All-American Sports?

In 1911, the American writer Ambrose Bierce defined Monday as "in Christian countries, the day after the baseball game." Times have changed and countries, too. In the U.S. of today, football is the most popular spectator sport. Baseball is now in second place among the sports people most like to watch. In Japan, it is the most popular. Both baseball and football are, or course, American developments of sports played in England. But baseball does not come from cricket, as many people think. Baseball comes from baseball. As early as 1700, an English churchman in Kent complained of baseball being played on Sundays. And illustrations of the time make it clear that this baseball was the baseball now called "the American game." Baseball is still very popular in the U.S. as an informal, neighbourhood sport. More than one American remembers the time when he or she hit a baseball through a neighbour's window (nice neighbours return the ball...).

What makes football in the U.S. so different from its European cousins, rugby and soccer, is not just the size, speed, and strength of its players. Rather, it is the most "scientific" of all outdoor team sports. Specific rules state what each player in each position may and may not do, and when. There are hundreds of possible "plays" (or moves) for teams on offence and defence. Because of this, football has been called "an open-air chess game disguised as warfare." Those who don't understand the countless rules and the many possibilities for plays miss most of the game. They are like people who, watching a chess game for the first time, conclude that the purpose is to knock out as many pieces as possible. One reason for the growing popularity of American football is that games are more often shown on TV in more nations. Another is that the rules of the game are beginning to be better understood.

Baseball and football have the reputation of being "typically American" team sports. This is ironic because the two most popular participant sports in the world today are indeed American in origin - basketball and volleyball. The first basketball game was played in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1891. It was invented at a YMCA there as a game that would fill the empty period between the football season (autumn) and the baseball season (spring and summer). Volleyball was also first played in Massachusetts, and also at a YMCA, this one in Holyoke, in 1895. During the First and Second World Wars, American soldiers took volleyball with them overseas and helped to make it popular. Today, of course, both basketball and volleyball are played everywhere by men and women of all ages. They are especially popular as school sports.

Professional and collegiate basketball games in the U.S. attract large numbers of fans (57.8 million spectators in 1991). Most of the important games are televised live. Basketball's growth in the last few years outside the U.S. has been startling. In 1991 it was already the world's fastest growing spectator sport. Then in 1992, the U.S. "Dream Team" - Michael Jordan and "Magic" Johnson and friends - appeared at the Olympics in Spain. While dazzling and charming viewers around the world they also brought a new popularity to the sport. In the U.S., in 1992, fully 90 percent of all professional NBA (National Basketball Association) games were sold out. And today, NBA games are shown on TV in over 90 countries around the world.

There is an enormous amount of live broadcasting of all different types of sports events, professional and amateur, at state, national, and international levels. Americans are used to having baseball and basketball, college and professional football games, golf, tennis, and auto racing, swimming meets, and the Olympics carried live and at full length. In season, college football games are shown live all day Saturday. On Sundays, there are live television broadcasts of the professional teams, and if that weren't enough, there's also a game on Monday night. Usually one or two games are broadcast throughout the land, and many others only to regions where the teams have most of their fans. If all seats are sold out for a game, it can often be seen in that city "live" on TV, too. Surprisingly, this live broadcasting of sports events has not only increased interest in the sports, it has also increased actual attendance at the stadiums or arenas.

Hockey (ice hockey, that is, the other kind is still a minor sport in the U.S.), baseball, football, and basketball are the "four major sports." Their seasons now often overlap. Some football games are still being played in January in the snow and ice. Pre-season baseball games start in warm, sunny regions like Florida and Arizona about the same time. In the fall of the year, all four come together. Some people think that having four very popular sports at the same time is "a bit much." But they shouldn't bother the rest of us, please, during the games.

