Thursday, September 11, 2014

Why Do We Do Sports, Anyway?

Call it archaeology.  The recent news got me thinking about an article that I wrote a long time ago, and couldn't get anybody to publish.  I looked for it in the basement,  I looked for it in the closet in the study.  I looked for it again in the basement, and I found it.  Just a printout.  No digital remains, and no metadata.  I have no evidence of who I sent it to, or what they may have thought of it.  I do this.  I strip files down to the story.  So here's the story.  I think it's about 20 years old.   I looked for things to change, and decided I'd just retype it.  I hope you like it.

One day a few years ago I was having dinner with my family, and my daughter remarked that my jaw clicked as I chewed.  And indeed it does.  I explained to her that I'd dislocated it a number of times playing football.  She suggested I stop clicking.

I haven't figured out how to do that, but I have given some thought as to why I was playing football in the first place.  As I recall, it had something to do with building character.

Last year my son became a great fan of the Philadelphia Eagles, and because he's my son I sat and watched at least a bit of the games with him.  I found that having played the game -- even on a lowly intramural level, and on a losing team at that -- gave me an advantage over my son as we gazed at the Cyclopean image of the television.  I know what it feels like to play football.  It hurts.

There are also moments of ecstasy, and the satisfaction of blood lust, but as I sat watching the TV, my enduring memory was one of pain.

What were we building on those crisp fall afternoons, so long ago?  Briefly, we were using football to build Christian Soldiers, and after we graduated we were expected to go Onward, seeing every situation we encountered in later life as just one more set of downs.  Onward Christian Soldiers, Marching as to War.

So how, precisely does football build character?  Aside from an increased acceptance of pain, what do we learn on the gridiron?  I've drawn up a little list that works for me:

Lessons to be learned from football

1.  goal orientation
2.  task orientation
3.  teamwork
4.  subordination
5.  obedience to rules
6.  steadfastness
7.  reward for effort

You can come up with other lessons -- in fact, I'm going to float a few more later.  But the basic point is that football is good training for life in modern society.  The large bureaucracies that dominate our lives simply couldn't function without people trained in these skills.

This shouldn't be surprising, because Walter Camp, the inventor of modern football, designed it that way.

More interesting is the thought that most modern sports teach these lessons, to a greater or lesser degree, and that the lessons are available to spectators as well as participants.  Just listen to the crowd count down the clock at the end of a college football game.  If that's not a lesson in clock discipline, I don't know what is.

Despite the excitement that large groups of people seem to derive from counting backwards, it seems unlikely that people would troop to stadiums on the weekend if all they were getting was lessons in bureaucracy.  Camp's genius lay in joining his lessons to the fulfillment of deeply felt human needs.  Here's another list, and again it applies to many sports, not just football, and to spectators as well as participants.

Human Needs that Can Be Satisfied by Sports

1.  blood lust
2.  blowing off steam (catharsis)
3.  winning - domination
4.  gambling
5.  flaunting wealth
6.  the thrill (euphoria)

Sports have changed a lot over the years, but they have always found a way to satisfy these yearnings.

A Look Back
A quick look back at the history of American sports will show us how much change there has actually been.

-- In the early nineteenth century, the major sports in America were cock fighting, bull baiting, bear baiting, and horse racing.  Depending on the expansiveness of our definition of sports, we could add hunting, fishing, and dueling.

-- Around 1850 baseball and boxing began to settle into the national psyche.  Rowing had started this process earlier, but became institutionalized in the 1850's.

-- After the Civil War football rose to prominence, and by the 1920's -- often called the Golden Age of Sport -- the Big Three were baseball, football, and boxing.

-- Nowadays we have a Big Four of baseball, football, basketball, and hockey, but these must compete for attention with a long list of other sports, from ice skating to beach volleyball.

A number of themes lie just under the surface of this story.

-- Over the years there has been a marked decline in the violence of American sporting life.

-- At the same time the lessons taught have changed as society has changed from an agricultural to an industrial basis.  Baseball occupies a curious middling position in this progression from farm to factory.  An intensely urban game, its job was to bring a bit of the country to the city, and make newly arrived farm boys feel more at home in the urban environment.

