USA’s ‘World Championship’ fans deserve better

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The game itself is no longer the reason I still watch the scant amount of football that I do. I’m referring to North American-style gridiron football, of course. Far more than for whatever interest I can muster for a bulwark of the entertainment industry masquerading as sport, I occasionally tune in out of familial loyalty. My grandfather was among a handful of Oneida men who were sought after by a Green Bay team before the formation of the Packers, but a long career at Carlisle Indian School had left him physically unable to carry on after returning home to our reservation in the early 1900s. As the only publicly-owned organization in a league populated by rogue millionaires (just investigate where their stadiums come from), the Packers are a feel-good way to keep in touch with Dad’s side as winter arrives in the “other” Bay Area.

The game itself is no longer the reason I still watch the scant amount of football that I do. I’m referring to North American-style gridiron football, of course. Far more than for whatever interest I can muster for a bulwark of the entertainment industry masquerading as sport, I occasionally tune in out of familial loyalty. My grandfather was among a handful of Oneida men who were sought after by a Green Bay team before the formation of the Packers, but a long career at Carlisle Indian School had left him physically unable to carry on after returning home to our reservation in the early 1900s. As the only publicly-owned organization in a league populated by rogue millionaires (just investigate where their stadiums come from), the Packers are a feel-good way to keep in touch with Dad’s side as winter arrives in the “other” Bay Area.

I watched, played and dreamed gridiron right into college. At the University of New Mexico I learned that pure sport and professionalism do not mix, even though my teammates’ and my status were far from that lofty goal. Fate in the form of a friend who had started playing rugby football intervened to preserve my idealistic sporting ethos and the rest, for better or worse, is my history.

As a former gridiron player I know there’s more going on inside and among those helmeted heads than the public is allowed to experience. The pursuit of excellence can indeed be a beautiful experience. But between the most skilled players in American sports and their would-be admirers stands an impenetrable barrier of commercial hype, crass sensationalism and “no trespassing” signs. If it’s true the best things are free, then not much of the best survives in American sport at the highest levels.

Contrast this with rugby. Never a world-beater at this game either, I have nevertheless found myself in conversation with several world-class performers over the years. While the names aren’t quite of household quality in the U.S. some readers may recognize Scotland’s Finlay Calder, England’s Will Greenwood, or New Zealand’s Murray Mexted and Murray Pierce.

Three years ago Nick Aldape, an engineering student who played for our New Mexico Tech rugby team, was seen playing in an Albuquerque tournament by Graham Mourie during that New Zealand All Black legend’s U.S. vacation. Long story short, Nick now lives and works in New Plymouth, New Zealand, where he recently completed his second successful amateur season playing for the club of Mourie’s youth.

Rugby is indeed its own global community. Those devotees privileged enough to travel are certain to meet like-minded individuals anywhere and everywhere, but nowhere more sincerely than right here in the USA, where ruggers bond for life like fellow members of a misunderstood cult. Which I suspect we are.

And unlike gridiron, rugby need not be the passing fancy of male youth. It is not only a game for all shapes, sizes, and yes, genders (contact the International Gay Rugby Association for details), but also for kids and geezers. Every second year thousands of elder addicts from all over the world turn up at a venue somewhere in that world to enjoy a week together at the International Golden Oldies tournament.

I know American sport fans are being systematically cheated out of something that can be as beautiful and beneficial to society as sport without the swooping warplanes, annoying timeouts, thoroughly domestic “world championships” and the constant feeling of being fleeced. Regular international sporting competitions like those in rugby and many other sports have long been a cherished aspect of sport around the world — except in this country.

Rugby returns to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 in its seven-man format (the traditional game features 15 players to a side). Besides men’s rugby, which was last included in 1924, the women’s game will also burst onto the Olympic scene.

Joanne and I aren’t waiting. For the sixth time in the 11 years a North American city has been included in the International World Rugby Sevens Series, we’ll be happily ensconced this weekend amidst a mass of joyful fans from around the globe in Las Vegas, Nev. And as always, the action will take our breaths away.

Every 22 minutes two teams of seven highly-conditioned international players will run out to compete seven-minute halves in which they will run and tackle over the entire length of breadth of a football field. For an old rugby coach like myself, the game skills on display are marvelous. For lifelong runner Jo, the speed, athleticism, and endurance are all sources of wonder, as I imagine also are the physiques!

An incredible 21 separate amateur tournaments — hundreds of teams in men’s and women’s adult, collegiate and high school divisions — will be in full cry for three days on the numerous fields scattered around the perimeter of UNLV’s Sam Boyd Stadium. The Las Vegas Invitational is scheduled so that participants can slip off their rugby boots and join the throng in cheering on the internationals inside the stadium.

The championship round will be broadcast by NBC on Sunday. New Zealand leads on points after tournaments in Australia, Dubai, South Africa and their home country, chased by rapidly-improving Kenya, Samoa, Fiji and France. After Vegas it’s on to Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Glascow, before finishing in London in May. Nine two-day tournaments on five continents, over seven months. Now what was that about the NBA’s grueling travel schedule?

Dave Wheelock is a member of the Oneida Nation who coaches collegiate rugby. Contact him at davewheelock@yahoo.com.