It’s been over six months since I was last here, hunched over the harsh nocturnal-blue glow from my laptop screen. It’s 2:30 in the morning and though my eyelids droop down lazily and my warm bed covers, mere feet away, beckon me with their loving siren’s call, I have no intentions of going to bed, as this is a night I have been waiting an eternity for. This is the first week of September; this is the return of football.
While all across America friends and family gather in front of the television – dinners a recent memory, still rumbling in their stomachs – I sit alone in a darkened room obsessively checking that my headphones aren’t so loud as to wake those around me, while a bag of pretzels sit by my side mockingly as I ponder exactly why I put myself through this torture.
It occurs to me tonight; halfway through the fifth time I watch the adverts for a Matthew Perry sitcom I’m never going to see and the new Toyota Camry that doesn’t even exist in England that my experience of watching pro-football is surely a far-flung vision from the vast majority of people. What should be wonderful about sport is how it transcends culture or background – you can put two people in a room with nothing in common but a love of football and they can talk for hours. There is nothing personal about sports; yes, people can judge you completely irrationally for being a Jets fan just as they can for being rich, or poor, or homosexual, but it never really feels the same because, when all is said and done, sport doesn’t really matter. We just like to think it does.
Sports are something that is meant to be watched and enjoyed in groups, before being dissected by back-seat quarterbacks on a Monday morning. Sport and culture go hand in hand – which is why, as I sit here, alone, in the dark, I realise what a strange sensation this is. I am only left to gleam at the Utopia a thousand miles away in which friends gather in strangely immaculate houses, exchange tame trash-talk and drink either Bud Light, Miller Light or Coors Light. Either way it’s Light beer.
“Oh, what a world!” I think to myself as I sip from a glass of water, as any form of alcohol will likely tip me over the edge into golden slumbers.
It is this disconnect – this dedication of mine – that can at times be so frustrating as an outsider looking into American sports. I doubt that most people realise the extraordinary lengths people in Europe go to follow what is still considered here, despite its growth, a fringe sport. In America football is culture, it is something that requires absolutely no effort to connect with because 24 hour news stations are swamped with time-filling featurettes and radio call-in shows and newspapers filled with articles on teams – and most importantly of all – a gluttony of friends with which to talk and share these experiences with.
Europe has football (soccer) for that, so we get it. Just as in America we have radio shows dedicated to frivolous discussions of nothing-ness, and gossip-columns and overanalyses of every minute detail; but American football has nothing here – it is silenced into the night. Tebow-mania wasn’t even a thing.
Yet, ever since the inaugural NFL International Series in 2007 at Wembley fans have posted message board comments with their droll, quasi-xenophobic sentiments of “it’s the National Football League, not the International Football League,” like that’s supposed to prove anything other than the fact that you’re a cunt.
While such responses may be considered a natural pact reaction to something most Americans will think of as “their” sport this is, despite their protestations, simply not the case any more. The world is getting smaller and American football will grow and grow, as has every other sport on the planet – something most rational thinking people can surely only accept as a good thing. It’s the fact that fans are so reluctant to share their sport – to give up just one game to another time zone – that shows how much Americans take for granted their niche, idiosyncratic sport; there is not a single other sport outside of America that has this luxury.
But while I am by now more than familiar with my ritual of late nights/late morning, my body attuned to bizarrely erratic sleeping times this is not something that comes easy to me, particularly after six months away.
It’s a sad admission to make, but like a professional footballer preparing for the new season I often stay up watching pre-season games of teams I don’t even support just to get used to watching football at 3am.
Worse still, for the last three years of my life I had to make the choice of watching Sunday Night Football, starting at 1:30am in the UK (finishing at close to 5am) or to make my lecture at 9am the following morning. It says a lot about the sport that last year I just about scraped through that class, coming up 3 points short of failing the semester.
That, my friends, is dedication.
All I ask of you is that when you settle down on Sunday night to renew your glamorous world of super-cold, freshly-brewed Bud Light, your friends surrounding you, finishing in time for the Nightly News, spare a thought for your brothers across the Atlantic for whom a whole other ritual has been reborn. We are the fans who spend Sunday nights alone and Monday morning with bleary eyes, tired minds and relying on our false idol of Red Bull to get us through the day.