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Discovering American Football

Among my initial impressions of American culture and lifestyle, what really caught my eye were the isolationist tendencies that this country has consciously and sub-consciously adopted over the course of the past 2 centuries. (The validity of the ‘why’ is not relevant to this discussion). And more specifically, how these isolationist policies had manifested themselves in the day to day workings of the society. And of all the different aspects of American culture that exhibit this isolationist propensity, perhaps the most visible, glaring and sometimes obvious one is sports.

American sports (apart from Olympic events) are mostly just that – sports played in America. American Football, Baseball, Basketball and Ice hockey are sports where the biggest sporting events include teams from within North America playing each other to be crowned ‘World Champions’. (Sure there are instances of international participation – notably for Basketball, and also for Baseball in Latin America and Japan). But for an outsider looking in – like an immigrant such as myself – the universal, unquestioned acceptance of such a largely self-contained system among its people seems to display a certain sense of ignorance, apathy and maybe even some arrogance over other sports that are a lot more popular in the rest of the world. And THIS can and does work towards discouraging people unfamiliar with the sports to explore it.

Additionally, for an immigrant coming in to this country well beyond his/her formative years, it can seem to be a rather daunting, and sometimes even pointless, task to explore the sports. My own initial thoughts went along these lines: “I have no association with these sports. I never grew up with them. I have no reason to be interested in them now. So I will still continue to just watch cricket, soccer and tennis.” And this was (and in many cases, still is) echoed among most of my fellow Indian friends. It would have been that much easier to simply keep my status quo and not make an effort into exploring the product of a seemingly isolationist thinking.

But it is only when one looks beyond this apparent barrier of sports apathy and isolationism does one discover a whole new universe of sporting culture this country has to offer. And so I decided to take the plunge to see what’s out there – at least as far as American Football is concerned.

High angle of fans in Lane Stadium football

Lane Stadium, Virginia Tech

Doing my Master’s in a university with a big football tradition such as Virginia Tech inevitably exposed me to a lot of buzz around the game and the team. An American classmate of mine volunteered to feed my curiosity by watching the VT vs Nebraska (2009) game with me and explaining all the rules and objectives. VT won that game – a rather low scoring encounter with a memorable finish. And I got hooked on to the sport. I watched most of the VT games and even managed to follow some of the other ACC/BCS games that season. I even recollect going to my friend’s super bowl party that winter.

My initial efforts to watch and understand the game may have been borne out of a desire to socialize and make new friends. But over time, the sport itself grew on me – to the extent that I started to watch even non-VT games whenever they were on. So in my third semester (and second football season), I decided to watch a few games at Lane Stadium – home of the Virginia Tech Hokies. That was also the first time I learnt about the tradition of tailgating.

I just couldn’t believe it! I had never seen anything like it before. People drank alcohol for hours before the game, during the game, and for hours after the game! Lane Stadium ended up being a spot where 67,000 drunk college kids cheered on a bunch of other college kids playing football! Wow! It was just incredible! And I definitely wanted more! So I ended up going to 3-4 more games at the Lane Stadium, the most memorable of which being the 28-21 win over Georgia Tech on a Thursday night.

In the end, maybe it was being around a lot of people who all cheered for the same team, maybe it was that I was looking to socialize and make new friends, or maybe it is because I am a big sports guy by nature and American football was a sport that I came to like, or maybe it was a combination of all of them. But whatever may have been the contributing factor, by the time I graduated in December 2010, I was no longer looking at American football as an outsider. I was a fan of the sport and I had a team to root for.

Over the last 6 years since my graduation, I have become even more knowledgeable about the game – not so much its history, as about the tactics, strategy and the team itself. I have a big group of American friends who are passionate about the game, and I feed off their passion and get increasingly more involved in the game over the season. Though the Big 10 and Big 12 conferences in the Midwest have little to do with VT and the ACC, I nevertheless have watched most of the VT games and a bunch of other ACC and other conference games. I have always watched the BCS bowls/playoffs even though there was no team in there to cheer for personally.

I have come to realize that to grow an interest in any new sport, one need 3 things: a general liking to the sport itself, a team to root for, and friends to watch the games with (preferably rooting for the same team). I have been fortunate to have all of them and so I now find myself cursing, clapping, shouting, jumping around and being my usual animated self whenever I am watching a VT game. I follow fan blogs that discuss each game, the team, recruiting and all associated gossip and rumors –  all clear indications that I have something personally invested in the outcome of the games every weekend!

And speaking of having something personally invested in a team, I have also realized that I have a direct affiliation to the Virginia Tech football team. I went to school there and so there is a very valid reason to root for them. Which made me then question my affiliation to all the soccer teams that I have passionately supported for well over a decade now – Chelsea and Juventus. I suppose we don’t need a reason to choose a sports team to root for, but technically speaking, I have a more valid affiliation to VT football than to Chelsea or Juventus! (I know! This is sacrilege!) But I choose not to break my head about that.

Of course, the elephant in the room here is the absence of anything NFL in my encounters with American football. I do watch the games at the bar or at my friends’ place when they are on. I will even appreciate a close/good game regardless of who is playing. But the absence of having a team to root for has pretty much held me back from following it as closely as I do for college football. Many of my friends are either fans of the Broncos or the Packers, so whenever I am watching a game with them, I end up cheering with them. I do have some affinity towards the Broncos, so if I were to really pick a team, I would probably go with them. But until I truly commit to an NFL team and start rooting for it, I probably wouldn’t feel the same way about it as I do with college football.

