When you get down to it, every sport is its rules. This leaves aside great historical weight and cultural associations, granted, but if you don’t know a sport’s rules, not only can you not play it, you can’t appreciate it (the many childhood afternoons I thrilled to televised 49ers games without having any idea what was happening on the field notwithstanding). What’s worse, you can’t discuss it. “There is a shared knowledge of sports in America that is unlike our shared knowledge of anything else,” as Chuck Klosterman once put it. “Whenever I have to hang out with someone I’ve never met before, I always find myself secretly thinking, ‘I hope this dude knows about sports. I hope this dude knows about sports. I hope this dude knows about sports.'”
Klosterman is a cultural critic, a position not at odds with his sports fanaticism, and he surely knows that his observation holds well beyond the U.S.: just consider how deeply so much of the world is invested in football. Despite its relative simplicity, many Americans never quite grasped the workings of what we call soccer. But thanks to a Youtuber called Ninh Ly, we can learn in just over four minutes.
Ly’s explanation of association football/soccer is just one of nearly 100 such videos on his channel, each of which clearly and concisely lays out the rules of a different sport. An American who watches it immediately becomes not just able to understand a game, but prepared to engage with the cultures of football-enthusiast countries from Mexico to Malaysia, Turkey to Thailand.
Though British, Ly just as cogently explains sports from the United States, even the relatively complicated ones: basketball, for instance, or what most of the world calls American football (as well as its arena, Canadian, and twice-failed XFL variants), a game whose devoted fans include no less acclaimed-in-Europe an American novelist than than Paul Auster. Previously on Open Culture, we featured Auster’s correspondence with J.M. Coetzee on the subject of sports, wherein the former probes his own enthusiasm for football, and the latter his own enthusiasm for cricket. “If I look into my own heart and ask why, in the twilight of my days, I am still — sometimes — prepared to spend hours watching cricket on television,” writes Coetzee, “I must report that, however absurdly, however wistfully, I continue to look out for moments of heroism, moments of nobility.”
Anyone can enjoy such moments when and where they come, but only if they know the rules of cricket in the first place. Ly has, of course, made a cricket explainer, which in four minutes fully elucidates a sport as obscure to some as it is beloved of others. He’s also covered much more specialized sports, including fencing, curling, pickleball, jai alai, axe throwing, and sumo wrestling. (Unable to “ignore the overwhelming demand,” he’s even explained the rules of quidditch, a game adapted from the Harry Potter books.) After a couple of hours with his playlist (embedded below), you’ll come away ready to ascend to a new plane of appreciation for sportsmanship in all its various manifestations. If you’re anything like me, you’ll then revisit your earliest education in these subjects: Sports Cartoons.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.