-- Finally, sports, once invented, seem not to go away, although they can certainly decline in popularity.  I'll make an exception to this rule for bull baiting and bear baiting (which I certainly hope are extinct in North America), but cock fighting is still very much with us.

To help us with our thinking about American sports, I've assembled a list of dates and events that seem important to me.

A Few Dates to Think About 

1851 - 1st America's Cup (sailing).
1851 - YMCA comes to America (Boston).
1852 - 1st intercollegiate rowing race (Harvard v. Yale).  This is also the 1st intercollegiate athletic event of any kind in the United States.
1858 - Schuylkill Navy formed (an association of rowing clubs in Philadelphia).
1859 - First intercollegiate baseball game (Amherst v. Williams).
1869 - 1st intercollegiate football game (Princeton v. Rutgers).
1875 - 1st Kentucky Derby (horse racing).
1875 - 1st recorded public indoor ice hockey game (an intramural match at McGill).
1876 - National League formed (baseball).
1891 - James Naismith invents basketball at Springfield, Mass.
1892 - 1st heavyweight boxing championship under Marquis of Queensbury rules (gloves).
1894 - Flying wedge banned (football).
1895 - 1st Penn Relays (track & field).
1896 - 1st modern Olympics.
1903 - 1st modern World Series (baseball).
1905 - White House conference on football.  (Eighteen players die during the 1905 season.  President Roosevelt summons representatives from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, and asks for reforms.  Numerous rule changes ensue, including the introduction of the forward pass.)
1917 - National Hockey League formed.
1919 - Black Sox scandal.  (Chicago White Sox players accused of accepting bribes to throw World Series.)
1924 - 1st U.S. team joins NHL (Boston Bruins).
1929 - Pop Warner football league formed.
1938 - 1st American television broadcast of a sporting event takes place in Philadelphia.  (This information was unearthed by Professor Benjamin Rader of the University of Nebraska.  Until recently it was thought that the first sports broadcast had taken place in 1939 in New York.)
1939 - Little League formed (baseball).
1947 - Jackie Robinson breaks major league baseball's color barrier when he joins Brooklyn Dodgers.
1949 - National Basketball Association formed.
1961 - In a speech to the National Football Foundation, President John F. Kennedy urges mass participation in sport to increase physical fitness in the general population.
1962 - The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (movie).  Running is about freedom.
1967 - 1st Super Bowl.
1972  - Title IX of the Educational Amendments Act.  (Basically says girls can play too.  Schools and colleges are still scrambling to comply.)
1972 - 1st general strike in baseball.
1977 - Jim Fixx's Complete Book of Running published.
1978 - Amateur Sports Act completely overhauls American Olympic sports program and accelerates the trend towards professionalization of these sports.
1984 - Introduction of the Macintosh computer.

Breaking It Up into Chunks
Lists like this are interesting, but mainly useful as a starting point for analysis.  If we look at the history of American sports, from the time that things started to get organized in the 1850's, events fall reasonably comfortably into four overlapping periods.

The Time of Getting Organized (1851-1905)
If you build it, they will come

The United States began to emerge from its Jeffersonian pastoral fantasy well before the Civil War, as the industrial revolution began to take hold, and enterprising individuals began the process of erecting the large bureaucratic structures (such as the Pennsylvania Railroad) that soon bestrode the land.  It was a process fertile in possibility and uncertain in outcome.  We tend to ascribe a certain inevitability to the past -- after all, you can't change the past.  But that makes it unalterable, not inevitable.  It didn't have to be that way.

When it comes to sports, I think that one of our great historical mistakes occurred when football beat out rowing for primacy among college sports, feeding a sports system centered on the spectator rather than the athlete, and on violence rather than strength.

In fact, during much of this early period, football is a strongly regressive force, playing increasingly to the violent impulse as Walter Camp strove to create a sport that was both instructive and popular.

The growing violence of football reached a crisis in 1905, when even Teddy Roosevelt decided he'd had enough and invited representatives of several colleges down to the White House for a little chat.

