Wednesday, January 11, 2017

American Football Versus Soccer

Football is a uniquely American sport that is really not popular with the rest of the world.

A reader recently writes and asks why I am "against" football. I am not sure how to parse this comment, as I am not "against" it, but just not a big "fan" of it.  I don't paint myself in my team's colors and go to every home game, nor do I have a room in my house devoted to fan paraphernalia.  I don't have those little flags or magnetic stickers on my car with "my" teams colors on them.  It is an interesting game to watch, but I am just not a big fan.

But as a Georgian, I guess I should say this:  Go Dawgs!

In Georgia, like so many places in the South, Football is not just a game, it is a religion, and if you don't profess an interest in it, you are viewed with suspicion, as perhaps being a Communist, or worse yet, a Unitarian.  In the fall, on Sunday in Georgia, you go to church, which is Baptist, and than you go watch the local high school football game or watch the Dogs beat Florida, yet again.  It is just how things are done.  

People are obsessed with football in the USA, much as people in Canada are obsessed with Hockey (which we also enjoy here) or how folks in Cuba (including the late Fidel Castro) love "America's pastime" - Baseball (in Japan, besoboru).

Now, I have a British friend here on the island who says that "[baseball] is like our game of 'rounders' which is a children's game, really.  Now cricket, that's a real game!" And I might be inclined to agree with him, if cricket could be called a real sport, as usually in a sport, you have to break a sweat when playing it. I am not taking a piss on cricket here, even if it is just some perverted form of lawn croquet.  But I digress.

My reader argues that football in his country (which we call soccer) helps build community spirit and whatnot and brings people together, etc. (Soccer hooligans, riots, and killings, notwithstanding).  I am not sure how to parse this, other than to say, once again, I am not against American Football, but there are some valid criticisms of how it is financed and how players are treated.  And it is nothing like soccer, not only in terms of how the game is played, but how the system of amateur and professional teams are structured.

The analogy to football in his country is not apt, because in his country, football is actually played with the foot.  For some reason, we call American Football - "football" even though only one guy really gets to kick the ball - and usually only when all else fails.  In soccer - what the rest of the world calls football - and indeed it is the most popular team sport worldwide (with cricket an inexplicable second!) - you use your feet, and only one guy is allowed to use his hands.  If American Football is called football, than soccer should rightly be called handball by the same perverse logic.

American football started out as a running-and-carrying-the-ball game, but that doesn't make for much of a good title. Then, one day, someone discovered throwing it, and the forward pass was invented.  Running-and-carrying-and-throwing-ball-game really didn't make for a good title, so Football stuck.  And for some reason, we decided what the rest of the world calls real football, we would call "soccer" which is an odd name if you think about it, because no one is getting socked, except maybe the fans, by each other.

American football is ingrained into our culture and our schools and our economy. It generates billions of dollars a year in revenue and many professional players make millions at it. Unlike baseball, which has a system of "farm teams" to develop and feed players to the major leagues, Football relies on high schools and colleges to train and develop athletes. I am not sure how this works with soccer, but my reader intimates that the "clubs" in his country have a hand in developing new talent.

Not only that, in baseball, you can be "called up to the Majors" or "sent back down to the Minors" and still have a baseball career - although the average MLB career is less than six years  (which sounds short, but as we shall see, about twice that of an NFL player).  Compare this to football - no one every gets "sent back" to college from the NFL.  You play, or you get cut from the team.

High school football is a big deal in the USA, particularly in the South. When you drive through Southern States, you will see enormous stadiums next to local high schools, and it is hard to believe that some of these impoverished counties can afford to build such edifices. My high school had a field behind the school with a rickety-set of bleachers which were erected before each season. The only permanent structure was a tower built by the janitorial staff from old utility poles, 2x4's and plywood.   It was pretty low-key.  We didn't even have stadium lighting.

Today is a different story, and as Ross Perot once said, one issue is that a school district will actually go the the extent of combining several schools together in order to get enough "big guys" to put together a viable team.  Football, which was once considered an "extracurricular activity" is now the main reason some high schools exist.  And while education dollars are becoming scarce and many programs are being cut, often the football program is exempt from such cuts.

If a high school student does well on the field, he may be recruited by a university - who will offer him a full scholarship to play for the college team.  We are talking about someone from age 18 to 22, in the prime of their life and arguably in their peak playing condition, playing for free for a college than makes millions of dollars just from broadcast rights to the games - not to mention ticket sales.  In a way, it is a plantation system, as most of the players are indeed black, and they are working for free, essentially, while others rake in the dough.

As one elderly Dean of Students explained to me - during a player rape controversy - "What you fail to understand, Mr. Bell, is that the football team brings in a lot of money to the University!" - as if this excused players from obligations under the law (and in that case, the player was convicted of sexual assault in a court of law, but found "innocent" by the University's own kangaroo court.  Why colleges and universities have their own quasi-legal systems in the first place is beyond me!). Needless to say, I don't contribute to the alumni fund.

College football is indeed big bucks, but not for the players - although recently NCAA regulations have been eased to allow the players a small "stipend" (UPDATE: A recent decision by the Supreme Court may allow them to be paid - at last!).  In the past, there were various small scandals, as "boosters" of the teams would provide free goods and services to the players, which was against the "Amateur" rules of college sport. In my home town, one Pontiac dealer was accused of providing free Pontiac Trans Ams to the players, which he "loaned" to the players while they were in college. Frankly, why shouldn't the players get paid - if everyone else is making money at this?  Some are saying the time has come - but not apparently the NLRB.

