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We Are the World: Super Bowl XXXIX

Why do Americans call their American sport a world championship game?

February 4, 2005

Why do Americans call their American sport a world championship game?

It’s Super Bowl season again and in just a few days, a new world champion will be anointed. At a stadium somewhere in the United States, a new banner will shortly be hung on high — declaring the victorious team to be “World Champions 2005.”

But wait a minute. There are 32 teams in the National Football League (NFL) — and they are all American. And it is the National Football League, not the World Football League.

So how can the winner of a national league be a “world” champion? In order to be best in the world, don’t you actually have to compete against teams from other countries?

Unfortunately this is not a question that often occurs to Americans, many of whom really do think of the United States as the world. You can see it not just in the “world champions” of football and the “World” Series in baseball.

It is present in the declarations of radio and television broadcasters when they give dramatic emphasis by saying that “the whole world” is watching some event, whether it is a vote on some reality TV show — or the outcome of a criminal trial.

This despite the fact that no one outside the area will much care, let alone the average Nigerian, Sri Lankan, Spaniard or Brazilian.

Travel to most other countries and you will rarely — if ever — hear the locals claiming world domination for an event unless their national team has actually taken on other national teams in a truly global event and prevailed.

So the World Cup in soccer (known as football almost everywhere else in the world) really does involve national teams from more than 200 countries. The same can be said for the World Cups in rugby and cricket, although the number of participating countries is smaller.

So why do so many Americans subscribe to this “We are the World” philosophy? Part of the problem is physical. This is a huge country.

It isn’t the biggest in the world, because Russia and China are both much bigger, but it is big enough to get lost in — and to take care of almost every conceivable cultural, social, economic and political need of Americans.

Assuming, that is, that they want to avoid anything that might be too unfamiliar, or that might involve not speaking English.

Part of the problem is personal. When you realize that barely one in five Americans own a passport, you also realize that very few Americans have had much personal experience of the rest of the world — except perhaps fleeting visits to Mexico or Canada or during a Caribbean cruise. For all those Americans without a passport, the world really is the United States.

In fact, it is often much less than the whole country, because they have rarely gone more than a few states away from home.

This is why — for Midwesterners, for example — vacations to New York or San Francisco can seem just about as far away as it is possible to travel from home.

And how should one respond to the implication that there is nothing much outside the continental United States — except perhaps Hawaii or Alaska — that really matters?

Where it starts to become serious is when you think about the skewed dimensions of the geopolitical map in the minds of voters and their representatives — even in the U.S. Congress.

At the very least, the fact that relatively few Americans have links with the rest of the world — despite the waves of recent immigrants from large parts of the world — means that they end up having little understanding of it, or sympathy for it.

This leads to the far more serious result that voters tend to leave it to their representatives to make most foreign policy decisions.

In the Midwest and elsewhere, they factor only the most simplistic foreign policy analyses and solutions into their calculations when they vote. This leads to peculiar outcomes. The United States is a major and active international actor — and yet, most Americans care little and understand less when it comes to the issues.

However, in this age of globalization the rest of the world is everything but irrelevant.

Increasingly, what happens “out there” — even in the mountain gorges of Afghanistan — has a direct impact on the lives of every American.

In addition, their homes are usually packed full of consumer products made in such exotic locales as Costa Rica, Indonesia, Bangladesh and China.

But they are also indirectly affected through the place of the United States in the global economy — trade deficits, currency exchange rates, the strength of the dollar and so on.

It also has an indirect impact through the amount Americans choose to spend on national defense. And then, it has a tragic — and all too dire —impact on families when their menfolk and womenfolk die in combat on some foreign field, or return home terribly scarred from battle — all for some cause that most Americans don’t really understand.

So whoever wins the Super Bowl on February 6, 2005 will not really be a world champion.

They will be a national champion, to be sure. They could even claim a potential world champion — but only by virtue of the fact that no else plays the American version of football so well.

And whichever team wins the Super Bowl would surely make quick work of any team that any other country — or even major foreign city — would care to field.

But that’s not the point. You can’t claim to be something that you are not. It’s not only dishonest, but — for what it says about the way Americans think — it is alarming.

It is time that more Americans acknowledged that the United States is not the world, but just one country in a global community of more than 190.