Friday, 31 August 2012

The Zipless F…ootball game

I like quite a few sports. Fencing, GAA, soccer, ice hockey, darts, cricket, snooker, kabbadi, rugby league, handball… anything combining speed, skill and violence (though I'll accept that snooker's violence is more on the psychological level rather than the baize).

But I'm becoming utterly fatigued by major sport. It's too relentless. I'm not allowed to forget about soccer for the summer: the off-season months are filled with speculation, transfer rumours, meaningless tournaments and marketing opportunities. Other sports are becoming cheapened in the pursuit of more of your money: Rugby League's teams all acquired stupid names like the Stoke Silverfish or Essex Ebola Viruses. Cricket's been infested with 20/20, which is essentially the crystal meth compared with the real thing's complex smoky Islay malt. Formula 1 is, to me, the essence of non-sport: high-speed advertising with added pollution and no possibility for the fans to get anywhere near participating other than buying similarly advertising-festooned clothing. And don't get me started on the Red Bull Air Race. Not a sport. Just a promotional device in search of an audience.

Most of all, I hate the portability of sport. All the rich sports are now playable anywhere without regard for origins or audience. Take American Football. Like baseball, it's long been confined to continental North America, with outposts in countries American troops have occupied, like Japan. This weekend, Navy are playing Notre Dame in… Dublin. That's right, the capital of Ireland. The home of hurling and football (Gaelic), of Lansdowne Road for the rugby fans and even of a couple of soccer teams. But not, historically, a hotbed of American Football.

Who's going to be in the stands? Americans. 35,000 of them flying in from, well, America to watch some other Americans play American football. Why? It's a promotional gimmick. No doubt the NFL and College organisations think (wrongly) that they might spark interest in the 'sport', but mostly it's a cynical - and very clever - Irish gimmick: get the Yanks over, stuff them full of Guinness and blarney, unearth a few ancestors and hope they invest in the country, or at least come on holiday again. You can locate the cultural level of this event simply by glancing at the billing. It's the Emerald Isle Classic. Three words to make you vomit: the sickening sentiment of 'Emerald Isle' which takes us back to the 19th century, and the arrogant appropriation of the word 'classic'. Surely it's up to the fans to decide afterwards whether or not the game was a 'classic'?

This isn't sport. Sports have origins, histories and obsessive fans who passionately support one side or the other for sometimes very tenuous reasons like geographical accident. How will any stray Irish spectators decide between Navy or Notre Dame? Perhaps Notre Dame's Catholic origins and 'Fighting Irish' nickname will sway them, but it's a bit weak. Despite my personal opinion that American Football shares all the excitement of a prostate exam, I can't help feeling sorry for the sport and its fans. Thousands of Americans are having their support hijacked to generate cash for hoteliers and unscrupulous ticket agents, while their beloved sport is rendered meaningless. It's a sham. It's a commodity: the game's on because those teams took the cash. If the organisers had been able to get a couple of boxers, Premiership soccer teams, Aussie Rules sides or top canoeists, they'd have done so if the money was right.

Rather than the visceral physical and emotional experience of seeing a meaningful match of interest only to the teams and their supporters, this kind of peripatetic mega-even takes on both more and less significance. The purely local, Navy v Notre Dame, may have history and purpose within the sport's structure. Perhaps there's a long-standing rivalry there - but in Ireland, this weekend, that's entirely meaningless. The game is the equivalent of a UFO landing, addressing a couple of trees and leaving in a huff - there's no attempt to add American Football to the Irish sporting landscape in any permanent way: even the 'garrison' sports of soccer and rugby made more effort than this.

The game 'means' nothing culturally, and yet everything economically and politically. It announces that Ireland is open to the world (e.g. it has hotels up to American standards and doesn't ask too many questions about taxation and employment laws), and that American Football is similarly 'global', despite the evidence that it really, really isn't. The event's little different from hosting the International Convention of Sanitary Engineers, underneath the glitter and hype.

What does the match say to American Football fans? It tells them that their participation is merely ancillary. They can come along for the ride, but the game itself is simply a tool in a global PR exercise. And for Irish sports fans? It rejects their own sporting affiliations and histories. It prostitutes itself to them by assuming that fandom is easily transferable between sports and countries and cultures. Forget that fact that GAA is played by battered amateurs who'll be teaching, or roofing or selling insurance back in their home counties on Monday morning, and watch multimillionaire drugged-up freaks smash each other to pieces before variously spending their downtime raping, murdering, endorsing products or organising dogfights.

I don't really have any objection to the game itself - it's got a history and a genuine fanbase. My objection is to the way all of this is ignored in the pursuit of other goals, largely capitalist globalisation. To be of any use, the sport has to be stripped of meaning, made shiny and smooth, tamed for TV and made available to advertisers and sponsors - mostly be removing what makes it unique and replacing these features with other narratives entirely. This applies equally to the 'Ireland' visible to the visiting fans: not a living, breathing, complicated place with a culture of its own, but a plastic stew of ancestors, golf, Celticism, leprechauns and romance (and for businessmen, a Romantic fairyland of low corporate taxes).

This game is the equivalent of Erica Jong's 'zipless fuck', the no-strings, emotion-free encounter which appeared (wrongly) to be the high point of women's liberation. 'Come on in', it says. 'Pick a side, any side, and Bingo! You're a Football Fan'.

Sport - like any cultural activity - shouldn't be this easy. If it is, you're being sold a pup.


SpH said...

Completely unrelated but it's the only way I know to get hold of you. Me band (called The Bluebeat Arkestra) are playing the Wolves Oxjam gig at the Barley Mow in Penn on Sat 22nd September:

Shaun Hand

The Plashing Vole said...

Cheers Shaun - will do my best to be there. Check the university website for my email address (or just Google me).