American sports culture is something special. It can be found everywhere from strong grassroots participation to billion-dollar professional leagues putting the best athletes on the biggest stages.
There’s nowhere else in the world where one can find hundreds of thousands of fans bonded by their alma mater’s college football team on Saturday and then embracing their city’s NFL team on Sunday.
As an international student, I didn’t grow up with that. Coming from Canada, my high school didn’t even have a football team and my friends at home would struggle to even name their university’s sports team, much less rattle off the roster.
I spent my gym classes backcountry skiing or curling. Most evenings after school, you’d find me at the hockey rink. Suffice to say, it was an adjustment to go to college in a place that never snows.
Instead, I’ve embraced game days and tailgates — and I’m glad I did. Sports are invaluable, offering everything from thrilling entertainment to role models for children. Fans find a special emotional investment and pride from uniting behind their teams. Professional athletes can share their stories on a massive platform, make an impact on millions of lives and perhaps have a route to a lifetime of comfortability playing the game they love.
And even if one’s sports career never makes it out of their high school gym, the interpersonal skills, relationships and building blocks of an active lifestyle can last a lifetime.
I’m fortunate that my move across the border only strengthened my love of sports. It’s pretty easy to immerse yourself when home is a mere two-hour flight away and is so culturally similar that, aside from a few tells, I can practically pass for an American.
But despite all that American sports have given me, deep down I still yearn for a few friends in Berkeley to just talk hockey with. And my admittedly insignificant complaint has a much darker side to it.
For millions of new Americans, sports aren’t accessible. I struggled to adapt and I’m from just across the border. Now imagine coming from halfway around the world, learning a brand new language and having no connections.
I’m fortunate to have grown up with friends, family and a community that helped me fall in love with the world of sports in both Canada and the U.S. But for new immigrants, this isn’t always the case.
How many international students make up the student sections that pack college football stadiums each weekend? How many immigrants fill NFL rosters?
The answer is very few. Almost a quarter of Canadians are immigrants, but I never saw them on my sports teams. I was always one of the few people of color in the locker room. My immigrant friends and family were never there with me.
There are countless barriers that exist. When starting a new life in a foreign country, signing you or your children up for sports is not often the most pressing priority.
The result is a dangerous self-fulfilling cycle of exclusion. It doesn’t help that American sports culture is very narrowly tailored. Finding unity behind smaller sports — like my first love of hockey — to global games like soccer and cricket, can be hard.
America’s love for baseball and football is incredible, but for newcomers facing complex rules, expensive equipment and unfamiliar participants, it’s understandable why getting involved in American sports can be such a challenge for immigrants.
This obstacle becomes a tragic paradox because sports should be a place of inclusion — where immigrants can build skills, find community and integrate into American life.
Americans, meanwhile, can learn a lot from being exposed to a global perspective.
So next time you’re playing or watching sports, pay attention to the make-up of the player base and the barriers that might keep newcomers from getting involved. Maybe invite your international friends to watch a game or learn the rules to a foreign sport.
Sports offer so much, and everyone deserves a chance to play.