SPORTING-PATRIOTISM

Originally penned by Jonathan Foley in January 2022

Scooting over to MacCumhaill Park for Donegal games – be it in the National League or the Ulster Championship – is something I’ve been doing for as long as I can remember.Intercounty games are great for generating a sense of pride in one’s county, but how does it work on a more national, and indeed an international, level?

There’s an old proverb which states that the ‘closer you are to something, the harder it is to see it.’ When it comes to national pride, that may bore some truth when we attend GAA matches. The Irish tricolour gets raised aloft, Amhran na bhFiann gets performed and sprinklings of the gaelige language are to be seen and heard over the tannoy  and in the match programmes. 

And, of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. The GAA have never been shy in portraying themselves as being anything other than a sporting organisation who openly carry a strong political and cultural undertone. To their immense credit, they are one of the last bastions in Irish society who continue to develop a wide variety of traditional events and spectacles. 

But what about other countries? Are we alone in this quest for patriotism through sport? 

Having spent two summers in the United States in my twenties, I enjoyed conversing with their citizens about why they followed the sports they did and how they felt about certain aspects of political undertones in their games. People tend to brand Americans as brash ignorant, but speak to them about what they know and love, and that stereotype becomes redundant. 

During those summers in the States, I learned that sometimes you don’t need to learn everything from a textbook. As we guzzled cold bottles of Bud amid the wailing sound of traffic and shining neon New York City lights – never forgetting to tip – conversations often cropped with our fellow high-stoolers along the bar about sports. 

With it being ever constant on the big screens, it was hard not to get chatting about it. 

The general consensus that came from the locals was that baseball was the quintessential and truly American game. It was a cornerstone of social activity where kids ‘stickball’ on the corners of neighbourhood streets in the likes of Brooklyn. Some elders recounted the day of deviation when their beloved Dodgers packed up and moved their franchise to Los Angeles in 1957. 

It also led me to research an interesting development in the late 1970s when the Cosmos soccer team signed Pelé for an extortionate amount of money. 

Even though Major League Soccer league wasn’t born for a further twenty years, soccer became big business and Pelé’s move was widely jeered by baseball fans who felt that soccer was an opponent of a true American game. “Nothing but an aul foreign sport,” as you might hear some devout GAA heads utter along the stands of matches here. 

In terms of politics becoming linked to American sports, it’s clear to anyone watching how the powers-that-be promote patriotism in the pre-game build-up. It’s not uncommon to see a military fanfare and marching band take to the field on the day of an American Football match; stars and stripes are unfurled and the Star-Spangled Banner anthem rings out with high decibels. 

Although the US National Anthem didn’t officially become the song of the nation until 1931, it already had a long-presence at sporting venues long beforehand. It had been purposely utilised to keep morale high during the World War years and resurfaced greatly again in the wake of the 9/11 attacks at the beginning of this century. 

While soccer has steadily risen in popularity in America since the country hosted the 1994 World Cup, it’s still not expected to ever surpass the devotion most American citizens have towards the likes of baseball, basketball, football and hockey. One might think that this is because soccer is considered to be too low-scoring and pedestrian for American tastes but there’s more to it. 

The United States of America is built on the foundations of capitalism and free-enterprise. Their games have an unimaginable amount of stoppages and timeouts throughout a given match and this leads to commercial breaks and a chance for those in attendance to divulge their sweet-tooth with hot-dogs and nachos. After all, sports are branded as family events. 

I witnessed this firsthand in 2007. When David Beckham togged out for his first game with LA Galaxy, the TV broadcasters curiously cut to adverts and interviews with spectators  – including Jim Carey – during the game itself. On a visit to Shea Stadium to see the New York Mets, there were players standing around idle for what felt like ages. Why was this? Ad breaks, of course.

There’s no denying that Americans are truly a fanatical sports nation. Even though there’s definitely been a growing interest in the playoff series and showpiece events like the Superbowl on these shores in recent times, if you do see their games as slow and too stop-start, there is an underlying reason for patriotism behind that. 

WHERE EVERYBODY KNOWS YOUR NAME.

A TV SHOW ‘WHERE EVERYBODY KNOWS YOUR NAME.’  

