Turks get American religion -- our football

wall1Anyone who knows anything about life in the USA knows that one of our strongest forms of civic religion is Christian football. As opposed to soccer, which is the Islamic form of football.

What in the world am I talking about?

Well, I arrived in Istanbul yesterday (Monday here) and one of the first things to pop into my email was an interesting first-person piece by writer Mark St. Amant in The New York Times titled "Cheering Section -- In Turkey, It's First Down and Miles to Go." The faith and football connection shows up pretty quickly.

In reality, however, the piece is about globalization and our small, small world of sports and mass media. However, almost anything in Turkey these days raises questions about people relating to the great power in the West and that, sooner or later, brings in religion. Thus, we learn that "American football" is an "infidel sport" and since the late 1980s has become, with some help from eBay, a competitor to, well, you'll see.

The how of Turkish football was clear, but I was more interested in the why. After all, these guys had no football frame of reference growing up. No Pop Warner to teach the basics. No high school programs. And certainly no Turkish professionals whom they could dream of being when they grew up. (Gatorade never quite got around to that "Be Like Mehmet" ad campaign.) I got stock answers at first: the camaraderie; going on road trips to games; the hitting; knowing that 40 guys have your back at all times.

But there had to be more to it than testosterone-fueled friendship. They were at an age (18 to 22) when most people are on their own for the first time. So might the attraction have also been about rebellion, defying conventional authority -- be it religious or parental -- and rejecting what society deems acceptable?

"Yes, some of us are forbidden to play," said a 21-year-old tailback nicknamed Straw for his lanky build. He slouched comfortably, forearm resting on the shoulder of a defensive end sitting next to him, and seemed to be speaking for everyone.

He scratched his Mohawk haircut as Celtikciolu translated: "Guys sneak to practice and hide their equipment so their parents won't find out. Our friends don't like that we don't play soccer. They act like soccer was invented in Turkey or something, or that it's the 'proper' Muslim sport. They don't even know what football is ... . But them not liking it makes me want to play more."

Aside from this cultural rebellion angle, it also seems that any help Americans provide is quickly turned into an issue linked to "missionary work" -- one of the most controversial subjects in this country.

You see, Turks are Muslim and/or secular Muslims. Americans are Christian and/or secular Christians. It's a national thing. It's a cultural thing. It's a sports thing.

It's a religion thing.

I didn't see any football posters coming in from the airport, but I will ask around. Lots of ads for the Beastie Boys concert, however. Are they Christian? No, wait, that's another kind of religion thing.

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