Michael Feldman grew up in New England, so it’s no surprise that the Patriots are his favorite NFL team.
But Feldman also is a fan of the Beijing Lions, the Shanghai Skywalkers and the Guangzhou Power.
Not familiar with those squads? That’s OK — not many people are. But the goal, as the Chinese Arena Football League grows, is that an audience of 1.4 billion Chinese (and perhaps even fans outside of the world’s most populous country) will become fans of the nascent CAFL teams.
Dr. Michael Feldman is the orthopedic lead surgeon at Ochsner North Shore. He spent three weeks in China in late September and early October as one of several CAFL physicians, where, from the sidelines, he assisted players with broken bones, torn ligaments, pulled hamstrings and more.
Feldman was asked to join the first-year venture by a fellow physician and friend in New Jersey. He jumped at the opportunity to not only assist with a sport he follows passionately but also to travel to a country he never dreamed he’d get to see.
The CAFL is identical to its American counterpart, except, of course, that it’s played halfway around the world. There are eight starters per team in the six-team league, and by rule, at least half must be Chinese.
The country's government several years ago created the equivalent of club teams at a number of universities to ready players for the venture. They were joined by free-agent American AFL players who served the dual purpose of ambassador and on-field competitor.
Teams played jamboree-style, with two games on a Saturday in an indoor arena and the marquee home game on Sunday. There were Chinese cheerleaders, and sideline reporters spoke both Mandarin and English so they could communicate with television audiences in both countries.
The average crowd, Feldman estimated, was just under 10,000 people, and a cross section of Chinese society was represented in the stands.
One of several burning questions: Were the Chinese players any good?
“They were better than you would think,” Feldman said. “They played mechanically in a sense, like if you told them to run a post and go eight steps and turn at a 45-degree angle, they would do exactly that.
"The hard part would be if a defense played zone, they didn’t understand right away the concept of sitting down in the zone and finding the soft spot. It took them some time to get adjusted to the speed of the game. The Americans had played in the AFL and in college. They know some things instinctually that the Chinese players didn’t.”
The play improved as the six-week season progressed, though, and Feldman said AFL owners (who helped finance the initial venture), as well as potential sponsors, were pleased with the overall product. More importantly, though, the Chinese government was pleased. It eventually will decide how the league progresses.
“The culture there is so different,” Feldman said. “We heard rumors they wanted to ‘toughen up’ the society. Ping Pong -- table tennis -- is the national sport. Football is very different obviously. … Like, at a game when you have people throwing T-shirts and balls into the stands, they did that the first week, but the government ... shut that down (because) people were jumping up for balls.
"People were getting aggressive, I guess. … Funny thing is they gave the balls to the police to pass out, and everything was OK again.”
Feldman’s wife, Joy, traveled with him on the Asian adventure. They found it comforting to travel in large groups with translators who were familiar with the country. Otherwise, navigating China would have been difficult, he said.
“We saw China from people who knew China,” Feldman said. “The staff, the coaches -- we all stayed in Hiltons. People ask ‘How’s the food?’ I heard it was awful, but it was actually very good. The food we ate was sort of Chinese, but there was American food, too, where we went.
"But in the marketplaces, there was octopus, turtle, and all of it is alive. The only time it was really bad was I saw a bin that had cicadas or cockroaches in it, and they were moving around. The guide told us his wife used to eat them all the time when she was pregnant because they’re high in protein.”
Strange foodstuffs aside, Feldman also got a firsthand look at how the Chinese hospital system operates. During the first week of games, a player fractured his hand, and Feldman diagnosed it as a “Bennett’s fracture.”
He and assisting Chinese medical personnel escorted the player to a Chinese public hospital, which he described as sort of like a charity hospital in the U.S.
“That was a cultural event for me,” Feldman said. “There are people everywhere … in hallways and on gurneys. There are all these different rooms -- the hand room, the fracture reduction room, the trauma room.
"I talked with a doctor who spoke only very broken English, and I sort of told him what I thought: that this was a Bennett’s fracture. He had no idea what I was saying. They took an X-ray, and he looked at it and said, ‘Oh! Bah Nays.'
“So we had the same idea. Very few people speak any English at all.”
Though the CAFL was televised, Feldman found other forms of electronic communication almost nonexistent in China. He couldn’t contact Ochsner because of technical issues, and there was no use of social media, Google and the like, without purchase of a special device that identified a computer as being located outside of China to make it work.
He said events like the uprising at Tiananmen Square have been erased from Chinese public consciousness -- spoken of as myth as the years pass.
Still, he said he would “jump at the chance to do again.” He said he thinks he’ll have the opportunity, as well, given that the initial CAFL venture was considered a success.
“Hopefully I’ll get the chance,” Feldman said. “I’d go in a heartbeat.”