When I was thirteen, my family migrated from South Africa to Australia. Although at the time, I’d desperately wished it was to the United States.
This is because all through my South African childhood I had voraciously consumed America’s number one global export: pop culture. My early years were soaked in American films, books, TV shows and music. I drank so much of the American Cool-Ade that by the time I was a teenager I was convinced that the USA was the only country in the world worth living in.
In the imaginary all-American life I’d constructed in my mind, we would have lived on a tree-lined suburban street, in a neat suburban house. I’d ride my bike to school, and hang out with wholesome, clean-cut kids. In scenes lifted straight from the pages of my beloved Archie comic books, me and my friends would enjoy malted milkshakes at Pop Tate’s Chocolate Shoppe on Main Street; attend proms and school dances; I would have a summertime job as a pool attendant at the local country club.
And of course there would have been weekly football games, with cheerleaders and marching bands and kids in team jackets applauding us on from their seats in the bleachers (Note: in my youthful fantasies I was always magically part of the football team, never mind that in real-life the chances of this ever happening would have been slightly less than zero).
These idealized notions of “America” got so deeply rooted in my psyche it took almost twenty years before I began to notice the urban decay and crumbling infrastructure so common to many of America’s great cities, a far cry from the idyllic white picket-fenced communities I’d always imagined. Or before it dawned on me that for so many Americans, the experience of high-school is not so much the sweet innocence of Archie cartoons as it is the more grim reality of overcrowded classrooms and crappy canteen food, often also including in the mix drugs, gangs, and the disturbing prospect of being shot or stabbed by a fellow student.
But one thing that has never changed is my notion of football as a mainstay of everyday American life. I guess partly because the sport has constantly been portrayed this way on TV and in movies (think Grease, Jerry Maguire, Any Given Sunday, The Blind Side, and even “tween-friendly” films popular with my kids when they were little, like High School Musical). And partly because I had never been to a football game, so there was never anything to dislodge my rose-colored glasses.
That is, until a couple of weeks ago, when I was invited to join some friends at “the Game”. Or more precisely, the LA Rams versus the Dallas Cowboys pre-season football match, to be played at Los Angeles’ historic Coliseum Stadium. Or even more precisely, the first LA Rams home game in 22 years, the team having relocated back to Los Angeles from St Louis for the start of the 2016/2017 season. Meaning that my first ever football game was also a historic event of sorts.
This was going to be epic. And I was so excited.
So in the spirit of authentic sport’s journalism, here’s my inaugural full-time report.
The LA Rams came storming back in the 4th quarter to snatch a narrow victory after having been behind the entire game. This was quite thrilling to watch, and appealed massively to the hometown crowd, which went quite wild by the end of it all.
Speaking of the crowd, it was a big one: almost 90,000 strong, supposedly one of the highest ever attendance levels for a preseason football game. The atmosphere was incredibly festive, people laughing and joking with strangers, chanting and clapping, and with a goodly proportion of those in attendance decked out head-to-toe in branded (a.k.a. expensive) team merchandise. It was also diverse: not just the stereotypical big beefy guys you might expect to see, but also lots of families, groups of women, and kids, of every ethnicity and social class.
And it was drunk, with almost every adult in the place having consumed copious quantities of over-priced beer through the course of the day. For reasons no-one could explain to me, beer was freely available everywhere in the stadium (possibly more so than water, marginally less so that Coca-Cola), whilst any other form of alcohol was banned.
This leading naturally to an area of special interest for me: the food on offer. It was staggering in its variety, with many dozens of food outlets and trucks parked around the outskirts of the stadium, offering all manner of options. But it was even more staggering in its uniformity. Whether it was Mexican, Italian or “American” food, BBQ, Seafood or “Healthy”, every item from every vendor wound up being largely the same thing: an over-sized serving of stodge, drenched in sugar or deep-fried (in some cases both), and accompanied by mountains of other equally bad-for-you deep-fried goodies. I found it literally impossible to get anything to eat or drink that did not mean I’d be consuming a week’s worth of carbs, oil, fat and sugar, all at the same time.
This might also explain why so many of the people in the crowd were, to put it mildly, “of a larger build”. In the stadium I was enclosed in a bubble with people from all over greater Los Angeles, as opposed to the image-obsessed fitness-mad folks who tend to inhabit my usual locales of Venice Beach and Hollywood. So I got to see first-hand the truth of the statistics: one in three American adults is considered to be obese; 3 in 4 men are said to be either obese or overweight.
