The Alma Mater vs. UCLA
The Alma Mater vs. UCLA
Most of the world calls soccer football. The United States of America calls football soccer because back when the rest of the world started playing that kicking game we were already playing something else called football. Today, despite being a (declining) superpower, we get beat by countries the size of a postage stamp who operate on budgets that can’t afford postage.
There is a reason for this, and it isn’t just that we don’t “get it” or that there is something in American culture that precludes our appreciating the finer points of slide tackles and dramatic flopping. The NBA proves we love dramatic flopping, and no, the reason why we Yankees don’t get the game isn’t some attention span deficiency either. While soccer is incredibly boring, it is not arguably any more boring than that American game where you take a 1 minute break between every 20 seconds of action. So no, the real answer, or reason, is history. As in there is a historical reason we never got on the soccer bandwagon. Sorry, AN historical reason.
Soccer became soccer in London’s Freemason’s Tavern in 1863. That is when and where a bunch of football clubs got together and argued over whether or not the rules would allow a player to pick up the ball and carry it, as opposed to just kicking. The group voted to only allow kicking, causing those who supported the Rugby School’s version of the game, where you can choose to pick the ball up and run, to leave in protest. The two groups or factions never got back together. Forever after there would be two different games, association football, and rugby football, or as Americans know them, simply soccer and rugby- though we mostly ignore them both.
Back then England was very much meddling in the rest of the world’s everything. Business men, merchants, and their military were still colonizing and influencing all sorts of people and countries everywhere. It was all this influencing that helped both games, soccer and rugby, spread globally. It is also this influencing, and who was influencing who how, that these two games took on two sorts of identities or reputations. Soccer was, and is, the “every man’s” (or woman’s) game. Everyone plays. Kids kick balls of trash in third world hovels or favelas, while rugby is mostly for private schools and otherwise genteel clubs. A rugby shirt, or rugby “jersey” has a collar while soccer jerseys do not, mostly because rugby was played at clubs where the club houses required a collared shirt for entry. Soccer doesn’t really require a shirt for anything other than ripping off and twirling overhead after scoring a goal. It has oft been said that soccer is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans while rugby is a hooligan game played by gentlemen.
And this is why Americans don’t play soccer.
Back when those English guys were arguing about kicking or carrying the ball, Americans were busy killing each other in the Civil War. Once the dust settled and Americans found the time for recreation, the every-man game had already been established as baseball. There was some horse racing and boxing mixed in there too but respectable folks looked on those things the same way backstreet drag racing and MMA are viewed today.
There were of course those who weren’t the “every-man” or were the sort of men who wore collared shirts, and ties, and once those men were done with the war they went home to places like New York, New Haven, and Boston. They themselves were too genteel for any sort of game, kicking or otherwise (except perhaps rowing) but their sons having just gotten their blood all boiling with war and whatnot, were a bit more restless. These boys finding themselves confined in the classrooms of Harvard, Princeton, and Yale made an effort to find a way to expend energy, without lowering their status. They looked to the elites in England for ideas. Oxford and Cambridge were at that time favoring rugby football over the kicking style, and consequentially Princeton challenged Rutgers to a game of football using the rugby rules rather than the “association” rulebook in 1869. The game stuck- and spread. So while England was off influencing the sporting life of all sorts of people all over the world, football players at Yale and Harvard were influencing American kids in South Bend, College Park, and Chicago. Which is one half of the reason Americans don’t compete well in Soccer today.
The other half is money.
Back when all of this was happening, sports were just games, not business empires. This isn’t to say money wasn’t involved, but the idea was that sports, or leisure, was for people who already had money, thereby allowing them to spend their time running around kicking balls when others might be tilling fields or toiling in factories. An English gentleman would have, and there are some who still do, turn up their noses at the idea of playing a sport for money. On the other hand, an Englishman who isn’t gentle will absolutely invest money in order to beat someone who thinks themselves superior. Americans as a whole were never truly gentlemen in the first place, so in both places, England and America, around the same time, 1870-ish, “poor” people started paying people to play for their teams. Americans played baseball and organized a professional baseball league in 1871. English people played association football and organized, or legalized, professional soccer in 1885. So now the world had two very different games being played professionally by working class folks on 2 different continents. This professionalism was for the most part, in both places, rather colloquial with money being mostly limited to whatever some local deep pocket was willing to pay in order to beat the next town over. And here it was that the sporting world split in two, North America, and everywhere else.
