Game On!

American sports are a world apart from European sports. We take a look at what they're all about, from high-school heroes to stadium spectators.

Worldwide interest in sport is always high during an Olympic year. No one can deny that Europeans and Latin Americans are crazy about football, Scandinavians love winter sports, and people of every nationality follow the successes of their favorite tennis stars, volleyball teams, runners, boxers, ski jumpers, racing drivers, etc. But, as in many other fields, in this respect the United States is in a class by itself.

The 'big four'

Naturally, the above-mentioned sports and many other competitions have a following in America. But the greatest interest is generated by the 'big four': baseball, football, basketball and hockey. Before we go any further, a few definitions are needed. Hockey and basketball require no explanation and regular readers will be familiar with baseball - something like British cricket or the Polish folk game known as 'palant'. Football may seem self-explanatory, except that in America it refers to a completely different game to European 'Fußball', 'le football', 'piłka nożna', etc. American football is similar to Rugby, except that the players wear heavy protective gear.

American primary schools (also known as elementary schools, grade schools and grammar schools) not only conduct gym classes but also have a variety of after-school sports to choose from. But it is the American high school where sport reigns supreme. High school sports are in a class by themselves and cannot compare with anything found in European secondary schools. In fact, American high schools stand out in all areas of extra-curricular activities. They run clubs and groups to satisfy nearly every possible interest including journalism (the school newspaper), photography, computers, astronomy, theater, debating, glee clubs (singing groups), marching bands and many more. But let us return to sport.

High-school students have a choice of many different competitions including track, golf, bowling, archery, etc., but again it is the 'big four' that attract the most attention. In most schools, football is number one. Since it is an autumn sport, it adds excitement to the start of each new school year. Besides the actual playing, football has its own special aura with cheerleaders, homecoming dances, victory parades and a general carnival atmosphere.

Especially in small towns, the exploits of a high-school team are closely followed by proud parents and grandparents, friends and neighbors, and make front-page news in local newspapers. Basketball, played during the winter months, is second in popularity. In Canada and the northern states, hockey is a popular winter sport and baseball is strictly a spring pursuit.

Over the past two or three decades, non-American football, known in the USA as soccer, has grown in popularity in schools across the United States and Canada. Unlike American football, which requires big, beefy players, soccer permits people of varying size and strength to take part. Another advantage is that soccer equipment is comparatively inexpensive compared to football gear. To schools the cost factor is very important. Nevertheless, soccer is still something marginal that lacks the magic surrounding American-style football. Eventually this may change, but we shall have to wait and see.

College sport and the 'big time'

High-school sports, however, are basically kids' stuff. College sport means a higher level of performance by players and more thrills for spectators. A controversial feature of this scene is the sports scholarship. Extremely promising high-school athletes are offered scholarships, the financial assistance without which they could not afford to attend a college or university. Some of them have more brawn than brains, so they have a hard time keeping up with their academic studies. Often professors are under pressure from the administration to give football stars passing grades so they can continue representing their college on the pitch.

College sport is sometimes regarded as a kind of waiting room of professional competition. Talent scouts criss-cross the country in search of college football players and other sportsmen who have the makings of professional athletes. The greatest thrills, the most spectator interest and the biggest money surround professional sports in America. Player transfers, admission tickets, sporting heroes appearing in advertisements, television rights and the sale of team-related souvenirs and gadgets have become a multi-million-dollar industry. Stadiums are often packed, and many fans stay home glued to their TV sets during major games. Many American wives complain that they have to schedule their festive dinners on Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day, birthdays and other occasions so as not to collide with televised matches. That is, if they want the menfolk to join them for the meal.

Lack of violence

European visitors to America, who have been fed a steady diet of Hollywood action films, are often surprised to find that spectator violence is extremely rare. Occasionally fights break out among players, and hockey is especially known for periodic punch-ups, but hardly ever among spectators. Fans of opposing teams are scattered throughout the stadium, rather than being confined to their own sectors. They often shout abuse at their own or rival players or referees, but that is usually as far as it goes.

American stadiums are not swarming with police and security guards. Fathers take their young sons to games, some bring their entire families, and there are schools groups attending and individual fans, including old people. They enjoy the performance, cheer for their teams, munch popcorn and hot dogs, wash them down with Coke or beer and then peacefully return home. Only after a team wins a championship do disturbances sometimes occur. The latest example occurred in June when exuberant fans of the Los Angeles Lakers took to the streets to celebrate their victory. There were incidents of clashes and acts of vandalism, but it was nothing like the stadium hooliganism that occurs in Europe on a more or less regular basis.

Rob Strybel