Earlier this week (http://splendidfred.com/2011/11/21/three-and-out-pro-football-why-i-find-american-football-fascinating-by-luke-irwin/) I discussed why I find American football such a fascinating sport. In that article I wrote about the sport as a war (and also about midget boxing), but it has struck me that American football is not just a sport, but a culture and an environment. Even if you’re not familiar with its culture, you might be aware of the notion of tailgating. This is where fans arrive hours ahead of kick-off and have a party in the stadium’s car park; it’s so popular in fact that people purchase SUVs with huge tailgates especially to hold their barbeques in. It certainly makes a refreshing change from those pre-match riots we’re used to in this country.
Now, that’s not to say America is a country full of men willing to back down from a fight. Michael Moore has assured us of that, so why are there so few riots in American sport? They certainly have their fierce rivalries, almost as fierce as football – the Bears have their Packers, the Steelers have their Ravens, and the Cowboys have the entire league (including themselves). They might not be as close geographically as West Ham and Millwall (or indeed Brightonand CrystalPalace),[*] but they’re as far away from each other when it comes to sports. There have been accounts of violence in American sport, not surprisingly dominated by ice hockey, but there have only been two documented riots in the NFL since 1970, and they were both by Super Bowl winning set of fans.
That fact is completely overwhelming, especially when you think of the huge trouble America has with crime, and although uncouth to say, it is an undeniable fact that the majority of petty crime in urban-America is by African-Americans. So that’s the answer – you say – American football brings about a “higher class” of fan than football? Completely wrong: American football has overtaken baseball as “America’s game” and is comparable to football in this country by the people who play it. In fact, over 65% of the NFLs players are non-white.
This lack of violence is just one of many ways in which American football defies the stereotype so many people have of it (http://splendidfred.com/2011/11/21/three-and-out-pro-football-why-i-find-american-football-fascinating-by-luke-irwin/). Sure, you turn on the adverts during a game of American football and it will be an almost universal tagline of, “Real men drink beer, drive SUVs and eat 16lbs of chicken!” voiced by a man doing a Clint Eastwood impression. But then you have to look at how the sport is structured into the American culture.
One thing that becomes apparent when you first start watching the game – or eavesdropping on other people talking about it – is a seemingly absurd obsession with colleges. The players introduce themselves as, “Devin Hester, The U”[†] as if that’s their full name, like, Mr. and Mrs. Peters University of Durham.” Maybe they’re just pining for their old university days or hanging onto a lost youth? Turns out this all has something to do with the NFL Draft. Let me skip back.
In America they take non-professional football incredibly seriously. While you were playing regional football in front of a crowd of twelve back in Primary School (or what they call Elementary School in USA), they were on their first steps to pro-football. Because sport garners so much attention, and thus finance, the better High Schools (or what we call Secondary Schools/ sixth-form colleges) recruit not just the most academic, but the best sporting prospects. Likewise, colleges (what we call Universities) often accept students on sports-based degrees. College football in America is so big that Pasadena’s Rose Bowl sells out over 94,000, while the University of Phoenix built a $455M stadium. When students graduate college, they can opt into the NFL Draft, a system in which the 32 NFL teams acquire these players in reverse order of how well the team performed, i.e. the worst team gets the first pick.
This, of course, means two things. One: every single drafted NFL player has a degree. This may seem incidental, but American football is an incredibly complex game, and there is no doubting you need to be intelligent to play it. It also means that you need to have proven yourself for up to five years before you hit the big-leagues and start earning money. For the most part it keeps athletes dedicated, and on their toes, because:
Two: the league remains perpetually balanced in terms of talent. In football (soccer), money is vital. If you buy a £10M striker, you would be devastated if he underperformed and you wound up selling him for a fraction of that price. In the NFL, if a player underperforms, you either jettison him off, or let his contract wind down and then take another player in the draft. Neither one has cost you anything other than wages, and so you’re not making a loss. There is of course the added threat for players that almost anyone is replaceable, so rarely do players keep the club under ransom for contracts.
Now just… read that paragraph again. Does it – or does it not – sound extremely like something you’d find in a communist manifesto? Equality? No man is invaluable? The insignificance of money? It just doesn’t sound right at all. Take Shaun Alexander. In 2005 he was voted NFL MVP, the best player in the league. He got a huge pay cheque, performed miserably and three years later retired from football because no-one would pay him the sort of money he expected.
And I haven’t even mentioned salary caps; the single most important aspect of all American sport, along with the equal spreading of money through TV and other commercial activities. This system has helped create a league where there have been seven different winners of the Super Bowl in the past ten years, and leads to stable and shreds management from the chairman providing a vital role. It was precisely this (although not exclusively this) that allowed the Green Bay Packers to win the Super Bowl last year – a team based in Green Bay, WI, with a population of 104,000. That’s the equivalent of Eastbourne Borough winning the Premier League.
Take this as a parting example. In 1989, the Dallas Cowboys executed the now-infamous “Herschel Walker trade.” They gave their star running back – Herschel Walker (and some low-value draft picks) to the Minnesota Vikings, in exchange for a bunch of squad players and eight draft picks. No money parted hands. With those draft picks the Cowboys developed a team of players and within three years won the Super Bowl. Three times. The Vikings didn’t make it past the wild-card round for seven years.
Just imagine if that happened in football. If Alex Ferguson gave Wayne Rooney to Barcelona in exchange for their youth team. Then won the Champions League three times. What sort of message does that send out about not only player-power, but of stable finance? There’s a reason they refer to their teams as franchises, you know.
[*] A rivalry that dates back to Brighton saying that Crystal Palace’s new nickname, “the Eagles” sounded too much like their own nicknames, “the Seagulls.”
[†] The U,” of course, is short for the University of Miami. Because that’s the obvious abbreviation; it’s not like all universities have the word “U” in their somewhere.