Soccer was easily exportable. No matter the language, no matter your wallet, no matter your social standing, the world was ready to let you play association football (soccer). You could be poor and play, and for the most part, for another 100 years, this is what happened. Poor people played soccer and mostly remained poor. Some people eventually made some money, depending an on who and where they were, and eventually we got the Bundesliga and the World Cup, but it took a long time to build up to that. Or this. Whatever.
Meanwhile, back in the USA, you had all those rich boys playing rugby at fancy colleges. Rich Americans care a lot about winning. And being rich. Rich English people cared mostly about who your grandfather was, which is why the ones without cool grandparents left for the colonies in the first place and decided to beat the paternalists in a couple wars in order to better focus on making money (in fact Americans cared so much about money and so little about lineage that they were willing to kidnap the children of royalty from other countries and force them to labor in fields in order to make themselves rich. How’s that for priorities?). So with this mindset American colleges started paying coaches to come up with strategies to beat the rich boys at the other colleges. Then they started letting people without pedigrees into their fancy colleges, and paying them money, in order to beat the other schools. Pretty soon other schools, ones that were less fancy, started paying more money to local coaches and players, so that they could start beating the fancier schools in this game of rugby football. By this time every college, and high school, across the entire North American continent had a football team. Americans were so invested in this game that in the year 1905, 19 “students” died on the field of play. This paying athletes to come to college and possibly die got so out of hand that a group of schools met together in 1910 to start enforcing and changing rules to make the game safer- but mostly they combined to regulate pay for play. They called themselves the National College Athletic Association, or NCAA for short. It should be noted that by this time these simple games between two schools, were bringing in giant crowds of spectators (Harvard and Yale both broke ground for permanent football stadiums seating 30,000 and 70,000 respectively) and these crowds were being sold tickets. As is, and has always been, the American way, people were making money. As the NCAA started to flex its regulatory might and began pushing back against the profiteering in college football, those less attached to the collegiate life were pushed out and shortly thereafter a professional football league was begun (1921). The financial behemoth that is the NFL today sprung up out of the money that had already been seeded on college campuses. So much so that most Americans are more familiar with any particular college’s colors and mascot than they are with those school’s scholastic offerings.
While the English were off seeding the planet with this common people’s game, America was busy turning sports into business. Big business. Gargantuon business. FIFA organized in 1904 in order to regulate international competition, similar to the Olympic commission, but other than bragging rights, there was for the most part no money in it. Americans wanted money. This was back when Jim Thorpe, an American, sailed across the ocean to beat the rest of the world in track and field, just to later have his gold medals taken away because he had once played baseball for money. It took decades for the rest of the world to either build up enough capital to professionalize, or for the gentry to relent. By the time they did (relent) and the “beautiful game” stepped up to take center stage and cause earthquakes in Mexico, any given Yankee had plenty of other sports to choose from- and those other sports have a higher likelihood of making a good athlete rich.
Today, a ten year old in Texas with superior athletic ability who does not come from independent wealth can choose to either play American football, and compete with millions of other Americans in hopes of making millions of dollars, or they can focus on soccer in hopes of one day competing against billions of Brazilians, Argentines, Mexicans, Spaniards, Italians, and Germans to go live in a foreign country making thousands of dollars. For those who buck the norm and just love the game this may look attractive, but it is a lopsided choice. Also, if this young American fears concussions, he (not “she” as women’s sports, especially football, have not monetized at the same rate) could always choose basketball, baseball, hockey… or maybe even surfing.
So while the entire world sans-America joins together in sporting unity, and riots, let us not pontificate on what it is about soccer that doesn’t connect with Americans, or why it is that the USA just refuses to be like everyone else- or which sport is inherently better than another. We know why America doesn’t play soccer and it doesn’t have anything to do with shin guards.
For some of us there is an inexplicable need to crash into another person. There is no malice in it, just a reciprocal pleasure in collision. Its fun.
At this season of giving thanks, and turkey bowls, I must offer my gratitude for those who have fostered God’s great game on Earth. Whether it be the primordial birth at English boarding school, the formation of an ivy league, or the frozen tundra of Vince Lombardi’s soul- thank you.
Thank you to Joe Cool, Ronnie Lott, Jerry Rice, the backfield combo of high knees crazy eyed Roger Craig and smash mouth soft handed Tom Rathman and the greatest second string QB to ever play, for making the fandom of my youth worthwhile.
Thank you Walter Camp for making Web Ellis’s game into a militaristic chess match and thank you Bo Jackson for knowing.
