The game of American football has been around since 1869, just four years after the American Civil War ended. For some perspective on how long ago that was, the telephone wasn’t invented by Alexander Graham Bell until 1876, a full seven years later. That makes American football really, really old.
For a sport that is played in over 80 countries, is far and away the most popular game in the United States, and has been around longer than even the telephone, it might seem strange that American football has not been adopted as an Olympic sport. Yet that is most certainly the current situation, with the sport’s recent exclusion from the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
The decision to exclude it is very near-sighted, as introducing American football as an Olympic sport would not only put it on an international stage and give it the opportunity to grow, it would also attract a massive audience of American football fans to the Summer Olympics who wouldn’t otherwise have watched them. Estimates vary, but well over 120 million people watched Super Bowl 50 between the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers – not an audience that should be overlooked. The International Olympic Committee is missing out on an incredible opportunity to extend its market share and coverage. We can be sure that it will see far more viewers than for sports such as canoeing and synchronized swimming, which are both coincidentally approved sports for Tokyo 2020.
So why isn’t American football an Olympic sport?
Olympic sports such as ice hockey and basketball were invented in 1875 and 1891, respectively, so we know that the age of the sport is not a factor in this decision. Sports like boxing and rugby – generally considered to be more brutal than American football – will both be featured in the next two Olympics as well, so safety clearly isn’t the primary concern. Perhaps the nomenclature attributed to the sport, identifying it as American football, carries some restrictions? Attaching any culture to the name of any sport will naturally induce some preconceived positive or negative stereotypes about said culture by fans. However this could easily be circumvented by identifying American football with a different name such as gridiron, which Anglo cultures such as Great Britain and Australia have already done. Japan is hosting the 2020 Summer Olympics and routinely finishes in the top 4 in international American football competitions, so location clearly isn’t a factor. Maybe the International Olympic Committee views the sport as being disproportionately dominated by the United States and other countries such as Canada, Mexico, and Japan? The same can be said about sports such as baseball, basketball, and softball, but all three will likely be included in the 2020 Tokyo games.
Then what are the real reasons for the exclusion of American football from the Olympics? There is really only one reason that makes any sense here, and it’s a tough one to accept because it’s our own doing:
The only reason that our great sport has not been included in the Olympics is due to the lack of vision and direction by the International Federation of American Football (IFAF).
IFAF, American football’s counterpart to FIFA, is in fact by no means equal to FIFA. The vast majority of American football players, coaches, and fans around the world have no idea who is currently running IFAF or for that matter what the committee’s objectives actually are. It is mainly an amateur, volunteer federation with no full-time paid commissioner. IFAF wields far less influence and power than the National Football League, which has by no means given its full endorsement of IFAF to begin with. The NFL offers virtually zero support for IFAF’s main tournament – the IFAF World Championship – and for good reason. IFAF has given no indication that it even knows who is running the show or what direction it is heading in.
For instance, in December 2014 the local organizing committee for the 2015 IFAF World Championship in Stockholm announced that the funds it had raised for the event had mysteriously disappeared, a shell corporation was identified in the disappearance, and it was announced that the President of IFAF and the Swedish American Football Federation (SAFF) would be going on extended leave for health reasons. The tournament was moved to Canton, Ohio at the last moment and the number of participating teams was cut from 12 to 7, but things took an even more bizarre turn from there. IFAF announced the commissioner’s resignation in April 2015, only to see him gain control of the IFAF website the next day, delete the announcement, and claim that he was the victim of a coup d’état. Coincidentally, this all happened at the same time that American football was up for nomination to be selected as an Olympic sport. It is unclear who ultimately represented this formal bid to the International Olympic Committee, but common sense can only tell you that the situation was very unstable leading up to the decision.
To be fair, there are several IFAF committee members who have contributed positively to the development of the sport and deserve commendation for their efforts, but it has not been enough. The direction has been too diluted, too inconsistent, and too tumultuous to ever be taken seriously by organizations such as the IOC or the NFL. IFAF has yet to develop an observable plan and hasn’t shown that it can gather a consensus of support by its member countries.
This is why The Growth of a Game came into existence in the first place – to fill the gap in development that has been vacated by IFAF and our de facto leaders. In Europe alone, American football is played in 41 different countries by over 1,500 adult teams, and the sport will continue to grow and flourish with or without the guidance of IFAF.
With the chaos of IFAF and the oft-corrupt FIFA, it begs the question: Are we getting fair representation for our contributions?
Unless IFAF somehow gets its act together or something else pops up in its place, inclusion in the Olympic games will remain on the distant horizon.
Still, the overwhelming response to The Growth of a Game has made it easy to be optimistic about the future of American football. This sport is on the cusp of greatness and just needs that little extra push to be identified in the mainstream of most European countries. We’ll get there, and with our continued efforts we’ll soon see the day when American football receives the full recognition it deserves.
Let’s keep moving forward, together.
What do you think is preventing American football from becoming an Olympic sport? Do you agree with some of these reasons? Let us know in the comments section below.