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.
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.
Yes I do watch American football. I do find the game interesting at times but I tend to restrict myself to just College football. When I was at Virginia Tech last year, I did go to a few games there at the Lane Stadium and it was nice fun (especially the night game against Georgia Tech!). With regard to the NFL, I just watch the AFC and the NFC title games followed by the Superbowl. I have no allegiance to any team and I usually find myself rooting for the team that is lagging behind in the scoreline. I particularly despise the aspect of the game which gives rise to so many interruptions, which in turn gives rise to the inevitable ads. But I am not here to talk about that. Instead, I would like to talk about this one thing that I discovered recently that has fascinated me to no bounds. I am talking about the NFL Draft.
The NFL draft is an annual event in which the NFL teams recruit the best college football players who either just graduated or are ready to stop their college education in order to pursue their NFL dreams. This appears to be something totally boring and routine. But on the contrary, it has been one of the most fascinating revelations to me over the past few weeks. What has particularly caught my attention is the order in which the best college football players are picked.
You see, the way things would have been expected to work normally would primarily include the Super Bowl winning team to have the first pick in the draft. This can be looked at as some kind of a benefit for winning the Super Bowl. But the way the draft order is actually done is exactly the opposite. The Super Bowl champions get to pick the college football players right at the end. In fact, the first team that gets to have its pick among the best of the best players is the team that had the worst record in the previous season.
So if you finish with a 0-13 record (Zero wins and 13 losses), then you get to pick the best college quarterback in the country! And you are likely to get some leftover mediocre college kid to pick up if you are the Super Bowl champions (also called Mr. Irrelevant). So the basic idea is that the worse you perform, the earlier you get to have your pick among the new crop of the best college football players, thereby closing the gap to the champions.
The underlying idea behind this is what got me thinking. Rewarding the successful is what strikes as the most obvious and even the right thing to do. But this drafting policy goes beyond just that line of thinking. The underlying idea appears to be to create and maintain a level playing field among the many teams that compete in the NFL. So if one team is very weak and performs very bad, then they can be assured that they get to strengthen their team with the addition of the best college quarterback in the country. This also makes sure that the most successful or the strongest don’t become stronger. This is very much reflected in the results of the NFL teams. All except just 4 have won the Super Bowl at least once and have made their presence in the Super Bowl probably more than that.
Lets look at this another way. Say you are a business college graduate and there are a bunch of companies eyeing to recruit you and all fellow graduates into their companies. If the graduate is extremely brilliant and if the choice is up to the graduate, which is usually the case, he/she would choose the company which has shown to be the largest and the most successful. So the already successful company will increase its chances of becoming even more successful. And at the other extreme, the least successful company gets to choose only the leftovers or the big company rejects. This does not necessarily improve the chances of the smaller companies to become more successful. It may even hinder it. But hey! This is a free world. Mutual agreement and benefit should be totally free of any outside interference.
The situation I described above is the trademark feature of a capitalistic way of thinking. And this is usually what happens. The strong become stronger and more successful while the weak and the not so successful become weaker and do not really achieve any comparable success. Now at the other extreme, you have the communistic way of thinking which specifically aims at creating a level playing field and maintaining it that way. Add to this, the fact that America is pretty much considered to be the bastion of capitalism. And you have a fascinating presence of blatant communism right inside the bastion of capitalism!
Dont get me wrong. I am not at all saying that this is a wrong thing or that this is not fair. On the contrary, I feel that if at all one aspect of this world needs to be treated in a communistic perspective, it should be sports. And I am just fascinated to see this being implemented right inside the country which has long been accepted to be the epitome of capitalism.