There may possibly, but only maybe, be some other way to satisfy the mannish desire to dress up in armor and gear and run and jump and win and lose and scream and play and dance and fall down and put your face right into someone so hard that snot bubbles up in their nostrils and spit flies from their throat and then you offer your hand to help them up. Or maybe you just stand over them and roar. There may be some other way, or venue, to do these things, but they are, or would be, inherently inferior.
Thank you Barry Sanders for shifting sideways better than everyone. Thank you TO for giving me reason to say out loud, “Wait! Did you see that? Did he just pull a Sharpie out of his sock and sign the ball? Did you see that!?” Thank you Lawrence Taylor for that moment of sympathetic terror we all had in those moments when you got around the corner and the QB hadn’t seen you yet. Oh yes thank you for that.
Thank you Jonah Lomu for being a freak before Jevon Kearse and thank you Jerry Collins for making my sternum hurt despite having never met you.
Thank you Chad Hauser for that one time in wind sprints where you didn’t see me coming and thank you Asi Mohi for my first broken nose. Thank you Deb Bilbao for teaching me in 6th grade that a girl can pick a boy up over her head and toss him away like trash, and thank you Vern for teaching me every dirty trick a lineman should know despite my being 2 years and 100 pounds your inferior. Thank you gigantic racist Afrikaner for teaching me that if you reach your right arm all the way over toward the loosehead’s waistband it will keep him from boring in.
Thank you Jon Brown for being both classy and terrifying. Thank you Randall Cunningham for throwing the ball in Randy Moss’s general vicinity so he could make amazing things look easy, and thank you Steve Atwater for nearly chopping people in half.
And thank you Thanksgiving for providing a day to celebrate gluttony and collisions together.
Also… team in D.C…. Change your name. You are ruining everything.
When you contemplate the upcoming college football season, because I know you do, what schools are on your mind? Perhaps it is the notoriously ferocious athletes at Princeton? Maybe ‘tis the physically imposing young men of Yale? Ah, or by chance you appreciate the absolute dominance of the University of Chicago?
Right. Of course not.
I find this amusing. Ironic, in the Alanis Morissette usage of the word.
You probably think of places like Auburn, USC, or maybe “the” Ohio State. You are wondering, or rooting for, who will win the Florida vs. Florida State game, or Texas vs. Oklahoma. You think of the SEC or Big 10. The PAC 12 or ACC. Do you ever consider the Ivy League? No? Let us consider it now.
Once upon a time America was a relatively new political institution consisting of mostly English expatriates and the ones with money wanted their kids to go hang out with other children of rich English expats. So they sent them to colleges. Places like Princeton, Harvard, Yale and Brown. There these young boys had parties, rioted over bad cafeteria food, memorized Latin, and had rituals where they beat each other up en masse. Now there were some exceptions. Some young men went to college because they were both rich and also nerds. These are the ones who read philosophy and were named Franklin Roosevelt. But make no mistake, FDR was the exception, most of them were more like Teddy. This was way before US News and World Report rankings or even before the BCS. Back then college rankings looked more like a pedigree chart and banking network. Back then college kids wore ties. On purpose.
But most schools, at least once a year, took off those ties, usually their shirts too, and had giant shoving matches or competitions. They varied from place to place but it was usually something like Juniors versus Sophomores trying to move a gigantic leather ball from one end of a courtyard to the other. Or a tug of war. Or wrestling. It was a competition to win a bowl, or a jug, or bragging rights. Important stuff.
Over across the pond, where these boy’s granddaddies came from, school boys were doing similar sorts of things. Lots of kicking balls and roughhousing and being rich. At one school, called the Rugby School, they started picking up the ball rather than kicking it. The game started to catch on. This was about the year 1827. Back in 1827, England, or rather the fathers of rich English school boys, had pretty much colonized most of the globe. This colonization did include America at one time, but there was revolution and all that mess, so by 1827 when restless rich English kids graduated University, or when they needed to gain some legitimacy, they joined the Royal army and went and played their roughhousing games in places like Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. The boys at Harvard and Yale were watching their cousins but were soon distracted when some clowns attacked Fort Sumter. That distraction lasted till 1865.
Once the American Civil War was over the young rich kids from up north had to go back to school. The rich kids from the south weren’t rich anymore and the poor northern kids stayed in the army. Funny thing is that once boys have been to war, or even if they were too young to fight while a war was going on, they get extra restless if then sent to sit in a classroom. Having good memories these young students recalled those games their English cousins were playing and decided to follow suit. This was pretty normal for them, after all the whole college thing itself was a bit of an imitation game. Harvard is built in a place they called Cambridge and Princeton had always been trying to be Oxford.