Death did not disappear from the gridiron immediately.  In fact, in 1909 thirty players died, compared to only eighteen in 1905.  But the principle had been established that death was no longer an acceptable outcome for a football game -- or by extension any other sporting contest.  This was a major turning point for the definition of sports in America.  It could have gone the other way.

The Baseball Era (1903-1967)
Christy Mathewson to Mickey Mantle, with Babe Ruth in the middle

Bucknell's most famous dropout, Christy Mathewson was born in Factoryville, Pa., in 1880, and attended the Keystone Academy, where he played football, basketball, and baseball.  He continued his gridiron exploits at Bucknell, where he scored all ten of his team's points in a 47-10 loss to Penn in 1899 before being sucked into professional baseball, where he quickly landed with the New York Giants and became America's first general consumption sports hero.

As Ray Robinson notes in his book Matty:  An American Hero, before Mathewson the United States had chosen its heroes from fields other than sports.  Although it may be difficult to believe today, politicians could be heroes -- Lincoln, Washington, Teddy Roosevelt.  So could soldiers such as Robert E. Lee and even inventors like Thomas Edison.

Previous sports celebrities, most notably the boxer John L. Sullivan, were certainly famous, and they were certainly heroes to certain groups -- in Sullivan's case readers of the Police Gazette.  For the emerging public consensus, though, Sullivan was too rough-hewn to be a role model.  This was, after all, a society that was about to ban liquor through the 1th Amendment to the Constitution and also establish a Motion Picture Production Code that prohibited, among other things, obscenity, profanity, disrespect for religion, and "excessive and lustful kissing."

Unlike Sullivan, Mathewson was a role model from Central Casting -- clean living, honorable, and one hell of a ballplayer.  Even after his playing days were over, Mathewson found ways to make America's mothers proud.  During the 1919 World Series he was in the press box for the New York Evening World and was instrumental, along with Hugh Stuart Fullerton, in articulating the suggestion that the Series had been fixed.

After Mathewson came the twenties -- the Golden Age of Sport and the Era of Babe Ruth.  By this point the engines of publicity had reached a state near perfection, and even such a deeply flawed character as Ruth could become a hero to America's youth.

It is interesting in this regard how the foundation for sports heroics began to crumble almost before the facade was complete.  Yet the edifice proved durable.  The hero syndrome continued through Mickey Mantle, who actually had fewer flaws than Babe Ruth but wasn't as good a ballplayer.  Clearly, sports heroes were useful to American society -- perhaps because of a decline of heroes in other areas of life, perhaps because we needed heroes badly.

Nowadays, of course, a sports hero is almost as rare as a political hero.  Why has the hero become an anachronism?

In sports, I would suggest that the process is related to the decline of baseball, a sport where individual acts of heroism are clearly related to the success of the team and, by extension, the society from which the team sprang.  In football, by comparison, even the quarterback is a bureaucrat.

The decline of the sports hero is also part of a larger decline in hero-worshipping.  This decline has been attributed variously to Vietnam, Watergate, a shift in what sells newspapers, and many other causes.  I'd like to suggest that maybe we just grew up and have less need of heroes.

The Age of Television (1938-1984)
From America's first sports telecast to the introduction of the Macintosh

Spectator sports are, first and foremost, spectacle.  They exist primarily for the enjoyment of the audience, and not for the satisfaction of the participants.  Numerous writers have criticized the effect of television on sports, most notably Benjamin Rader in In Its Own Image:  How Television Has Transformed Sports.  But it's important to remember that there was no golden age of innocence for spectator sports.  Before the question of ratings there was the question of how to fill the stands.

Television did raise the stakes here by broadening the audience.  The mass audience is television's greatest strength, and also its greatest weakness.

There's a rule:  The larger the audience, the less loyal the audience.  There's a corollary:  The tail wags the dog.  In order to deliver the mass audience, you have to appeal to the least interested member of that audience.

From the beginning, television executives fell back on what they knew would work -- violence and vaudeville.  Boxing was crucial to the early success of television, as was Sid Caesar.

Even comic books had their influence on TV sports, as wrestling matches became live action cartoons.

The highlights syndrome surfaced early.  Editors in the cutting room discarded the boring bits with abandon.  Then along came a sport that did the editors' work for them -- the Demolition Derby, which is simply car racing boiled down to the wrecks.

