By JAMES FITZGERALD
NANJING — Since the enactment of “opening-up” policies during the 1980s, Western culture, including cuisine, hobbies, and social practices, has slowly emerged in mainstream Chinese society. American football counts among America’s greatest contributions to the world, along with things like the automobile, the personal computer, and McDonald’s. The culture we have built around this competitive sport is a career for those playing and coaching, a lifetime passion for local fans, and a multi-billion dollar industry for managers and owners. At first glance, it seems like a mismatch for Chinese people: team sports on the mainland are unpopular, there is nearly no sports fan culture (at least to support local teams), and tailgating with Chinese food might prove challenging. However, the popularity of the sport has grown exponentially since the founding of the first nationwide league, the American Football League of China (AFLC). The league recently concluded its second five-game season, hosting twelve teams from places like Beijing and Hong Kong, with a championship held in Shanghai. Almost every first-tier city and several second-tier cities now have an American football team and are looking to gain competitive entry into the league.
Upon my arrival at the Hopkins Center in Nanjing, a group of local players contacted me regarding the founding of a Nanjing American football organization. A few days later in a dark bar near campus, ten Chinese “Emperor Kings” gathered around a table with me and two classmates from the Center. After a round of tapping glasses, they proclaimed me the head coach of the team, and we have been practicing regularly ever since. At the same time, a small group of flag football enthusiasts from the Hopkins-Nanjing Center began to organize informal games. Padded practices and flag scrimmages were organized in such a way that players could easily attend both with the aim of supplementing my coaching with other Americans at the Center at the all-Chinese “Emperor Kings” practice. None of these coaches, including myself, had any coaching experience, and we all had even less experience discussing football using Chinese. Some football terms are untranslatable: breakdown, sweep, cut blocking, inside leverage, and Hail Mary, to name just a few. Considering the language barrier, the time it takes to teach the “intense” attitude necessary to play the sport, and the amount of rigorous study of strategy, rules, and basic game progression needed to succeed, it takes most Chinese players an entire year of practicing just to be able to step on the field for a game. In addition to the time commitment, players also bear a financial burden associated with buying and maintaining all of the equipment necessary to even practice. Yet every practice, there are new enthusiastic players ready to play, ready to learn, and ready to invest time and money into a hobby about which they know very little. They are drawn by the allure of football, the machismo of running full speed into someone, the intelligence required to continuously analyze the changing environment during the game, the fans who will grab players after the game to snap selfies, and of course the cheerleaders reenacting their favorite scenes from Bring it On.
American football’s popularity will continue to grow in China, but players will not improve unless experienced coaches work with each team on the ground. Our current mission for league development is recruiting Division I college athletes to come work with developing teams and prepare them for competition. We are currently looking for help in any form to continue educating teams about the sport, provide professional training, connect them with other teams to arrange games, and create a platform for organizers, investors, teams, and supporters to communicate and collaborate.
The views expressed here are the author’s own and not necessarily those of The SAIS Observer.