Americans are frequently told that the other football (which they call soccer) is, after all, the most popular spectator sport in the world. And how does it fare in the U.S.? Despite the 1994 World Cup being held in the United States, soccer remains, at least as a professional sport, distinctly minor. By contrast, it has become quite popular as a school sport. It is not the notorious soccer hooliganism that has hurt it as a professional sport. Rather it does not compete well in American eyes with the American favourite four. All is not lost yet: in the first women's soccer world championship in China in 1991, the United States team won.

There are many other sports and sports activities in America which attract millions of active participants. Among them are golf, swimming, tennis, marathons, track and field, bowling, archery, skiing, skating, squash and badminton, rowing and sailing, weight lifting, boxing, and wrestling. Around 40 percent of all Americans take part in some athletic activity once a day. And 1990 statistics show that the six favorite participatory sports activities for all Americans are, in order, exercise walking, swimming, bicycle riding, fishing (fresh water), camping, and bowling.

The question remains why so many sports are so popular in the United States. One reason may be that the variety and size of America and the different climates found in it have provided Americans with large choice of (summer and winter) sports. In addition, public sports facilities have always been available in great number for participants, even in sports such as golf, tennis, or skating. The fact that the average high school, too, offers its students a great variety of sports, often including rowing, tennis, wrestling, and golf may have contributed to the wide and varied interest and participation of Americans in sports. This, in turn, may explain why Americans have traditionally done well internationally in many of these sports.

Another reason might be that Americans like competition, by teams or as individuals, of any type. It's the challenge, some say. Others point out that American schools and colleges follow the tradition of all English-speaking societies in using sports activities as a way of teaching "social values." Among these are teamwork, sportsmanship (when they win, American players are expected to say, "well, we were just lucky"), and persistence (not quitting "when the going gets rough"). As a result, being intelligent and being good in sports are seen as things that can go together and, as an ideal, should. While there are colleges where sports seem to be dominant, there are many others, which have excellent academic reputations and are also good in sports. Stanford, UCLA, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Harvard, and Yale are among them.

Others simply conclude that Americans simply like sports activities and always have. They like to play a friendly game of softball at family picnics, and "touch football" (no tackling!) games can get started on beaches and in parks whenever a few young people come together. "Shooting baskets" with friends is a favourite way to pass the time, either in a friend's driveway (the basket is over the garage door) or on some city or neighbourhood court. And on a beautiful autumn afternoon - the sun shining in a clear blue sky, the maple trees turning scarlet and the oaks a golden yellow - it is fun to go with friends to a football game. And go they do.

An average of more than 100,000 people attend each of the University of Michigan's football games. Ohio State University, located only about 150 miles away, has had its Saturday games sold out for years (an average of almost 90,000 per game). Back East, Harvard and Yale "only" attract an average of about 20,000 fans each. Altogether, there are over 600 university and college football teams playing most Saturdays across the nation.

Among the 30 (as of 1995) professional National Football League (NFL) teams, the average number of fans attending each game is over 62,000. And, of course, there are the millions watching the game on TV By tradition there are always many parties which follow football games, win or lose, and these are especially popular at universities. Some critics say that among the millions of those attending football games there are many who think it's the first part of the party (and our research shows that this might be correct). Friends and relatives often come together to spend a Sunday having drinks, barbecuing, and, yes, watching a game or two. But with or without parties, Americans do like their sports, for whatever reason you care to choose.

The money earned by some professional athletes does not seem so impressive when one thinks that only a very few of the best will ever make it to a professional team. And once there, at best they will only have a few years to play, even in baseball and basketball. They know that they will soon be replaced by someone who is younger, faster, bigger, or better. Professional players' organisations are therefore very concerned with such things as retirement benefits and pensions. More and more, they are also concerned with getting a good education, with acquiring university-level skills that will allow them to find good jobs when their playing days are over". Increasingly, universities and sports officials have enforced rules which require athletes to be properly enrolled in academic programs in order to qualify for a university team. Rules which state that all college athletes must meet set academic standards have long been accepted. If the students do not meet them, they are not allowed to take part in sports.



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