A number of sports had relatively brief days in the sun.  The promoters discovered one of the cruel laws of television.  The mass audience is fickle.  The marginal viewer -- who, remember, is the most important viewer -- has limited interest and a short attention span.  Lose that viewer and your ratings dip.  Then you're gone.  This happens to individual shows all the time.  It also happens to whole genres of shows -- Westerns, for instance, or boxing, both of which were very big in the 1950's.

My personal feeling, though, is that the basic problem of television is not that it is a mass medium but that it is a medium.  Watching television, we no longer have a direct experience of the sporting event.  The priesthood of spectacle stands between us and the event, shaping and interpreting that event, possibly for our benefit but certainly for its benefit.

Think for a minute about the difference between watching the Super Bowl on television and going to the field and watching your high-school team play its archrival.

By comparison to direct experience, television is weak tea.  It fails to nourish us in the way sports should.  It fails to meet those deep-set needs that led to the creation of sports in the first place.

The Time of Personal Sports (1961-    )
John F. Kennedy and the Return of Play

It must have been in the spring of 1962 that I stood on a cinder track and listened to the track coach tell a friend that jogging was worthless.  And from the coach's point of view it was worthless:  he had no interest in the cardiovascular fitness of a population.  Rather he was focused on the performance of a few.  However, as John F. Kennedy said in his December 1961 speech to the National Football Foundation, "There are more important goals than winning contests."

The coaching establishment bitterly resisted this idea, and by and large still does, but as the years passed the concepts of physical fitness and lifetime sports began to take root.  Sneaker manufacturers even figured out how to make some money in this new world.

Running is central to the fitness craze because of its almost protean nature.  It can be competitive or noncompetitive, long or short, fast or slow; and just about anybody can do it just about anywhere.

I think the chameleon-like nature of running has forced a loosening of our overly rigid definition of sports as competitive contests, and allowed us to reconnect the concept of sports and the concept of play.

I seriously doubt that John Kennedy had anything like this in mind in 1961 -- he was primarily concerned with raising the physical quality of draftees for the armed forces -- but the relationship of sports to play is a central idea in Roger Caillois' Man, Play, and Games, first published in English in 1961.

Caillois sets up an interesting framework of four types of games.

-- Agon, or competition.  This is where we find football, baseball, basketball, etc.
-- Alea, or chance.  Here we find gambling.
-- Mimicry, or simulation.  This is the home of theater and children's dress-up games.
-- Ilinx, or vertigo.  Here is dancing, skiing, mountain climbing, and standing on the roof of a tall building and looking down.

I just had the strangest idea.  What if, instead of having departments of athletics, colleges had departments of play?  We could move drama and dance into this new department, the colleges' Title IX numbers would get better, and the dance and drama teachers' salaries could rise until they approached parity with the coaches' salaries.  Just a thought.

The revolutionary idea here is actually much simpler.  Sports can be play.  Ever since Walter Camp industrialized football, we have been turning play into work, and then using work in sports as a model for work in life.

Personal sports, such as running, put the play back in sports.  If we're not careful, the lesson may spill over into life.

Some Interesting Parallels to Religion

Despite what they say down in Texas, football is not a religion.  Interestingly, though, the historical progression of sports from external spectacle to internal fulfillment has unmistakable parallels to the history of religion.  There is a period when blood sacrifice is allowed, and a period when it is not.  There is an age of saints, and a prereformation period of wretched excess (connected with television).

All this doesn't make sports a religion.  It just shows that certain modes of development have a way of recurring in human affairs.

False Lessons and Artful Misdirection

Sports are also like religion in that they have the ability to teach untrue lessons.  Many of these lessons are socially useful, but that doesn't make them true.  What follows is a list of my discontents.

1.  Time is linear

Nineteenth century factory managers had a problem.  They needed their workers to show up on time.  The workers, on the other hand, came from an agricultural world where time was a function of the sun and the seasons, not the clock, and where work was episodic and strongly dependent on the weather.  Enter football and the other clock-bound sports.  (By the way, Walter Camp, who invented modern football, was also an executive of the New Haven Clock Company.)