Or to put it another way, I watched in horror as the seventy-kilo ten-year-old kid sitting next to me shoveled a deep-fried something into his face, before slurping down a liter of Coke and then demolishing a bag of caramel-coated popcorn bigger than he was. Matched mouthful for mouthful by his parents, who were sitting alongside him, only in their case the Coke replaced by beer. It was like observing a family of feeding hippo from close-up, a mental image that will unfortunately stay with me for a very long time.
Back on the field two armies of seriously big guys covered in padding were constantly lining up and then charging at each other. They did this over and over. Except that whenever it started it would abruptly stop again, so that the actual activity of playing football lasted ten seconds at a time, at best. In between of which there were long delays, endless time-outs, and commercial breaks. Meanwhile hundreds of people were milling about on the sidelines, watching the inaction, and barking into headsets.
In fact the only people on the field who seemed to be constantly busy were the cheerleaders: four squads of extremely attractive young ladies (one at each corner of the field), heavily made-up and holding fluffy pom-poms, but otherwise wearing not very much. For almost the entire time they danced, waved their pom-poms, shook their booties, and exhorted the crowd to cheer along.
They were ably assisted by a booming baritone voice which from time to time would rip through the stadium via the sound system, offering up random snippets of commentary, but mostly asking everyone in the crowd to “stand up and make some noise!” And which, no matter how many times this happened, always seemed to whip everyone around me into a total frenzy.
It went on like this for almost four hours – an unending assault of glitz and glamour, sound and colour and noise, while in the background two groups of God-like multi-millionaires bashed into each other in a disjointed stop-start ballet, cheered on by half-naked pom-pom waving girls and hordes of fat people devouring burgers and beer.
Frankly, why this should even be considered sport was a little bit confusing.
That said, as theater goes the game was a hugely enjoyable spectacle, I cannot tell a lie. I loved every minute of it, good and bad, whether on or off the field.
Although for me the highlight came even before the game began, when the national anthem was sung. You see, where I come from, the anthem is an obligatory pre-match chore. Many don’t know the words, few take it seriously, and most people talk right the way through.
Whereas in the LA Coliseum, when the time came for singing of The Star Spangled Banner the stadium rose up as one, the chit-chat stopped, and the noise, glitz, glamour and motion all immediately ceased, completely. Regardless of color, ethnicity, age, sex, size, wealth or team of preference, everyone joined together in earnest, for a couple of minutes of unbridled patriotism.
Everyone seemed to know the words, and almost half of those standing around me put their hand on their heart. And just about everyone sang, loudly and proudly, their voices filled with conviction and belief: “The Land of the Free, and the Home of the Brave.”
At the risk of sounding cheesy, the sound of 90,000 voices singing these words in unison gave me goosebumps. And also reminding me of what I guess I instinctively knew as a kid: the USA may have some pretty serious flaws, but it is also a place that continues to offer hope and opportunity, to all comers, more so than just about anywhere else.
Sure, there may be a lot of unhealthy people in America, seemingly intent on eating themselves to death. Sure, these folks may often also come wrapped up in supremely conservative views, and a rabid belief in the rightness of their politics, God and guns. There can be a disturbing level of latent racism in America. And it can be a country of extreme extremes: a harsh place where less fortunate people are often overlooked; where the pursuit of money rules; where compassion is often sacrificed for individualism; and where all that glitz often seems so much more important than substance and meaning.
But it is also a country that has produced a disproportionate share of what makes our modern world tick. The birthplace of automobiles and airplanes and space travel; a leading light in medicine and science; home to an entertainment industry that churns out much of the cinema, TV and music we all enjoy; the point of origin of the internet, Microsoft, Google, Apple, and a million other cutting edge technologies that we all depend on, every single day.
Not just stuff, but ideas, too. America is a heartland of capitalism and democracy, the twin ideologies that have come to define much of our modern way of life. It is a society that genuinely believes in the ideals of personal freedom, liberty, equality, and justice for all, even if in practice the application of those ideals can often be imperfect.
A place that despite its flaws consistently manages to draw on the power of the individual in a way that unites it diverse population far more than it divides. And where in the process, somehow, almost magically, the aggregate almost always seems to be so much greater than the sum of the parts.
Which is why for me, forty years on from my first Archie comic, America still remains one of the greatest countries on earth. Football and all.