Editor’s note: This column from 2015 was written by Gray Levy, long-time American football coach and author of Big & Bright: Deep in the Heart of Texas High School Football. It is still just as relevant today. You can read more about Coach Levy at his blog here!
Sometimes it takes getting some distance to see things right in front of you.
Coming to Europe has shown me what American football is really about in the United States; money or character training.
In the NFL and major colleges, the game isn’t a game but a business. Players and coaches may or may not enjoy what they do, they may or may not derive higher meaning from the struggle, but all that truly matters is success on the field and, by extension, in the pocketbook.
Winning leads to ticket sales, TV contracts, higher salaries and promotions for coaches. D-1 college players play for room, board, tuition and to increase their NFL draft status. Money.
In high schools and lower college divisions, the game is a teaching tool to supplement classroom learning; teaching teamwork, discipline, commitment, delayed gratification, toughness and responsibility. I often remind my high school players that football skills are absolutely useless in the real world, but the process of gaining those skills teaches character that can be transferred to any aspect of life. I strongly believe in this mission, as my on-field education shaped me more than all the math, science and social studies courses ever did.
In the U.S., football is never about football, it always serves another purpose. In Europe, the motive is much simpler.
People play and coach because they love it.
There is no real money in the European game. Although the game can be loosely described as semi-pro, most players and coaches here pay for the privilege of playing. The clubs themselves likely pour every Euro made in endorsements, ticket sales, etc straight back into building the programs.
Europeans don’t expect their schools to teach values. This seems to be an American concept. They also don’t connect character building to sports. Sports are about fun and exercise, not work, teamwork or discipline. If a player has to miss a practice because of a business trip there’s no guilt about “letting the team down” or “lack of responsibility.” These are grown men with other responsibilities and families. For me, it’s a refreshing change. I don’t have to worry about “building men” or outlining the life lessons taught by the struggle. I simply coach the guys who show up.
“In the U.S., football is never about football, it always serves another purpose. In Europe, the motive is much simpler. People play and coach because they love it.”
It’s common for our players to light up cigarettes after practice. Friday night a player brought several cases of beer for everyone to share directly after our scrimmage with the Biberach Beavers; things that would be unheard of in either a U.S. school setting or a money-making program, but normal here.
Although character building isn’t the goal of Euro football, the very nature of the game does build character whether intended or not. Football only works when players sacrifice for the team. It only works when players prepare for a handful of games by committing to long off-season training. It only works when player have the discipline and toughness to push through pain.
Our head coach told me of how recovering from an injury and returning to the field taught him that reaching goals is possible if you work hard. He said the experience changed his life.
While life changing is not the mission in Europe as it is in the States, the process teaches values regardless of the continent the game is played on.