Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A love of American team sports: At what price?

The rest of the sporting world is catching up to America.

In his weekly sports commentary this morning on National Public Radio, commentator Frank Deford opined about how America's love of team sports comes at a price.

I have a deep admiration for Deford, an author and writer whose reporting and commentary includes: senior contributing writer for Sports Illustrated, commentator for NPR and correspondent for HBO's monthly sports magazine 'Real Sports'. Today, Deford said: "I've always thought that one of the best things about American sport is that we aren't dominated by one team game, as so much of the rest of the world is soccer-centric. That's why we can have our own American dream.  The dream of most other countries is simply to have their national soccer team do well." (Note to my friends around the world: What you call football, in the U.S. we call it soccer.)

Deford is absolutely right.  In America, we've always focused our devotion to team sports ~ baseball, American-style football, basketball and ice hockey come to mind ~ and we've turned college sports into a big multi-million-dollar business. Can high school sports be fare behind?

Looking up at No. 1 /
Vamos Rafa!
Meanwhile, I have found through many friendships I've made on Facebook that in other nations, their sports affection and devotion are monogamous.  For instance, my friends either root for Rafa Nadal or Novak Djokovic, but not for both. It's either "Vamos Rafa" or "Ajdee Nole". Switzerland's Roger Federer, like his native country, is a neutral presence. And, on the football pitch, the line is clearly drawn between fans rooting for either Real Madrid or Barcelona. For Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. You see, there's no waffling among my international friends when it comes to showing one's rooting interest.  It is pinned to their heart or worn on their sleeve for everyone to see ~ and I've grown to appreciate this.

Here in the U.S., Deford refers to American sports fans as "serial team fans". What this means is simple: You're either for the Yankees or the Mets if you live in New York, but dare not root for both. And, if you live in Chicago, you're either a Cubs fan ~ especially if you live on the North Side ~ or a White Sox fan if you're from the South Side. But you can't be a true Chicago baseball fan and root for both teams.

In a topsy turvy week that began with deadly tornadoes whipping through Alabama and beyond in the U.S., then continued with the splendid Will and Kate's Royal Wedding in London, and, finally, concluded Sunday night with President Obama announcing to the nation and the world the killing of Osama bin Laden, the U.S. has shown it has become less of a power in individual sports like tennis.

From the hard courts of Melbourne and Flushing Meadows to the red clay of Roland Garros to the pristine grass of Wimbledon, all of the reigning Grand Slam champions, except for Serena Williams at Wimbledon, are foreigners.  Sure, the Williams sisters have mostly been injured on and off for the past year. But, even if they were healthy, who's to say the outcome of any of the Grand Slam tournaments would have been any different? Still, it's a far cry from the days when John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Chris Evert were part of a dominating American presence in the Grand Slams.

Roger Federer/
In search of his 17th
Grand Slam singles title.
Now that the tennis calendar has shifted to the European clay court season in the lead up to this month's French Open, the focus is clearly on rest of the world.  The top four men's seeds at this week's Mutua Madrid Open ~ Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray ~ are from Spain, Serbia, Switzerland and Great Britain, respectively. After the first day of competition, all of the Americans except one had lost.  The lone exception, John Isner, had to defeat another American, Mardy Fish, to advance to the second round.   And, it was yet another clay-court disappointment for America's best player, Andy Roddick. The red clay that is a universal playing surface for much of the rest of the world, is still so very foreign to the American players.  It seems they can't wait to get to Wimbledon so they can play on grass, or to return home to America for the summer hard-court season leading up to the U.S. Open in August.

Yes, it is painfully obvious that the rest of the world has caught up with America in sports as it has in many other respects. And, as Deford concluded his commentary this morning, he said: "The cliche is that there's no 'I' in team. But more and more, when it comes to tennis and golf, there's no 'U.S' in world champion."

I couldn't agree more.

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