appears in “Sports & Games,” the Summer 2010 issue of Lapham’s
Quarterly and is posted at TomDispatch.com with the kind
permission of that magazine.
space of play and the space of thought are the two theaters of freedom."
~ Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy
was a German army officer in World War I, afterward a professor
of medieval law in Breslau until the Nazis acquired the franchise
in 1933. Signed for the next year’s season by Harvard University
to teach undergraduates the rudiments of Western civilization, he
soon noticed that few of them grasped what he was trying to say,
couldn’t square the lines of thought with the circle of their emotions.
To overcome the difficulties the professor recast his lectures in
the idiom of sports and games, the only world, he said, "in
which the American student really has confidence… this world encompasses
all of his virtues and experiences, affections and interests."
even truer now, not only of college students but of every loyal
American, naturalized or native-born, for whom sport is the soul
of democracy, the field of dreams on which they come to bat, cut
a deal, catch a break, stay the course, run out the clock. It
is with the metaphor of sport that we forge an American consciousness,
locate a national identity, replay our history, book the odds
on a winning or a losing future. What other sets of reference
do we share in common if not the ones that hold true to form in
the fourth quarter as in the first, away and at home, inside and
outside the ropes?
on Sports by the CIA
One need not
be American to know that sport is play and play is freedom. It’s
not a secret kept from children in Tahiti or Brazil. Dogs romp,
whales leap, penguins dance. That play is older than the kingdoms
of the Euphrates and the Nile is a truth told by the Dutch scholar,
Johan Huizinga, in Homo Ludens, his study of history that
discovers in the "primeval soil of play" the origin of
"the great instinctive forces of civilized life," of myth
and ritual, law and order, poetry and science. "Play,"
he said, "cannot be denied. You can deny, if you like, nearly
all abstractions: justice, beauty, truth, goodness, mind, God. You
can deny seriousness, but not play."
I take him
at his word, and to the best of my knowledge and recollection have
done so since I was old enough to bounce a ball or spin a top. Born
into the generation taking the field before World War II and raised
in a family strongly Anglophile in sentiment, my idea of sport as
play complied with the rules in force on the lawns of Victorian
Prior to the
Civil War, Americans made do with horse racing, cards, boxing, cockfighting,
and the early experiments with baseball; from Britain during the
second half of the century we imported tennis, golf, soccer, badminton,
football, and croquet, the arrival of the games accompanied in the
early going by a sense of their proper use that the historian Caroline
Alexander attributes to the social graces of the British empire.
Sport as a proof of character and a play of mind, rather than a
show of strength.
Both my father
and my grandfather taught the lesson on the golf course and at the
card table. Golf they construed as a trying of the spirit and a
searching of the soul. Scornful of what they called "the card-and-pencil
point of view," they looked askance at adding up the mundane
trifle of a paltry score.
How one plays
the game was more to the point than whether the game is won or lost.
Play the shot and accept the consequences, play the shot and know
thyself for a bragging scoundrel or a Christian gentleman. So fundamental
was my grandfather’s disdain for mere numbers that, at the bridge
table, he deemed it ungentlemanly to look at his cards before announcing
a bid. The sporting gesture sometimes presented the obstacle of
recruiting a partner on the premises of San Francisco’s Pacific
Union Club, but it never failed to win him a game played for what
he regarded as a truly sporting stake.
was not without its antecedent. Alexander mentions a British officer
on the Western Front in World War I bounding over the top of a trench
with a soccer ball, gallantly kicking it into the face of the enemy
before dying in a scrum of machine-gun bullets. Sportsmanship to
the manner born, in line with Alexander’s further reference to an
interview conducted by a British sergeant in 1914 with a seventeen-year-old
were you at school?"
any games? Cricket?"
read the Q and A as comedy contrived by Monty Python if it didn’t
so closely resemble my own encounter in the autumn of 1957 with
the admissions officers at the CIA. Prepared for the doing of high
deeds in Hungary and the boarding of a night train from Berlin,
I had spent the days prior to the interview studying the terms of
the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the map coordinates of the Fulda Gap,
the routing of Lenin’s transfer to the Finland Station. None of
it was relevant.
Yale men brave and true, didn’t stoop to a concern with mere numbers.
They wished to know whether I was the right sort, socially presentable
and good at games. Instead of asking about the topography of central
Europe, they inquired about the terrain of a golf course on eastern
Long Island, the positioning of the marker buoys for a sailboat
race around Nantucket, whether I played tennis on grass or clay.
put an end to my interest in the CIA, but they brought to mind the
distinction between Homo ludens and Homo sapiens,
and that the confusing of the one with the other results in the
numbering of 96,000 English dead at the first battle of the Somme.
