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Mike Carlson Mike Carlson at Super Bowl LI with the BBC team, from left: Mark Chapman, former NFL cornerback Jason Bell and two-time Super Bowl winner Osi Umenyiora.
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Always Playing Away: The Mike Carlson Column

What the British Say About Our Sports

Mike takes a wry look at how Brits perceive American sports in the first of his regular columns for The American
By Mike Carlson
Published on November 15, 2019
Mike Carlson Photo ©Andy Neale

I've lived in Britain for more than 40 years. If you've been here for more than a few years you'd probably recognise me (or my voice) from American football coverage on BBC, Channel Four, Channel 5, Eurosport, Screensport, or Sky. I always look at my job as being one of explaining things in terms a British audience will understand and I've covered all the major US sports for British broadcasters, and some not so major: lacrosse for Sky and professional wrestling on ITV2. I've written for almost all the British papers, as well as the late, lamented Herald-Tribune and USA Today. I also worked for Major League Baseball in Europe, and I was overjoyed to see my efforts, 25 years ago, validated by the Red Sox-Yankees games at the Olympic Stadium last summer.

My first job in Britain was with a television news agency, UPITN, for whom I became sports editor, and from which I moved to ABC Sports in Europe. I covered the gamut of sports worldwide, including 11 Olympics on site and a 12th (in Japan) from a studio in Paris (long story!). You might think this experience, plus 40 years of living here, might give me just a smidgen of credibility with my fellow Brits (I am now a dual national) when it comes to sport (as we say here).

You would be wrong.

One of the things a Yank in the UK gets used to is being corrected. You learn quickly your experience is not 'different', it is 'wrong'. You pronounce words wrong. Your attitudes are wrong. And your perception of sport is wrong. You may have followed cricket longer than the person 'correcting' you has been alive: you still know nothing. And as soon as they hear your accent, you will be besieged by the same clever comments or ripostes that you have heard over and over (and over) again ever since you arrived here four decades earlier. Here are some of the ones I most tire of hearing, and my replies.

"Why Do You Call Gridiron 'Football', Not 'Hand-Egg'?"

The dumbest of all! Yes, American football is carried and passed with the hands (like rugby) and the ball is not round but oval (like rugby). You call it rugby football, we call it American football. Grow up.

"No One Actually Goes To Sport In America, They Just Watch On TV."

This was first said to me by a Sky Sports executive, who then got irritated when I pointed to college football outdrawing the Premier League and Texas High School football outdrawing the Championship. And my Division III college football team outdrawing first division rugby teams.

"You Only Play Your Own Sports (But Everybody Plays British Sport)"

The Brits don't notice, but our football team plays on a level footing with theirs, our rugby and cricket national teams do far better internationally than British American football or baseball squads, and our ice hockey team is top tier worldwide while the GB team lingers two levels below. Basketball and volleyball, both invented in the US, the former by a Canadian, are truly international and the British didn't invent football, they just put on blazers and laid down rules for it.

"American Sports Are Stop Start"

There is an element of truth to that one, made worse by the influence of television. But I once brought a stop watch to the pub in Hackney where I used to watch rugby amidst Welshmen, Kiwis and, when England were playing, hordes of English, and in the 80 minute match there was actually 26 minutes of actual play. That's different, they said, since referees lecturing the players on how to conduct a scrum under his personal rules, or 29 players standing around watching one player try to balance a ball on a kicking tee (or a mound of sand conveyed via a beach pail, if it were rugby league) count as ‘live action’.

"You Call It The World Series But It's Only Played In America!"

Well, it isn't only played in America (baseball's reach is comparable to either rugby or cricket) but when the World Series was first held in 1903 it was the de facto world championship. It also has nothing to do with any newspaper named The World. But even asking the question is rich coming from a nation that until 1950 wouldn't play in the FIFA World Cup because it was inferior to the English FA Cup. In that first World Cup, by the way, England was beaten by a team of semi-pro soccer players from the USA.

Aussie rules Not soccer, not gridiron: Aussie rules football. ©www.stewartbaird.com

"The Sport You Yanks Call Soccer"

Well for a start, we aren't the only ones. Try the Aussies, whose national 'football' team is the Socceroos. And wait, isn't that show Soccer Saturday on Sky TV? Didn't my old boss at ABC, Peter Dimmock, former BBC presenter and executive, edit the BBC Soccer Annual? The fact is soccer is an English diminutive, formed from Association Football by the same upper middle class people who called rugby 'rugger'. It should have been 'asser' but someone had better sense. Note when you say football in Ireland you mean Gaelic; in Australia, Aussie rules. Say 'footy' in New Zealand and you mean rugby (or rugger!). The soccer moonies were enabled by Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch to create a sort of purist nostalgia world for their childhoods in the '50s, to prove middle class boys could still have football street cred. And don't tell them that in Italy the sport is called 'kick', which is what 'calcio' means. Which leads to...

"The Only Country In The World Where Football Isn't the Number One Sport"

This was said to me by a Radio 5 interviewer at the 1994 'soccer' World Cup in Chicago, as I tried to explain to him how cutting the grass on the field (pitch) in circles would not make the players on that pitch dizzy. 'Have you ever been to Ireland,' I asked, where hurling and Gaelic football are the two biggest sports. Or China (table tennis). Or the Indian sub-continent, where it's cricket. Or Australia (Aussie rules) New Zealand (rugby) Canada (ice hockey) or Lithuania (basketball) and so on. I then realised this part of the interview would not make air.

"Baseball Is Rounders in Pajamas (or Pyjamas)"

And cricket is baseball in two dimensions. Three if you count time as a dimension.

And finally... "Why Do You Give The Lombardi Trophy to the Owner, Not To A Player?"

Well, because this is America, where money talks, but let me buy you a drink, cause you're right!

Mike Carlson moved to Britain in 1977. He's worked for UPITN, ABC Sports & Major League Baseball. For the past 25 years he's worked as a sports commentator and journalist, written on arts and politics for the Guardian, FT, Independent, Daily Telegraph Spectator, Arc Digital and many others and, as Michael Carlson, written three books on film directors. His weekly NFL column is at patreon.com/mikecarlsonfmte


Clemson QB "No One Actually Goes To Sport In America?" Check out the crowd at a Clemson U game! Courtesy Clemson Tigers/David Platt

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