At the end of the day, I find that I have spent many weekends watching American football with my friends to great satisfaction – bonding, cheering and even having opinions of my own about how the teams should have played. These experiences have proved to be a very fruitful, having served as an easy avenue to assimilate into the American lifestyle and to have a larger sense of belonging in a  new society and culture that is half way around the world from where I grew up. I have benefited greatly from this experience and I definitely intend to keep exploring this further.

 

 

 

 

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Breaking News: India to start Kho-Kho WORLD SERIES on the lines of Baseball WORLD SERIES. Winners to be crowned WORLD CHAMPIONS.

In a major development to one of the few aboriginal Indian games that are still played, the newly formed Kho-Kho Federation of India had decided to conduct a Kho-Kho WORLD SERIES on similar lines of the Baseball World Series in America. The tournament will feature 8 city based teams which will be operated on the basis of a franchisee. The structure and the format of the series will be very similar to the World Series informed the President of the Federation.

The primary motivation for such a huge step was supposedly the frustration surrounding everyone involved with regard to the poor publicity and recognition that was offered to the game. A bunch of Kho-Kho enthusiasts decided to bring about some much needed change and so set about determining the best way to draw attention to the age old sport.

“We were thinking. What is the easiest and most effective way to publicize a sport that nobody cares about? The answer was not difficult to find at all! All we have to do is to become World Champions and then everyone will take notice of us and the sport will then grow!” said Kumar Vaidyanathan, one of the Kho-Kho enthusiasts.

When asked to elaborate further, Sai Kumar, another excited Kho-Kho player explained, “You see, this is best understood with an example. Do you know why Baseball is so popular in the US? It is because every year, one of the US based teams is crowned WORLD CHAMPIONS for winning the Baseball WORLD SERIES! This generates a lot of enthusiasm and excitement among its supporters and motivates the other teams to try for the position as well. This cycle keeps repeating and the popularity of the sport continues to grow- primarily because one of the teams in the tournament is going to be given the title of the World Champions! Similarly, we are going to establish a tournament wherein some 8 teams from various cities in India will compete for the title of World Champions! That way more Indians will take note of the game and it will get a much needed boost!”

When pointed out that you cannot become World Champions if only one country is playing in the tournament, Mr. Vaidyanathan replied, “That is the wrong perception! Look at the United States. They have so many games that are based on this format. Basketball with NBA, American Football with the NFL/AFL/Superbowl, Ice Hockey with the NHL, and Baseball with the World Series. In each case, the winner is treated practically as the World Champions!

You are asking me about the validity of this process? Screw validity! Just look at how crazy and excited the fans get when they realize that their city based team are the WORLD CHAMPS!! Even if they only beat their neighbouring city teams! Do you know how much this can do to Kho-Kho in India? So much revenue will come with increasing popularity and the sport will grow tremendously!”

“So you are saying that one Indian city based team will be crowned as World Champions because they beat another Indian city based team?” asked a curious reporter.

“Thats exactly how it works!” replied Mr. Vaidyanathan. “Just as is done in America, an Indian city based team is going to be crowned World Champions Kho-Kho for beating other Indian city based teams!”

“Yeah. I totally agree. The way the World Champions tag is justified in baseball is by saying that the best players in the world are playing in the World Series and hence they are entitled to the tag. Similarly, even we are getting the best players in the world to play in our tournament and we believe that the winners of this tournament deserve to be called World Champions!”, echoed Mr. Kumar.

Satish Rai, another Kho-Kho enthusiast quipped in, “Our players will eventually become as famous as Brett Favre, Peyton Manning or Drew Brees. They deserve that much recognition.”

One reporter immediately stood up and asked, “Who the f**k is Brett Favre, Peyton Manning or Drew Brees?”

Satish Rai gave a mischievous smile and continued, “You see thats the whole point. Nobody outside the USA has any idea about the existence of Brett Favre, Peyton Manning or Drew Brees! But all these people are ‘World famous in the USA’! Same way we are going to create a tournament which is going to elevate Kho-Kho players who are presently in some gully or village to become ‘World famous in India’!”

The initial bidding process for the 8 city based franchisees was largely dull as the format and the structure of the tournament didn’t strike a chord with businessmen. However, after hearing that the winning team will be given the title of WORLD CHAMPIONS, there has been a hectic bidding war between the business empires for the rights to own them.

One business magnate, who didn’t wish to be named, said “It is a very important thing this. It helps us to associate ourselves with a team that will be crowned World Champions! That is the pinnacle of branding for any company anywhere in the world! Of course Cricket is already a lot more popular in India. But think of it. Which company can associate itself with a team that can be called as the World Champions? Even the main sponsor of the Indian cricket team cant claim that as India have not been crowned World Champions since 1983. The IPL only crowns the winning team as IPL Champions. So this is a golden opportunity for any company to be able to sponsor a team that could possibly be called as the World Champs! No wonder there is so much competition going on for that.”

The Ministry of Sports also released a statement conveying its full support to the tournament. “We strongly support the idea that Kho-Kho become popular in India. This is a very quick and sureshot way of helping it gain more popularity-both in the short term and long term. In fact, the Government is now commissioning a committee to look into the possibilities of using the same idea for other not-so-popular games such as Lagori, Gilli Danda, Goli, Kunte Bille, Dabba ( a variant of Hide & Seek) etc. This will encourage children to excel at their sport with some kind of assurance that they can make a living out of it.”

SUPERSTAR Rajnikanth wasn’t available for comment.