Unless you watch Channel 4 on Sundays at 6.00pm, the antics of American footballers probably seem as inscrutable and aimless as a Sir Keith Joseph speech. but the game is already being played in Scotland on an organised basis and the teams are gearing up for the 1986 season.
The American ‘knock it down and build it better’ attitude has never been restricted to their urban skylines. In the late 19th century, a number of essentially English pursuits which had flourished in New England — rugby, rounders and cricket - gave way to revised ‘American‘ versions. The new laws placed greater stress on guile. violent conflict, the spectacular and an almost military tactical approach — characteristics fully in keeping with the spirit ofthe ‘Gilded Age‘. As the working hours of the urban population shrank. so there emerged the distinctly American spectator sports of baseball and football.
Baseball acquired a mass following by the turn of the century; football, from being the preserve of New England colleges and the focus of Yale-Harvard and Army-Navy rivalries, became a professional crowd-puller in the 1920s. ‘The ' Galloping Ghost‘. Red Grange of the Chicago Bears, promptly met the public need to focus on the exploits of one man and a succession of gridiron heroes. from Bronco Nagurski to Broadway Joe Namath have since helped transform the game into a multi-million dollar business called the NFL. The finished product has now been deftly re-exported to Britain. by way of Cheerleader Productions and C4.
_ The edited games move at a tremendous (and highly misleading) pace, the commentary is superb and the pumped-up uniformed players embody a combination of speed, strength and skill with which no other televised sport can compete. All of which has clearly produced in hundreds of male viewers a hitherto hidden urge to pull on an air-cushioned helmet, throw a sixty-yard ‘bomb‘, catch a spiralling ball on the run and crash a padded shoulder into another guy's ribs.
Two British set-ups, the American Football Federation (BAFF) and the American Football League (AFL) are the result and those who want to watch or play the game in Scotland now have over a dozen teams to choose from, from Ayr to Lerwick. These teams are constantly on the look-out for new players, with or without experience or equipment.
The biggest single problem which every club faces is that of money. It can cost up to £300 to equip a single player with a helmet (£85), shoulder pads (£85) , rib pads (£25) and various bits of padding for the hips, thighs, knees, elbows, forearms and hands. The team strip itself can cost
another £50. As they become better established, the clubs themselves are trying to build up stocks of communal kit, so that they can equip newcomers and not have to worry that losing a player means losing a set of equipment as well.
The crucial element so far missing from the game in Britain is
Mark Ellis reports on the fortunes of the All-American football game in Scotland; sporting fad or permanent fixture?
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sponsorship, and this is particularly true in Scotland. Ross Biddiscombe, editor of Gridiron UK magazine. sees the 1985 season of league matches and the Summer Bowl play-offs as having given the clubs a chance to prove their stability and catch some public attention. A Great Britain team has already defeated France and a European Championship competition is planned for 1987. What is needed now is some kind of national commercial deal and although Budweiser are said to be contemplating the idea, the continued BAFF-AFL split is a problem. If , however, a good sponsorship deal eventually emerges, Biddiscombe expects the game to follow the Italian example, with fully-paid coaches and a limited number of imported American stars, in much the same way that basketball has already developed in this country.
The oldest and most successful Scottish club is the Glasgow Lions, who train at Tollcross and Helenvale. From an initial gathering of 150 would-be players, the Lions now maintain a fully-kitted core of about 60, coached by Jack Hilldar, a Texan based at Holy Loch. This year, they reached the first round of
the AFL play-offs, before coming
unstuck against the Birmingham Bulls.
Club president Andy Baird reckons it took £10,000 to get the Lions going last year, with half that figure being spent on kit and expects the annual running costs to be around £6,000. Travel will always be a major burden for the matches in Manchester, Newcastle and Blackpool, but home fixtures are also expensive affairs, involving £200 for referees‘ expenses and the provision of five £25 footballs for each match. The Lions have yet to find a sponsor and, as Baird puts it. have been ‘running around bare-chested for eighteen months.‘ So far, the fundraising has been done by the team members themselves and the only outside cash has come from Glasgow District Council, which supported a Lions scheme to give American football training sessions across the city for under-sixteen year-olds.
The Glasgow Diamonds, which began as an offshoot of the Lions, are clearly the most ambitious of the Scottish clubs, but they also face severe financial difficulties. Nevertheless, with a fully-equipped football squad already. coach Jim Orazio and secretary Tom Carbery have now formed a basketball team
and a baseball team under the Diamonds umbrella. A football game on the summit of Ben Nevis, was just one of their fundraising stunts, this time for charity, but the Diamonds still have no commercial sponsor. ‘If we don‘t attract substantial sponsorship for the 1986 season,‘ states Carbery, ‘then the club simply won‘t survive.‘ His other headache is ﬁnding a grass pitch on which the gridiron pattern can be marked in sawdust and sand. Last season, the Diamonds played their matches at Partick Thistle‘s Firhill Park, but, according to Carbery, the use of football pitches was banned after the otherwise highly successful game at Meadowbank in March between the Lions and the Edinburgh Eagles left the pitch in such a mess that Meadowbank Thistle‘s next home game was postponed.
Like the Lions and the Diamonds. the Edinburgh Eagles are part of the largest and most competitive league, the AFL, at an annual membership cost to the club of £ 1 .500. With three American coaches, the Eagles are in a position to become a major force in the Northern Division in 1986. They will train through the winter, playing the occasional match at the Jack Kane Centre, and are looking for new players at the moment. McEwan‘s provided the Eagles with some sponsorship last season, and secretary Frank Donohue hopes to renew that deal.
Two of the newest teams in Scotland are the Musselburgh Magnums and the Edinburgh Emperors. The Magnums already have 60 players, but only 15 have all the gear, while another 15 have some pads. Coached by another Texan, Ray Rodriguez. they play in the Scottish division of BAFF and in their first match defeated the Shetland Red-Eyes, 16-0. The Emperors have fewer players and even less kit but they are expanding fast and expect to play in the BAFF league next season.
How much of the growing popularity of American football is because it is new and because Nicky Horne gives us such a neatly packaged compilation on Sunday evenings? The fact is that any sport built around violent confrontation is guaranteed to attract an audience. And why, given the wide range of sports to choose from already, play American football in this country? It is certainly skilful, requiring fitness and thorough preparation (the Eagles, for instance, have to learn a book of 70 ‘plays’), but 1 still feel that it is the essential violence of the game that attracts players and fans alike. That is not to say that it is vicious — there have been few bad injuries in Scotland, the on-field discipline is better than in rugby and organisers such as Roddy Flynn of the Diamonds completely reject the suggestion that American football attracts ‘head cases‘. But you don‘t need to be a ‘head case‘ to enjoy other masculine combinations of skill and violence , such as boxing and shinty, and perhaps American football is simply yet another
10 The List 18—31 October