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You Call Those Guys Athletes?

Why British balls are better

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Threats to world peace and poor urban planning can wait; global warming must take its turn. Something more important has come up, and I'm going to risk nasty letters to the editor and riots in the streets. I'm going to criticize American sports. Because we foreigners living in the USA often walk a tightrope between being politely silent and expressing our opinions, we frequently bite our tongues rather than expound points of view that are critical of America. However deeply we may feel about an issue, we just don't want to deal with the all-too-predictable backlash. Three topics I generally shy away from in the conservative South are religion, sex, and sports, but this week I'm breaking my rule.

A bizarre comment in the Charlotte Observer tipped me off the tightrope, revealing as it did a yawning chasm of comprehension between American attitudes and world opinion. In an editorial about the NBA, the Observer suggested that America's professional basketball players were the finest athletes in the world! I was flabbergasted at this shameless piece of uncritical jingoism. How can anybody seriously place pampered players performing in air-conditioned comfort above other athletes who expend more energy for longer periods in all weathers and in much more physical contexts? If we're going to boast about American athleticism, let's honor real heroes like Lance Armstrong, who performs amazing feats of strength and endurance for hours, days and weeks across the winding roads and mountains of the Tour de France! Armstrong not only takes on Europe's best on their home turf, he beats them hands down!

Now, understand that I'm not some effete intellectual who dislikes sports. I am a sports nut. I'm addicted to the Fox Soccer Channel to a degree that overwhelms my deep distaste for the sleazy politics and propaganda that emanates from the Fox network in general. If I didn't have to earn a living, I could easily watch soccer, rugby and cricket all day long on the telly; I played soccer and rugby as an amateur for many years, and they're part of my cultural upbringing. From this perspective, claims made about the quality of American pro sports are laughable.

Take professional basketball: the game lasts only 48 minutes, with plenty of breaks for rest, and the court is only 94 feet long! Compare this to the real game of football, properly called Association Football to distinguish it from Rugby Football which is played perversely with hands more than feet and invented at a private school in Rugby, north of London. (The term "Association" was shortened over the years to give us the abbreviated epithet "soccer.") Not unlike basketball, soccer flows constantly from end to end, with all players except the goalkeepers in constant motion. But soccer is played with bruising physical contact for 90 minutes with only one rest period on a much bigger pitch, 300-by-150 feet. I can still remember the goals I scored as a central striker. There is no sweeter sound than a soccer ball hitting the back of the net!

The Observer suggested that America's professional basketball players were the finest athletes in the world!

I was flabbergasted.Comparing American football to its progenitor, rugby, is similarly instructive. Once more, the American game is shorter — 60 minutes compared to 80 in the British original — and during that hour, American players rest on the bench at least as long as they play on the field. The grinding lockstep tactics of the gridiron game pale in comparison to the fluid grace and unarmored speed of rugby, where hefty forwards (I was one) hammer non-stop up and down the pitch. There are no time outs, no walking to the bench to sit down for a rest every five minutes. We win possession of the ball by sheer physique (no padding, no helmets) and feed it to our fleet-footed running backs who probe our opponents' defense with inventive geometries of flowing movement. Only a single short half-time interval breaks up this poetry in motion.

I rest my case with cricket, that most elegant and subtle of games. Compare a baseball pitcher to a cricket fast bowler. A good pitcher throws fast, sometimes up to 100 mph, but most of the time he stands on his mound looking mean, chewing gum or tobacco and spitting, stopping only occasionally to throw the ball at the batter.

Fast bowlers in cricket also hurl the ball at 100mph. But they do this continually, sometimes for hours on end under a sizzling sun, from a 30-meter pounding run. The energy expended, and the level of fitness required, is far in excess of that displayed by some of Major League Baseball's famed paunchy pitchers such as David Wells!

American sports are simply too formulaic. Moreover, the fans lack a global perspective that puts their games in context with truly world-class sports played 'round the globe. British ball games (we invented the games the world plays) are simply better.

Now, about this weird ritual you call NASCAR . . .

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