Now we're so used to mechanical time it's easy for us to forget that time is not linear.  Time is actually a river that runs both faster and slower than the clock.  It has eddies and undercurrents, and sometimes it flows backwards.  But we have our eye on the clock, so we generally don't notice.

The same flattening has happened to the calendar.  Instead of varying our activity with the seasons, we do pretty much the same thing every day, year round.  For a while it seemed that sports might help us preserve seasonal change, but with lengthened playing schedules that idea has pretty much gone away.  Instead of well-defined progression through the year -- as is provided, for instance, by the Christian calendar -- we have virtually everything virtually all the time.

I don't think there's anything in particular to be done about all this, but it is a loss.  I find I tend to avoid sports that have really big clocks.

2.  The sweepstakes syndrome

We hear a lot about athletes' salaries.  This is, of course, a subtle method of social control.  We relate strongly to the athletes, and if they can make that kind of money, so can we.  It's just a question of winning the lottery of life.

Anyone who has ever put on a sweepstakes will tell you that it doesn't matter what you offer as second prize.  People fixate on first place.  So second place -- getting a raise down at work, or just keeping up with inflation -- has less value.  We all become happy gamblers.

As an aside, the high salaries are simply the players' share of the excess profits generated by monopoly capitalism.  If sports writers were truly interested in economics, they might want to explore the effects of the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961 and the Football Merger Act of 1966, and possibly think in print about what life might be like if professional sports leagues didn't have monopolies in their individual sports.  After all, AT&T can't have a monopoly in telecommunications.  Why is the NFL so special?

3.  The moral equivalent of war

As Robert Higgs points out in his recent book God in the Stadium, in much of the country football is suffused with militarism and religiosity, thus fulfilling in a strange way William James's 1910 call for "the moral equivalent of war."

What James actually had in mind was turning military virtues to peaceful uses (his example sounds something like the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps).  What we have in football, of course, is hardly peaceful.  The most serious problem with all this is that many Americans have come to believe that war is simply football carried on by other means, which it is not.

4.  Winning is the only thing

In the 1994 World Cup, the two best soccer teams in the world ended their game in a tie.  They then decided who got to take the cup home through a penalty kick shootout that had very little to do with soccer and a lot to do with luck.  To use Roger Caillois' framework, we were no longer doing agon, or contest.  Instead we were into alea -- a game of chance.

Brazil took the cup, and the Italians were unhappy, and just about everybody had a bad taste in their mouth.  We want our contests to be resolved as contests, and we expect that there will be a winner and a loser.

I'm going to make a heretical suggestion.  Let's bring back the tie.  In baseball, that means eliminating extra innings.  If you're even after nine, shake hands and go home.

By allowing ties, we recognize that many situations in life, as in sports, do not fall into the neat win-lose paradigm.

In fact, win-lose or "zero sum" games are relatively rare in life outside of sports.  Far more common is something called The Prisoner's Dilemma, which is actually the title of a good book on game theory by William Poundstone.

The Prisoner's Dilemma is about long-term cooperation among people who don't like and don't trust one another, and who are operating in a stressful environment.  Sound familiar?

5.  Rage as a way of life

Coaches often admonish their players to get angry, and in the context it's usually good advice.  Rage does increase peak performance in certain areas.  However, it also decreases performance in other areas -- in my experience, fine motor skills, peripheral vision, and abstract reasoning.

So this is another area where the lessons we learn in sports should be applied to our daily lives with caution.  Beyond that, your doctor will tell you that it's bad for your health to get angry every day.

6.  The payoff

The emotions aroused by sports are very powerful -- the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.  But what does this have to do with our daily lives?  Life is not a series of intense, short-lived episodes, although these episodes do occur, frequently without warning.  These episodes should not distract us too much from our basic experience of life, where effort is less intense but steadier, and where time walks slowly toward a horizon.

Because of our training, we expect our lives to be as exciting as a football game, and by and large they're not.  Perhaps we should stop equating life and sports and look instead for the nobility and the
meaning that lie embedded in our daily lives, if only we will look for them.  Perhaps we could call this search the moral equivalent of peace.

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