Originally penned by Jonathan Foley in July 2021.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of decent television out there nowadays. There’s a steady flow of positively engaging fiction series and well-researched documentaries out there for us all to enjoy in the modern era. Sometimes though, it’s nice to go back and find a simpler show. One of the now old-school comedies I recently re-discovered through this was the sitcom ‘Cheers.’ 

Now this was certainly not my first discovery of the show. As a youngster, I often recall seeing it appear on Channel 4 most evenings at around dinnertime. On a visit to Boston ten years ago, I visited the street where the exterior shots of the bar were filmed and I was always very aware of the catchy lyrics of the show’s iconic theme tune. 

Being the geek that I am though, I couldn’t help but get my English Literature cap on while enjoying a few episodes last month. In essence, the show’s biggest charm is its simplicity. It’s set almost entirely on one set and carries with it all the energy and realism of watching a stage performance in any theatre. 

Well, I suppose, they did tell us at the start of every single episode that “Cheers is filmed before a live studio audience” after all. Lots of shows are filmed this way but very few of them (if indeed any) were edited without using ‘canned laughter.’ In other words, the audience laughter you hear on Cheers is actually real. 

Aside from the pleasing aesthetic of watching an American-based sitcom operate like a relaxing theatrical production, another quirk of the show is the likability of the characters and their chemistry with each other. There’s no catch-phrases, no repetitive slogans, no pointless slapstick and no fully-fledged ‘stupid for the sake of being stupid’ character. 

Everyone on the main cast has their strengths and their weaknesses – as any fictional character should have – and they put their personalities across in endearing ways on a consistent basis. 

Sam has his ego about womanising and his playing days as a professional baseball pitcher. Woody is the innocent country boy adopting to life in the big city. Norm is the washed-up accountant who props up the bar alongside Cliff, the know-it-all mailman, who seems to have an opinion on everything, no matter what the topic along the counter may be.  

In the earlier series, Diane represented the upper-middle class of American society before being replaced by Rebecca; a typical 1980s go-getter trying to make it big in the corporate world. A regular theme which appeared in movies of that era (‘Trading Places’, ‘Working Girl’ for etc). Then there’s Carla who (waitress) personifies the gruff-talking single mother who works almost constantly to feed her eight rowdy children at home. 

Then you have Dr Fraiser Crane – yes, he had his own spin-off show later – and his wife Lillith, who offer psychological and scientific explanations to everything that goes on in the bar, even if they aren’t asked for it and even though they often, ironically, fall foul of their own advice themselves.

What I’m getting at is that no character is perfect. Nor should they be. They all have flaws and that’s what makes the show engaging. It’s as if you can’t help but root for each of them in their respective endeavours no matter what hijinx they get up to and the simplicity of the setting, a bar counter in a run-of-the-mill tavern in Massachusetts, gives it all a very local yet global feel. 

Perhaps what I admire most about Cheers is not its character development or its charming theatricality. It’s the fact that the people of Boston themselves adored the show. I always imagine that when you put on a show, with a specific setting, the writers, producers and actors must surely feel they are walking a tightrope with how they portray the real-life locals.  

During its eleven year run between 1982 and 1993, Cheers seemed to strike a chord with the residents of ‘America’s Walking City.’ The viewers saw themselves in the characters. Characters who faced the same dilemmas that they did and who, especially Cliff, weren’t afraid of ridicule anytime they spoke in their typically vowel-elongated ‘Baaawstan’ twang.  

The show brought in references to history, science and culture in a non-condescending fashion. Sexual relations regularly crop up in the dialgue but certainly not in any offensive manner and, perhaps most pleasing to the locals, there was the occasional nod to the sports teams such as the Red Sox, the Celtics and the Bruins sprinkled throughout the series. 

It’s the global appeal of the show has to be praised too, of course. In a way, it’s refreshing to still see a show where people openly discuss their feelings. 

The thought of staring into a mobile phone all evening wasn’t on the horizon yet and, despite their ups and downs, the characters of Cheers remind us that making your way in the world today takes everything you got but taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot. Be sure to pop in if you’re looking for some nostalgia viewing.