One thing many people living in my adopted country of Great Britain can’t understand about my country of birth, the USA, is the American obsession with college sports. Thoughts about this came to mind while I was in the US last month. As it was March, the focus of sports in the US centered around the college basketball playoffs, which is properly nicknamed, “March Madness.” Just about every game was shown on TV and lots of talk generated around it. This was further aided by the fact that a local university, Villanova, located just outside Philadelphia, whose basketball team was not only playing in the March Madness, but was also the number one seed. However, this is not only true with the playoffs and basketball but other college sports as well. None more so with (American) football.
The United States and the United Kingdom have a different attitude towards sports in their university. This is blatantly obvious as American colleges pour loads more money into sports than British ones. Furthermore, except for the famous Oxford-Cambridge boat race, I’ve never seen any university sports televised in Britain. Still, it begs the question, why are Americans so obsessed with college sports? To try to answer this, I will look at the two biggest college sports, football and basketball.
For many in Britain, experience with American football begins and ends with the NFL. In fact, I admit that I had lost touch with college football until I began officiating the sport in the UK. That is because football leagues in Britain play by college (NCAA) rules. That might answer the question there because while NFL rules are centered around entertainment, the basic philosophy of college football is “Let players play.” One example of NFL rules being centered around entertainment is back in the late 1970s. The NFL felt that there weren’t enough punt returns happening in the games. Kicking teams were getting downfield too fast and preventing the receiving team from returning the punt. So what the NFL did was make a rule that only two players on the kicking team were allowed downfield before the ball was kicked. Now, we see more punt returns in the NFL. College rules don’t do that. In fact, I have told people in the UK who are interested in American football that if they want to see the game played well in its purest form, to watch college football.
It’s not just the lack of complexity of the rules in college football that lure many Americans. The college game is more wide open. You see many more running plays that go ten yards or more and also see more razzle-dazzle plays, thus bringing an air of excitement to the game. On account of this, many Americans do prefer the college game to the professional. However, there is a down side. Until recently, championships were decided by rankings in the sports press. In order to climb the rankings, you had to win games and win them convincingly. In the NFL, if a team is winning 42-0 in the fourth quarter, they will call off the dogs a bit. The losing team may even get a touchdown or two so the score doesn’t look that bad. In college football, there is no let up if a team is up by that score. If anything, the winning team will try to run up the score even more because beating a weaker team 56-0 will send a team up the rankings a lot more than beating them 42-7. Other than that, there is a lot of excitement to be seen in college football.
Many school children in the UK know of the NBA, largely thanks to the film, “Space Jam.” When working as a substitute (supply) teacher, I sometimes get asked who my favourite NBA team is and I happily tell them the Boston Celtics. However, I also tell them that I prefer watching college basketball and why. Yes, in the NBA, you get all the slick moves of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James and that can be exciting. The problem is that the NBA is too good. The teams go up and down court making baskets and after a little while, that can get a little boring. And that’s the cool thing about college basketball. They miss once in a while and that brings a little more uncertainty about scoring. For me, that makes the game more exciting. I know I’m not the only American who holds this view.
Finally, whilst on the subject, many people in the UK think it’s awful that in America, a person can get into a university for playing sports. Let me clarify this. Most of the kids who get offered athletic scholarships from universities are from underprivileged backgrounds. They are probably better than average students but with the demand for university placements and the costs of going to college, these kids would never get the chance to go. Therefore, their athletic abilities get them into a good college where they can have a good education, get a degree and get out of poverty. Isn’t that better than seeing a person has that ability not be able to use it?
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