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College football hype can be lost in translation for international students

If you're not from the US, football and its traditions can be bewildering. To help their international students, many universities now offer a crash course in the rules, scoring and, of course, fight songs. Shannon Young reports from football-crazed Boulder, Colorado, that the classes aren't just to help international students understand football but American culture.

The World

Well into fall in mid-November, football is starting to take over life on many American college campuses. The pageantry, war chants and marching bands are all very much part of the game and culture that is uniquely American. For some, it’s a religion.

But the hype can be lost in translation for international students unfamiliar with the game’s rules and culture. To help out new arrivals, many colleges offer a short class — for no credit — to students who don’t know the difference between a scrimmage and a sack.

Crowd of people wearing jerseys for a football tailgate

The sun sets on an on-campus tailgate party ahead of a University of Colorado home game on November 4, 2023.

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Shannon Young/The World

Darshan Shah co-founded Football 101 for International Students. He started the classes at his alma mater, Colorado State University (CSU), more than a decade ago, and believes they were the first in the nation. 

Shah said he got the idea when talking with a classmate from Saudi Arabia, back when he was a student. His classmate was bewildered by how football was played. He wanted to attend a game, but he felt intimidated.

It was a sense of hesitation that Shah said he recognized while growing up in Colorado as the US-born son of Indian immigrants. 

“There’s an opportunity here for making this just a much more comfortable experience by making a proper introduction to the environment and the game,” Shah said.

The first things Football 101 teaches are the rules and scoring. But the seminar also includes learning about athletic traditions like fight songs, school colors and the importance of mascots.

And, of course, there’s a field trip to a football game.

A crowd of people lined up outside of a football stadium

A home game day crowd files into the University of Colorado's Folsom Field on November 11, 2023.

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Shannon Young/The World

The program at CSU pairs up groups of international students with knowledgeable alums on game days. Shah said they reserve seating together in a section of the stadium, “so they can all sit together, and by doing it that way, it becomes a comfortable experience.”

CSU is just an hour from its rival, the University of Colorado Boulder. CU Boulder does not offer a Football 101 course. So international students are on their own if they want to become a Buffalo fan.

Saleh Almansoori is a first-year student from the United Arab Emirates. Shortly after arriving in Boulder, he realized that learning about American football would help him better understand campus culture.

A female (left) and male (right) college students posing for a portrait

Hind Saeed (left) is a second-year student from Kuwait. Saleh Almansoori (right) is a first-year student from the United Arab Emirates. They both attend the University of Colorado Boulder. 

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Shannon Young/The World

“So what I did is I just went to YouTube and watched some videos about it,” Almansoori said. He said on screen, it’s easy enough to follow along, “but when you're in a real-life stadium and everything, it's really difficult because of the lines and everything; you don't really understand it.”

This year’s football season on the Boulder campus has been more than just about the sport. Colorado invested millions of dollars to hire media-savvy sports celebrity Deion Sanders as head coach of the football team. 

The high expectations have drawn media crews and celebrities to home games. The university is constantly in the news. The excitement is felt everywhere on campus.

“It actually genuinely feels like a movie, like an American coming-of-age movie,” said second-year Kuwaiti student Hind Saeed. “You know, the football games, the whole American university life. It genuinely feels surreal.”

Not all are fans

But the amount of attention American football gets can feel disproportionate to some students who just aren’t that into it.

“Yeah, I get it, we’re excited,” Juanita Hurtado, a second-year student from Colombia, said. “But it’s a lot for just this one tiny thing on campus compared to all the amazing other things that the school and the students bring together.”

Hurtado is not a fan of football … or at least not American football. Soccer, however, is a different story.

Portrait of a young woman in a studio. She is wearing a white beanie and blue zip up hoodie

Second year student Juanita Hurtado is originally from Colombia. She's majoring in journalism and volunteers at the university's radio station.

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Shannon Young/The World

“I don’t understand why American football is called football,” said Hurtado, echoing a common sentiment among citizens of countries where soccer is known as football. “You don’t really kick the ball that often. But soccer, you kick the ball every single time. So, in that sense, I believe the word should belong to us instead of Americans. I’m so sorry; hot-take, but yes!”

Hurtado said she’s tried to convert an American friend to her kind of football and vice versa — without much success. Regardless, she admits sports have a way of creating a sense of community. “You can find things to love within those games, even if you’re not a sports fan.”

For students far from home, at least knowing the game’s rules and maybe even the lyrics to a fight song can make the difference between feeling left out and fitting right in.

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