Since I mentioned my beloved Detroit Red Wings in my last blog, I suppose that some of you are wondering how I feel about them missing the playoffs for the first time in a quarter-century this past season. First of all, given that Mom passed away less than a month into the regular season, it was pretty much impossible for me to feel any kind of emotional attachment to the team in the wake of everything else that was going on around me. Honestly, I haven’t really felt more than a tenuous connection to them for years now, although that has less to do with the team (and even the changing style of play in the NHL) than it has to do with me being so busy with my teaching career, and fine-tuning and publishing my first novel, and all the personal and family stuff I’ve been dealing with over the past year. Still, I have to keep track of how all the regional sports teams are doing so I can converse about them with my students, so I did kind of follow along sadly as the Red Wings sputtered and stalled and ultimately sank last season.
I have, however, gotten back into Australian Rules Football in recent months. Part of the reason for that is because I had to research what the sport is doing about concussion prevention for an exercise in my book 50 Critical Thinking Exercises for Humanities Classes, but I know that I’ve also felt drawn back to Aussie Rules just because it brings back good memories of my younger days, and I’ve been drawn to thoe sorts of things a lot more than usual this past year. Back in the 1980s, ESPN ran a weekly half-hour highlights show from the main Aussie Rules league (the Australian Football League as it’s called today, or AFL, although it was then known as the Victorian Football League/VFL) during the height of the Crocodile Dundee/Yahoo Serious fad, and it came on Saturday mornings just before my cartoons. As a kid who was just starting to learn about sports, Aussie Rules struck me by how different it looked from any of the sports I could get on American television back then, with things like the game-starting centre bounce, and boundary umpires tossing the ball back into play by hurling it over their heads with their backs to the players, images that stuck with me from the first time I saw them. Even now, over three decades later, I still marvel not only at the sheer athleticism of footy players, but just how they can bounce an oblong ball on grass while running at a full sprint.
The VFL/AFL highlights show eventually made its way onto other sports networks in the nineties, but after that I really wasn’t able to watch Aussie Rules for over a decade, until YouTube finally broke down the barriers of broadcasting. Not only was I able to watch footy again, but for the first time I was able to watch full games. I’m still nowhere into the AFL like I was with the NHL two decades ago, when the Red Wings were at their pulse-pounding peak, but I seek out Aussie Rules now in a way that I just don’t seek out any other sport (even with my team, the Essendon Bombers, not doing much better than the Red Wings have in recent years).
I definitely like Aussie Rules a lot, but I hesitate to call myself a fan of it for a number of reasons. First of all, I didn’t really “grow up” with the game like Australians do (even if the game was, in a limited way, a part of my childhood). Even today, with the Internet helping me understand the game in a way that I never could before, I’m still a near-neophyte when it comes to understanding the intricacies of the game (for example, I still can’t make out any set plays in games), and I don’t feel comfortable calling myself a fan of anything unless I have a good body of understanding about it. There’s also the matter of how I don’t have the time to follow any sport all that closely right now, what with all the huge changes in my life that I’m still dealing with.
More than anything, though, there is the sad fact that whenever America gets its hands on something, it tends to “Americanize” it to make it more palatable for Americans (because of course we’re the only people who really matter blah blah blah), and Americanization has a long track record of being synonymous with bastardization, evidence of which can be seen in everything from 4Kids’ anime atrocities to ten thousand crappy “Asian fusion” restaurants from sea to smug-ass sea. As an American, even if my intentions of promoting Aussie Rules are rooted in keeping the game just the way it is, most footy fans are probably inherently distrustful of any American who tries to promote the game they love so much, and I can’t blame them for that in the slightest. Even writing a blog where I talk about this problem so abstractly still feels like I’m chancing a shitstorm of negative replies from lifelong footy fans who don’t want us Americans intruding on their game.
Still, not having anyone to share my love of footy with is more than demoralizing. Internet forums are out of the question because, well, they’re Internet forums, and none of my flesh-and-blood friends and family members have displayed even the slightest interest in footy when I’ve shown it to them. Also, I’d like to be able to buy some Bombers team merchandise some day without paying out the nose for trans-Pacific shipping, so I do have a slight financial interest in Aussie Rules being more popular in the states.
I’d like to think that there’s a way to popularize footy in America without risk of the game changing to adapt to American tastes. The popularity of AFL reaction videos is a mixed bag, because while they make more Americans aware that there is such a thing as Australian Rules Football, highlight videos never provide the true flavour of any sport (just as those VFL highlight shows I watched thirty years ago weren’t truly representative of Aussie Rules as a whole), and reaction videos often showcase “AFL hardest hits” video packages that often contain hits that are illegal within the rules of the AFL which, again, doesn’t give an accurate representation of footy. Maybe there isn’t a way to make footy popular in America while retaining its essence, but I’d like to think that I can at least talk about my own love of Aussie Rules without any Australians telling me to shut my piehole and go back to talking about American sports that I just don’t care that much about.