Anywhose, on November 6th 1869, Princeton visited the campus of their divorced sibling Rutgers and played a game of football. They did indeed call the game football, it was mostly kicking, and Rutgers won 6-4. Seven days later Rutgers sauntered on over to Princeton for a re-match. Playing on their own turf meant they got to propose their own rules, one of which allowed for a player to catch a kicked ball mid-air. Princeton won 8-0. Crafty buggers.
Not too far away Harvard, like any rich kid who notices what the Joneses are doing, wanted in on the action. In May of 1874 they invited McGill to come down to Cambridge for a two game series. On the first day they played football with a round ball like they did in New Jersey. Harvard won 3-0. The next day McGill, being good Canadians who never poured any tea in a harbor, insisted that day’s game be played more like the updated version the English rugby boys were playing. It had an oblong ball and running. The game ended in a tie but the Boston boys were hooked. Later that very same year, 1874, 2,000 people showed up to watch Harvard win the rematch 3 tries to 0.
These rich college kids were on to something.
At this time all of America was getting “on to something”. Industrialization was becoming a thing, Manifest Destiny was all the rage, and more rich white people were sending their boys off to college to be with other rich white boys than ever before. Problem was back then telephones weren’t all that big and no one had televisions, so it was difficult for rich parents to keep in touch with their school boys and it was even tougher to make sure everyone else knew your kids were rich and important. Luckily one of the great ways to get rich back then was to own a newspaper. The internet hadn’t started the French Revolution yet and so the Bourgeoisie New York Times was free to cover the activities of rich college kids like the internet would a Kardashian.
The sports page had things like rowing, fencing, and equestrian events. Pretty soon, thanks to all our practice at Gettysburg, Andrew Carnegie, and the White Fleet, there were even more rich people than there used to be and the sports page was covering football games at places like the University of Chicago, Notre Dame, and Stanford. This football thing was getting big. So big in fact that by 1903 both Harvard and Yale broke ground on permanent stadiums just for this game of football. Harvard’s could seat 30,000 people, Yale’s could seat 70,000. Neither school even had 10,000 students. But people were paying attention to the few students there were at those places, and as is always the case with Kardashians, there were a lot of imitators or spin offs. Soon you had people tackling each other and taking duck lip selfies in places like Pittsburgh and Green Bay. Not necessarily at the schools in those places- just in those places. I mean, these people weren’t even in college let alone rich. Just common Etsy users. The nerve!
With the spreading popularity of the game and the historically consistent need of rich people to win, the line between student and athlete was quickly blurred. Schools that wanted to make money by filling stadiums-er- wanted their students to learn valuable life lessons through winning intercollegiate sporting events, started dabbling here and there in paying certain individuals with certain skills to come be a student for their school for a few games here and there. This ruffled feathers. Up until this point college was first and foremost, a place for sons of rich people to commune amongst themselves, with the occasional exception for an extra serious student. This whole football thing was trying to shift those exceptions from smart nerds, whom no one cared about, to poorer (not rich) athletic kids, whom the public loved. Something had to be done.
Luckily America was blessed at this time with a president who was also a Harvard alum, so he understood the importance of the situation. He was able to concoct some national crisis or concern about how many people died playing football in 1905 (19). Hadn’t the civil war taught us anything about the value of life? Doesn’t America know we need these kids alive as we ramp up for the first world war? I mean college is where the children of Vanderbilts and Kennedys hang out. Premature violent death is for poor people and immigrants, not Vanderbilts, unless of course they are an officer in a glorious world conflict in places like Cuba, so stay tuned, but for now, football must be regulated! The following year 62 colleges signed on as charter members of the NCAA, a loose organization organized to make sure poor people weren’t being paid to play rich people games, and that the game would be safer. Teddy was great at this sort of thing.
So the NCAA got to work protecting integrity and human life. Most of the schools, Like the University of Pennsylvania, wanted to make the game safer by making the playing field wider. The idea is that if there is more room to run away from someone you are less likely to get ran over by them. Makes sense. Other schools, named Harvard and Yale, wanted to make the game safer by making this new trick called the forward pass legal. The idea is that if you are allowed to throw the ball away when you are about to get trampled, you are less likely to get trampled.Makes sense. This passing the ball idea made even more sense to Harvard and Yale since they had just built their new huge stadiums out of concrete and all those seats might be easier to fill if there was a new trick to watch… and it was physically impossible to widen the field since they hadn’t left any spare room when they built the 50,000 seat concrete facility for student recreation. Fortunately for the Doug Fluties of the world the forward pass won the day. But let me get back to the wide field advocates at places like Penn.
