I recently got back from a month in the states. I had never previously considered travelling to the land of opportunity. If I was ever to fork out the funds and time to travel, Europe or South America strike me as much more appealing. But a childhood friend was getting married in Dallas, and the stress of work was beginning to weigh down on me, so it was time to take a long break. It turned out to be a life-changing trip, aided by the fact that they love their sport over there.
I’m big on sports. It’s a running joke with those that know me that I can be a little too competitive; and that I can’t stand losing. Within minutes of touching down in LAX, I made it a priority to get to a news stand and soak in as many sporting headlines as possible. Like a sponge, I was already forming an opinion on the nation-polarising Tim Teebow, and beginning to become a fan of the affable Drew Brees. Brees’ speech upon beating Dan Marino’s record of yards gained in a season was like an excerpt from Any Given Sunday.
It then occurred to me the stark difference between Australian sports stars and American sports stars. This is anecdotal evidence at best, but bear with me. I watch at least 4 AFL games a weekend. My expectations of how Aussie Rules footballers behave and hold themselves has never changed. Neither has my view on how the public scrutinises them. You hear of the colourful characters back in the 80s, but those personalities have been completely stamped out of the game.
When a player from the winning team is interviewed straight after a game, what follows is usually a sterile, almost rehearsed conversation with a boundary rider in which he will regurgitate clichéd footyisms. Here’s a few:
- “Just taking each game as it comes”
- “We’re not worried about other teams, just focusing on our own game plan”
- “It was a team effort”
- “One week at a time”
- “A week is a long time in football”
Or on the losers table:
- The better team won on the day
- We did our best but came up short
- we gave 110%
The closest thing we have to a player with personality and eccentricities is a fictional caricature named Strauchanie.
This mentality is becoming more ingrained within AFL culture as the sport becomes bigger and more professional. I wouldn’t be surprised if players are actually being PR trained. It seems their only outlet to be human might be a cheeky tweet about a teammates new haircut. None of this is a bad thing, it’s just the current state of affairs.
American Basketballers on the other hand are a completely different kettle of fish. The first thing you notice is the confidence. It’s not stifled or trained out of them. Kobe Bryant will tell you why he gets first look and can win a game by himself. Michael Jordan was infamous for sledging opponents on what he was about to do before he did it. This of course isn’t exclusive to the modern era or even basketball, think back to Mohommad Ali or Michael Johnson. It’s a fine line between arrogance and pride, but I find this unwavering belief in one’s own ability fascinating. People trying to get into basketball may however draw the line at players referring to themselves in the third person.
The short answer to why this was such a cultural shock to me is because of a little thing down under called Tall Poppy Syndrome.
Tall poppy syndrome is a term to describe a social phenomenon in which people of genuine merit are resented, attacked, cut down, or criticised because their talents or achievements elevate them above or distinguish them from their peers. - Wikipedia
Not only is this term unfamiliar to Americans, when trying to explain it to a few I had met, it was received with confusion. “Why would people do that?”. Dang, good question. Others might explain that it’s the attitude and not the success that evokes this cultural reaction. I’m not so sure.
Individualism, talent and skill are things that are celebrated in the US. I found it a breath of fresh air. In terms of sport, it’s much more entertaining. And isn’t that after all the reason we follow teams and vicariously live through our favourite sport stars? I’ll be eagerly awaiting the reaction from Lebron James if and when the king gets his ring.