So the "student-atheletes" work for free, but everyone else makes enormous sums of money.  The highest paid public employees in America are State University Football Coaches!

  1. Nick Saban, University of Alabama football coach, Alabama - $7.09 million
  2. Jim Harbaugh, University of Michigan football coach, Michigan - $7 million
  3. John Calipari, University of Kentucky basketball coach, Kentucky - $6.88 million
  4. Urban Meyer, Ohio State University football coach, Ohio - $5.86 million
  5. Bob Stoops, University of Oklahoma football coach, Oklahoma - $5.86 million
  6. Charlie Strong, University of Texas football coach, Texas - $5.16 million
  7. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State University football coach, Florida - $5.15 million
  8. Sean Miller, University of Arizona basketball coach, Arizona - $4.95 million
  9. Bill Self, Kansas University basketball coach, Kansas - $4.94 million
  10. James Franklin, Penn State University football coach, Pennsylvania - $4.4 million
And as you can imagine, private university coach's salaries are not too dissimilar (but not, in many cases, publicly disclosed).

But of course, if, as a player, you do well at the college level, you may end up being "drafted" into the professional level of the sport.  At least at this level, you have a union to represent you, and a starting minimum salary of about a half-million dollars.  Sadly, the colleges and universities they played for as "amateurs" did not bother to educate these players about money, and many end up broke and destitute a few years later.  The career of a professional football player can be remarkably short.  And a half-million dollars isn't a lot of money, over a lifetime.

If you become a well-known player with a great record, you could make a considerably larger amount of money, of course - millions a year.  And the big money is in product endorsement - wearing that Nike logo and whatnot.  Once you get on that bandwagon, the sky is the limit.  O.J. Simpson, before his fall, raked in millions advertising everything from boots to car rental agencies - and even had a short-lived acting career.  If you become a "superstar" there is no telling how far you can go.

But of course, few reach this level. The large majority of players do all right, at least for a while. However, a realistic football career will last less than a decade.  The NFL claims six years, but others claim as short as 3.3 years.  Injuries sideline and end most careers.  But even if you don't suffer serious injury, the odds of playing well into your 30's are slim. It is a tough game, hard on the body, and injuries add up over time.  It doesn't help that you spent the first four years working for free, of course.

A lot of players end up broke.  Google it - you will see lists of 7, 10, 15, 20, 21 or more "NFL players who went broke after retirement" - and it is not hard to figure out why.  And I am sure there are far more we don't hear about.  Like lottery winners, many of these players came from modest backgrounds and don't understand how to handle money.  Plus, they are very young.  $500,000 starting salary seems like an infinite amount of money to a 22-year-old, who will go out with the boys and spend it on $600 bottles of "Cristal" and strippers and be broke in short order. But of course, there is always next season, right?

And some get into trouble, either in college or as pros. We've all read the stories about date-rape accusations as well as murders and dog-fighting. Granted, these are a small minority of players, but they do give the overall game a black eye. And needless to say, it is a sure-fire way to end a career or at least lose those product endorsements.

My only beef with football is that the players should get a fairer shake in this deal.  And it is appalling that most of these players are young, poor, and black, and while showered with a lot of money, usually end up broke after a few short years of playing.  And often they are injured - not only in their knees and other joints, but also in the head, which can affect the rest of their lives. This latter thing is very tricky to address, as some folks argue that the increased amount of padding and better helmets don't end up fixing the problem, but actually make it worse by encouraging even harder "hits" that end up causing concussions.

My suggestion is this:  If our colleges are going to be free training grounds for professional athletes, these universities should provide training in money management, career management, and so forth.   Most universities have a series of "gut courses" for football players - who are expected to pass easily.   Why not use this opportunity to educate them on the reality of their careers - which might be short-lived?  Counsel them to bank this one-time windfall rather than spend it and assume it will last forever.   And coach them on how to manage a career, so those valuable product endorsements don't dry up in a sea of sexual abuse allegations.   

As a bonus, hire a few of those bankrupt NFL players to come in and give a lecture or two about how their lives worked out - it may be instructive to the younger players, and provide someone who needs a job a chance to work at something meaningful.

If we are going to exploit these young people in NCAA play, we should at least try to give something back.

Now of course, Soccer has its own issues. There are soccer "hooligans" at least in the UK, and there was of course, the FIFA scandal. But here in America, we don't hear much about soccer, even if we have made the finals in the World's Cup a few times and our women's team has done astoundingly well (and no one in the USA has noticed or cared).

What I find fascinating about soccer is that it is a true international sport in that it seems almost every nation on the planet plays the game, some with a religious-like fervor.   As a result, the "World's Cup" is truly a planetary contest (unlike, say, America's "World Series" of baseball) and national identity and honor are at stake.   In that regard, it seems to me (as an admitted outsider) that soccer does indeed unite people, not only in terms of their local team spirit, but in terms of their national team as well.

But comparing American Football to Soccer?   There really isn't a comparison, as it really is apples and oranges, both in the way the games are played, and how the leagues are operated.

UPDATE: I am not sure why my reader claims that soccer is better at "building communities" or whatever.  For all its faults, at the Superbowl every year (or indeed, any bowl game) no one goes there as a "Hooligan" armed with bats and iron bars with the idea of beating the brains out of the fans of the opposing team.  Yet soccer has had this problem for eons.

The other interesting issue is that American Football is slowly creeping into foreign cultures. The owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars got into hot water for scheduling two regular season games in London, England, to boost interest in American Football there.   This could be the beginning of the end!   You let in a McDonald's and now you see what happens!

Fortunately, the virus resulted on those London games being cancelled.