While Harvard and Yale were the traditional homes of traditional rich people memorizing Latin and rioting over bad food, Penn was the traditional home of more practical press apprenticing Ben Franklin and P&L statement memorizing Joseph Wharton. Add in all the Keynesian economists over in Chicago and just plain nerds at that newfangled Cornell, and you have some relatively influential schools that were highly “invested” in winning football games. The NCAA, which more or less started as a meeting at the White House, settled on being mostly a club where schools could agree on rules like forward passes and flying wedges, and sort of skirted about the whole paying players and filling stadiums stuff so the grand settlement was that Pasadena California should build a big stadium not on any campus and host a “bowl game” every January. This may have been everyone’s undoing as no sooner did they start hosting this big game and writing about it in the Times, than schools like Washington State and Oregon were beating schools like Brown and Penn. It was just like Vogue putting Kim Kardashian on the cover; this was not in the original playbook. USC, Alabama, and Georgia Tech. Georgia Tech? There is a “tech” in the name of the school for heaven’s sake. This desire to fill stadiums and win games got so carried away that in 1916, a full 54 years before USC’s famous game against all white Bama, Brown fielded a brown player named Fritz Pollard. Imagine how popular you would be as a black man with a German name in 1916 (just as an FYI the whole world was in a war against Germany in 1916). Meh, who cares when it comes to football right? Elihu Yale must have been rolling over in his grave. But not everyone was ready to just roll over. Some folks were serious about school and integrity, and rich white boys- I mean education.
So along comes this guy Robert Hutchins. He was one of those poor white nerds that Yale decided to be nice to back in the day. Huge mistake. First Yale let him in, then he becomes the Dean of the law school, and next thing ya know, bam, he’s the president of the University of Chicago. Ya see, when you let a non-rich nerd take over the show, they turn it into a nerd show. Poor Chicago. In 1935 a Chicago halfback won this fancy trophy they were giving to the best football player in the whole country called the “Heisman” (named after a guy who played football at both Brown and Penn). Four years later, this guy Hutchins CANCELS FOOTBALL! Ends it. Done. No more team. Nerd. Evil nerd. But what else was there to do? This game meant to keep roughhousing rich white boys busy had experienced some serious mission drift and was becoming-uh hum- common. The originally not rich nerd chose to cancel the fun so the school could stay nerdy, but the original club of rich white boys had another plan. They decided to take their ball and go home. In 1936 Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Dartmouth, Columbia, and Penn, along with that new kid Cornell, unofficially banded together in what they were calling “an ivy league” and for the most part decided to just compete against each other and no longer mess with the rabble. This unofficial league had a gentleman’s agreement that they wouldn’t give any athletic scholarships and would only consider one’s actual scholarship (or pedigree) in deciding college admissions. This was a grand return to their educational roots and original scholastic ideals, though those ideals never really existed in the first place. Isn’t it ironic? Yeah, I really do think.
Perhaps some of you do not like Alanis Morrisette, or are not of my generation so you have no idea who that is (the Drake of the 90’s), and consequentially you think I am being unfair in my historical descriptions of the non-scholastic motives of these birthplaces of God’s great game. This might be the case. I was once an offensive lineman so I am not above playing dirty. But consider if you will the idea that before the 1920’s there were no real admissions requirements other than graduating high school, for one to be admitted to college. I mean, way back when colleges started there wasn’t even such thing as a high school. There was only money. But in the 20’s a lot more people started enrolling in colleges and not just more people, but different kinds of people. Some of these people were burly non book reading types who were being paid to play football at Penn, but those guys were asked (paid) to come, and after all, there are only so many players on a football team. No one really cared. But there were also these non–rich only semi-white guys who enrolled in huge numbers called Jews. They hadn’t exactly been invited. Colleges saw this as a problem and thankfully for them they had almost 200 years of previous practice as a coalition of rich white guys and the occasional nerd to devise such things as “geographical balance” and “extracurricular considerations.” These were more or less quotas. In many cases, they were actual quotas.In the 1920’s places like Columbia (in this case Columbia specifically) upon realizing they had become 40% Jewish enacted these extra admissions considerations and successfully got that Jewish percentage down to 20% within two years. Now mind you this is the same Columbia that beat Stanford for the national title in the 1933 Rose Bowl. Go Lions!
