Slate article on footy

By Dann Halem (
Posted: Friday, June 22, 2001, at 9:30 a.m. PT

I don't come from the land down under. I've never licked vegemite off a spoon. I don't even watch the Australian Open. But this much I know about Australia: Their football kicks American football's ass.

Americans never warmed up to games like cricket and squash: too complicated, not violent enough. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the colonists in Australia developed similar sensibilities. At about the same time the Cincinnati Red Stockings were deciding to become baseball professionals, a Melbourner named Tom Willis was drafting the rules for a uniquely Australian game. Frustrated by the complexity of rugby, Willis and six others created Australian Rules Football—fondly called footy—a game that's faster, harder, and higher scoring than the American version.

Yes, footy is superior to American football. Just last weekend, the Australian Football League's Brisbane Lions upset the Essendon Bombers 102-74. (And the Lions weren't even the week's high-scorers. The Carlton Blues demolished the West Coast Eagles 149-30.) The Lions-Bombers game included 70 tackles, almost 400 kicks, and goals by 15 different players. Plus—and this should put NFL kickers to shame—seven of those goals came from distances between 40 and 50 meters. (That's 44 and 55 yards, if you don't have your metric conversion tables in front of you.)

The rules aren't as confusing as you might think. A match is divided into four 20-minute quarters. Each team carries 18 players and four reserves. A goal is scored when the ball is kicked through two goal posts, just like a field goal. Goals are six points each. If the ball passes to the immediate left or right of one post, it's scored as a one-point behind. So, a final line of 7.8 equals 50 points—with seven six-point goals and eight one-pointers.

The team in possession of the ball works to advance it by either "handballing" it (volleyball style) or kicking it downfield. They may also run with the ball, as long as they bounce it every 10 meters. Of course, running opens a player to being flattened by the other team. (Footy is renowned for some of the hardest hits in sports.) If a player kicks the ball and his teammate catches it, that player has the option to free kick it without interference, which often converts into points scored. 

The game is catching on internationally. Amateur leagues in Britain, Ireland, and Germany have formed, and an American league, the USAFL, has 33 teams playing. With clubs in 25 states, the USAFL played 175 games last season.

USAFL founding president, Paul O'Keeffe, says footy's American incarnation started four years ago in Indiana. Originally comprised of Australian expatriates like O'Keeffe, the league is now 60 percent American. Because footy is played on cricket fields much larger than anything found in the United States—cricket ovals are between 135 and 185 meters long and between 110 and 155 meters wide—the new league has had to adapt its rules. There are 10 players on the field for each squad, instead of 18. And because major arenas aren't an option, most clubs find themselves playing in open fields and old schoolyards.

But thanks to funding from Australia's AFL, the USAFL is focusing its financial resources on recruitment and youth development. The league hopes to send an American to play down under within the next five years. Eventually, they'd like to see 100,000 Americans playing footy recreationally. "I think Vince McMahon had the right idea and the wrong sport," O'Keeffe quips.

Or perhaps a different TV titan will join the footy bandwagon. A savvy Australian media executive who recognizes footy's potential and wants to help develop the sport. A mogul who is tired of watching third-string NFL quarterbacks air it out in Amsterdam and Barcelona. A billionaire who wants to broadcast major-league competition that he would actually watch.

Are you listening, Rupert?

Dann Halem is a free-lance journalist in Los Angeles.

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