flighty and temporary. The dominant force, then, is the team, not the individual with the ball, because the cooperation of the team is necessary for the balled to keep being possessed.

It's interesting to note that the most individual player in soccer - the goalkeeper - is often the most neglected. 

Football is a game of unity and, culturally, Americans are not into that. 

Let yourself get into football -- it's an incredible game. Get out and see the men's national team play through Charged.fm, and be sure to support the women's team in their World Cup semifinal match against France.

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