New York was not the only place struggling with an influx of non-rich semi-white students. Consider this official statement from Harvard in 1922: “The great increase which has recently taken place in the number of students at Harvard College, as at the other colleges, has brought up forcibly the problem of the limitation of enrollment.
We have not at present sufficient classrooms or dormitories, to take care of any further large increase. This problem is really a group of problems, all difficult, and most of them needing for their settlement more facts than we now have. Before a general policy can be formulated on this great question it must engage the attention of the Governing Board and the Faculties and it is likely to be discussed by alumni and undergraduates.
It is natural that with a widespread discussion of this sort going on there should be talk about the proportion of Jews at the college. At present the whole problem of limitation of enrollment is in the stage of general discussion and it may remain in that stage for a considerable time.”
It was almost like the game was getting dangerous and Harvard found themselves unable to widen the field and instead chose to pass. They, and the other bastions of college football, were in danger of being trampled and unfortunately US News & World Report wouldn’t start publishing college rankings till 1983 so they were still dependent on pedigrees and bank accounts to decide which schools were best. In fact, these were such dangerous times that it was beginning to be hard to know what exactly was meant by best and how it should be measured. So Chicago quit, the Ivies formed a league, and Southern Methodist University eventually got the death penalty.
This all matters because I recently purchased this special eye black that comes in the colors of the university that employs me. I care about the intellectual development of my children and as a responsible parent I intend to decorate them in collegiate regalia when we go to the games starting this fall. It matters because we have recently learned that football teams in Illinois outrank the college president and that in North Carolina football players can get grades in a whole course of classes while the professor is away on sabbatical. These are great schools. I know this because both the BCS and a magazine tell me so. I have been to a great school and consequentially, and I write this with no irony, I can proudly pronounce the name Chris Fuamatu Ma’afala, with no help and ignore the red Microsoft squiggly lines with confidence. I am confident in my education.
I was recently reading Walter Camp’s suggestions on how to train a top notch defensive end. His instructions included rowing and eating toast. Walter should not be ignored because he is who created Knute Rockne, Bear Bryant, Bobby Bowden, and Bill Belichick. I may even give old Walter Camp credit for Joe Montana, Joe Brown, Joe Paterno, and Joe Theismann. Yup, all of them. As I peek at ESPN.com while at my desk, listen to Jim Rome during my commute, or watch Sports Center while doing whatever verb describes what you do on an elliptical (ellipticate?) I think of Walter Camp.
And Walter went to Yale.
It was exciting to watch a racially divers group of American women win Gold. I loved the visual illustrating the strength that can come from a unity of diversity. But, I think it is worth taking some time to really consider what this victory tells us, and what it does not.
First, it definitely displays that America does NOT look like just one color of person. The United States is a racially diverse country. I love this. I love this in theory and in those moments where it appears we are coexisting in some sort of harmony, I love it in reality. Those moments and instances do happen and they are worth appreciating.
But those aren’t the only moment and they aren’t the whole reality.
Remember Jesse Owens? That was way back in 1936 that the United States showed Hitler that his Aryan ideal was in fact inferior. Now keep in mind that once Jesse went home he had to sit at the back of the bus, enter through the back of a restaurant, and he better be really careful if he had any intentions of trying to vote. But he did win America a gold medal.
Then there was Duke Kahanamoku who won gold even further back in 1912. The USA has been winning athletic gold with a diverse population of athletes for more than a century but life is more than sprints and flips. Life, and society, are complicated.
Society is also not on a continual march forward toward utopia. This is illustrated by the fact that Jackie Robinson was in fact NOT the first African-American to play pro baseball in the USA. That honor belongs to Moses Fleetwood Walker who played in 1883. We think it was Jackie because we conveniently forgot that back in Moses’s day we (America) reacted to people like Moses playing, and winning, pro baseball by banning all black people from the majors.
You see, things were getting better before they got worse. History is not a straight line.
I do not point this out to illustrate how horrible we Americans are, but rather to caution us against looking to integrative success and then assuming that we are on a natural progression toward improvement. Improvement only happens through intentional sustained efforts. Things can just as easily get worse as they can get better.
And let us keep in mind that we Americans are not the only ones.
France. France is decidedly old world European with everything that moniker connotes. This is the French Olympic rugby team.
And the Australian.
And South Africa.
