Sport is not a universal language

I have spent countless hours trying to introduce my partner to the variegated wonders of cricket, but recently it was time for knowledge to flow in the other direction. I met two splendid yanks named Kristen and Nick, and they invited me to a game of gridiron.

For some reason they call it football, although the foot very seldom makes contact with the ball, but I was sure I’d soon work out why. After all, sport is the universal language. We were to watch the New York Giants play the Indianapolis Colts, so we caught a train to New Jersey.

“Why are we going to New Jersey?” I asked.

“That’s where New York plays,” they replied. I nodded knowledgeably.

It was a Monday night and everyone was on the train, all wearing Giants jerseys and drinking beers. “I didn’t think you were allowed to drink in public in America,” I said to Nick.

He shrugged. “This is football,” he said. No one seemed drunk, possibly because they were all drinking American beer.

At the stadium, no one was inside. Eighty-two thousand people stood beside their pick-up trucks, drinking more beer and cooking sausages on barbecues and listening to Neil Diamond. Whether it’s Loftus Verfeld or East Rutherford, New Jersey, wherever there are bakkies and braais, the strains of “Sweet Caroline” materialize into thin air like some troubling childhood memory.

Someone asked me if I would like some chili. Would I ever! Actually, no I wouldn’t, or not ever again. It turns out that chili is some kind of half-solid mush made from old mincemeat and baked beans and broken dreams.

“Why do they call it chili?” I asked.

“Because it’s hot,” someone replied. It wasn’t hot. I’ve tasted tangier margarine. We ate chili and sausages and raw chops, and then it was time for all 82 000 of us to file inside. It seemed to be taking a long time, and when we reached the turnstiles the reason became apparent. “You want my what?!” said the umpteenth woman incredulously.

“Your handbag, ma’am. It’s a security measure.”

“You think I’ll blow up the stadium with my handbag?!”

“I don’t make the rules, ma’am.”

“From my cold, dead hands will you take my handbag, buddy!”

There was a small tent with armed guards protecting a pyramid of temporarily impounded totes and clutches, and a stream of swearing, kicking, punch-throwing New York dames being carried off like cartoon cavewomen by weary security staff. We all received white hand towels to twirl in unison at selected moments of the game.

“Is this like a Mexican wave?” I asked.

“Mexicans don’t play football,” said my neighbour.

There’s a fine balance to inducting an outsider into the mysteries of your sport. You have to give them enough information to muddle out what’s going on, and then a bit more so they can try appreciate the finer points of strategy, but not so much that they sit there frowning blankly and nodding like dashboard bobble-dogs driving down a road made of potholes and railway sleepers. In the history of the world, this fine balance has never been achieved.

I sat in head-bobbing incomprehension as the tight-trousered figures on the field alternated bouts of being motionlessness with gusts of scurrying about. It was like peering at a colony of muscular ants performing some communal activity beyond human ken.

“Go Giants,” I said.

“They’re stinking up the joint,” said my neighbour.

“Boo Giants,” I said sympathetically.

I was sorry the Giants weren’t playing well, but I couldn’t testify to it. There was allegedly a ball somewhere, and it moved around, but wherever it was, it was never where I was looking. Perhaps it was all some elaborate mime, a colossal piece of performance art. Could all those 82 000 people have been there just to hoax me?

We moved to better seats, vacated by a row of chaps who had been thrown out for fighting with the row behind them, but it didn’t help. Every so often the players would abruptly cease their scurrying and stand around, and we’d all sit staring at an empty field.

“TV commercials,” explained the man beside me.

The game went on and on. Five hours later it was still going on. For all I know, it may be going on still. I sat on the train and called my partner back home.

“I’m sorry about all the cricket,” I said.

“God bless America,” she replied.

Times, 27 November 2014