Oh wait but then there is Fiji. Fiji, who has before yesterday never won an Olympic gold medal, crushed England, the country that invented rugby, with a decidedly non-diverse team.
Not only were/are they not diverse, but they won with what may be one of the smallest populations pools in the world from which to draw. Fiji, a group of tiny islands ravaged by the world’s worst cyclone, struggling financially, stepped onto the world stage and won with one of the most beautiful games of rugby 7s I have ever seen.
Shall we then assume that Fiji’s lack of racial diversity is superior to the efforts South Africa has made to unify?
Because diversity is never the whole, or only, story.
So let us appreciate the American women’s gymnastics victory for what it is. It was wonderful. I love what it looked like, I love the potential and promise it illustrates.
But it is a snap shot-not a panorama.
Oh, yes… and this. Simone Manuel. Congratulations Simone.
Twas the night before the night before Christmas and all over campus… it was really quiet because all the students have gone home. The only sound to be heard was my high pitched excited squeal as the UPS man brought me a LeatherHead Sports rugby ball.
Once upon a time, in places like Oxford and Auckland men wore sports jackets to sporting events and football was called rugby. There were striped (hooped) pullover shirts with collars, bloody noses, and an inflated leather ball shaped a bit like an egg.
That egg was kicked, punched, and tossed between goal posts till one day Teddy Roosevelt wielded a big stick and the NCAA legalized the forward pass. The ball flew forward better when the laces were turned inside out and the ends were made pointy. Hence those who listened to Teddy play football, and don’t get me wrong I love that game, but I respect my elders.
Rugby remains, but finding a ball that hearkens back to its origins is not as easy. Well, maybe it is easy if you know where to look, and where you should look, is LeatherHead Sports.
Leatherhead Sports has been featured on theartofmanliness, acontinuouslean, GQ, Esquire, and pretty much everyone mostly thanks to thier custom hand made footballs and old school baseballs. Those are great (especially the medicine balls that I currently covet), but that rugby ball is my sugar plum equivalent and if you hold on to the ball after being tackled expect your head to be danced upon.
The game of rugby was born at a small boarding school in England. These young boys grew up and took the game with them, spreading it around the world, or at least anywhere in the world that at one time saw a concentration of former English school boys. This game remained a game till it hit New Zealand. There it became an art.
The United States was well established as its own country by the time rugby was invented, but American Universities like Harvard and Princeton were still fashioning themselves in the image of places like Cambridge and Oxford. All of those schools, especially the American one’s, played rugby. Over time the American version morphed a bit, we started blocking players who weren’t carrying the ball, stopped play after each tackle, and finally, the move that forever swept American’s away from rugby, the forward pass was made legal.
Rugby became football and Americans fell into a deep passionate love with gridiron. It started in the ivy league schools of the East Coast, spread to schools nationwide, and then, mostly in the Midwest, the game went professional. Those early days of the NFL are forever in our memory as black and white images of games being played on frozen fields in places like Green Bay, Cleveland, and Chicago. Soldier Field in Chicago, home of Mike Ditka and the Chicago Bears, is a living temple dedicated to the memory of the early days of football and the steel toughened game we love.
I love both games. They are cousins. Birthed of the same parents but reared oceans apart, they tell the same story in different languages, and as the language of rugby goes, the New Zealand All Blacks are Shakespeare. The Americans who still play the game are more like Steinbeck.
They flow with flourishes of color and beauty. We are straight forward, dusty and plodding. I like Steinbeck but watching the Grapes of Wrath performed is not Midsummer Night’s Dream. Reading either is fun, but New Zealand performs. They embody beauty. The Americans travel dirt roads toward California scrounging for a better life.
New Zealand rarely plays against the American national team (Eagles). When they do meet, it isn’t in America. Every time they have met, New Zealand has won. Handily.
But sometimes legends do meet, Washington knew Jefferson, Socrates and Plato, and then Soldier Field and the All Blacks. The match was attended by 60,000 people, the largest crowd in American rugby history, and I was there. Me and every other rugby fan in the States. Every thick chested, Guinness drinking, tree trunk legged American sat in the frozen stands and got wobbly kneed when the Kiwis did the haka.
The score was as predicted- Shakespeare plays never have new endings, but the performance is always worth watching. Seeing it live…
I have played rugby for more than twelve years now and to this day, no coach or player, has ever told me to keep my head on a swivel. I suspect most true ruggers would have no idea what that means and proffer some witty criticism of such an idea. I was reminded of the term while watching the NFL playoffs this weekend . I saw a play, rather I felt it through my TV. I felt it enough to sit down and jump back into the rugby vs. football discussion. Give ear to my argument o ye warring sides and shut up already.
The New Orleans Saints had the ball and while attempting one of those American forward passes, the defender, from San Francisco, capitalized on his assigned defender falling down, and intercepted the pass. Normal enough. The defeated receiver in a noble effort at redemption picked himself up off the ground and began to pursue his opposition who was beginning his run back the other direction. About two strides into the chase a Forty Niner came flying in from off-screen, hit this poor unsuspecting receiver right in the chest, lifting him up off the ground and sending him flat on his back. In football its called a pancake block. They hurt. That New Orlinian failed to keep his head on a swivel or he would have seen it coming.
This is the huge differentiator between the two games and one of the key factors that renders a comparison irrelevant. Most who argue which sport is better spend all their time on padding, specialists, and play stoppage, I have never heard anyone deal with blocking. I assume it is because most who huff and puff in these discussions haven’t played both games, or if one has, I assume they at one point, in either sport, performed poorly leaving the arguer bitter and likely suffering from a head injury that destroyed the part of the brain dealing with logic and reason.
I recall as a sophomore in high school I was excited to have an opportunity play “special teams” for the varsity. I got my chance to pursue a kickoff against a rival team and did so with gusto. In my youthful exuberance I became distracted from the ball carrier by an opposing player whose intent was to block me from the ball carrier. My intent became running over this blocker, and I did. I had a thirty yard running start, exploded square into his chest, and he landed flat on his back. It was exhilarating. I felt full of power and adrenaline as I stood over the top of him gloating. The play wasn’t over yet and upon realizing this I took one step backwards and turned to pursue the ball carrier, wherever he was.
As soon as I turned around a flying human missile planted his head right in my chest. My feet came off the ground, I lost my breath, and everything liquid or liquid like inside my face exploded onto the inside of my face mask. I was flat on my back trying to regain my breath, my bearings, and my pride.
I played football for years and every play of every game or every practice, included my hurling myself headlong into my opposition as fast and hard as I could. I loved it.
In my first ever rugby game, an opposing player picked the ball off the corner of a scrum and tried to slip by on the short side of the field. As the backside flanker I had a great angle on him and took off like a rocket. I planted my forehead in his chest, wrapped up, and drove him into the ground. In rugby a tackle does not signify the end of play, but it was the end for me and that other guy both. He rolled on the ground holding his shoulder, or so I’m told because I couldn’t see very well, my nose was broken. I never tried that again.
In the years since switching to the egg shaped ball, I have never endured the type of hit I received on that play my sophomore year. I’ve never had the sort of internally deflating hit that comes out of no where. I have been trampled, knocked heads, broken my nose again, but never been completely deflated out of no where. It doesn’t happen because not only are there no pads in rugby, but because there is no blocking.
They are not the same game, lets stop arguing.
In 1924 the world gathered in Paris to participate in gentlemanly competition and sport. This gathering was brought to modern memory, well… relatively modern memory, in the 1981 best picture winning film, Chariots of Fire. In this film, and in history, a group of British runners excel against great odds to earn victory and honor.
That film missed the best part.
The day before the track and field events, the United States Rugby team defeated France to win the gold medal.
By 1924 the United States had fully embraced American Football and forgotten the oblong ball. In the lead up to the Olympics, a group of interested men in San Francisco raised funds to send a team of Yanks to Paris. They scraped up a few familiar with the game, then added a number of Stanford basketball and football players to round out the squad. They learned the game while steaming across the Atlantic and arrived ready to play.
And play they did, beating Romania 37-0 and then capturing the gold against the hometown team 17-3.
Sporting the best looking uniforms the Americans have ever worn (true to this day), the Californians not only kicked, but stomped, the hornet’s nest. In the opening acts of the game, Stanford basketball captain Lefty Rogers, knocked the French star unconscious. By the end of the game a riot had erupted in the stands and the American national anthem could not be heard over the chorus of boos and rabble of the crowd. One player was beaten with a walking stick and the team was granted a police escort to the locker room.
Next month the world will gather to play rugby. The world cup, held every four years, is the planet’s fourth most watched television event. The American’s are not expected to win… a game. But the games have not yet been played and time will tell.
But there is more than hope on the horizon. When the summer Olympic games kick off in Brazil, rugby will be represented. We will enter the games as the sport’s defending gold medalists, and as such, we can dream of defending that award and hopefully we will be wearing that shield on our chests.