Huizinga speaks of play not as a way of the world as presented by
nature, but as the imagining of a second, poetic world set apart
from the world of nature. Not serious, and yet utterly serious,
a thing of its own and a law unto itself. A parallel or virtual
reality released on waivers from the contract with death and time.
Playing Field as the Battlefield
as free agent, unbound by the antithesis of good and evil, recognized
by the essayist Jay Griffiths as a joy that "is superfluous
and therefore absolutely necessary." About the freedom of play,
the British teachers of games to the post-Civil War Americans were
not wrong, but in the late innings of the nineteenth-century the
lesson was lost on a generation worried about going decadent and
soft in the monied comforts of the Gilded Age, losing the rough-riding
frontier spirit that swept the series against the Cheyenne and the
Sioux in the old Trans-Mississippi West.
their most vigorous champion, the jeunesse dorée
in Boston and New York reconfigured the idea of sport as preparation
for war. Roosevelt’s faith in the virtue of violent competition,
of letting "the wolf rise in the heart," accorded with
his passionate wish for "a bit of a spar" with Germany
or Spain and prompted his founding of the Boone and Crockett Club
in 1887 "to promote manly sport with the rifle."
By 1893, he
was proud to say that "it has been my good luck to kill every
kind of game properly belonging to the United States." Senator
Henry Cabot Lodge, Roosevelt’s lifelong friend and in 1898 an equally
fond promoter of a shooting match in Cuba and the Philippines, regarded
the injuries suffered in college athletic contests (by Harvard men
brave and true) as a price that "the English-speaking race
has paid for being world conquerors." Not how one played the
game, but the winning of it no matter what the cost.
and development of the American sporting scene during the first
half of the twentieth century borrowed moves from two playbooks,
Roosevelt’s and Queen Victoria’s – the freedom of spirit embodied
in the figure of the amateur sportsman, the readiness for war in
that of the professional athlete. To draw the distinction between
the avocation and the occupation, Eric Nesterenko describes his
years playing hockey, first as a boy and then as a man (for the
Toronto Maple Leafs and the Chicago Blackhawks) as the playing of
two different games. When he was four or five, he said, "We
never had any gear… All our games were pickup, a never-ending
game… Nobody would keep score." He goes on to say that the
selling of play for money makes it hard for pure play, "for
play as an art," to exist. "It’s corrupted, it’s made
harder, perhaps it’s brutalized, but it’s still there."
still there in the provinces of amateur sport, whether on a schoolyard
jungle gym, a country-club golf course, a college-basketball court,
or a suburban bowling alley. The actors in the theaters of professional
sport haven’t been as fortunate.
second half of the twentieth century, in conjunction with the rising
of an American world empire and the expansionist policies of network
television, the manufacture and sale of sports events has blossomed
into a gargantuan enterprise serving the nation as both fountain
of youth and river of gold. The stats account for $238 billion in
annual revenue, from ticket sales, operating expenses, endorsements,
media and broadcast rights, travel and professional services, publications,
apparel, gambling, advertising, sponsorship, facility construction,
and licensed merchandise.
outpoint those posted by the food, communications, auto, and entertainment
industries. Fatten the pot with the antes chipped in by parties
unlisted on the official program (casino and online gambling, video
games, billiard parlors, body-building gyms), and the numbers move
up the leader board into the final threesome with the weapons and
the drug trades.
A happy return
to the old Roman Colosseum, games in progress at every hour of the
day and night, live and on tape, gladiatorial shows upgraded with
avatars, downloaded from 1924, 1951, and 1968. The playing for playing’s
sake, the stillness of an art unto itself, transposed into a feeding
of the lions in the stands.
Empire Declines, But the Box Score Is Immortal
of realms presents the industry with a problem in metaphysics. How
to square the lines of profit with the circle of emotions in which
we tell ourselves the story of our lives, our liberties, and pursuits
of happiness. Unlike every other big business in the United States,
big-time sports tread on hallowed ground. The product is entertainment,
but the franchise is the democratic dream of Eden, Adam at play
on the fields of the Lord before Eve handed him the marked deck
and the apple juiced with amphetamine.
It isn’t simply
a matter of completing the deep pass into the corner of the end
zone or sinking the shot for three points at the buzzer; it’s the
business of sustaining the belief that democracy still works the
way the Declaration of Independence says it’s supposed to work,
Jefferson’s "aristocracy of virtue and talent" still out
there in uniform on the level playing field, imparting substance
to the nation’s fondest memories and dearest hopes.
Like the infantry
platoons that won the Hollywood version of World War II, an American
team in good working order affirms the doctrine of egalitarianism,
erases the distinctions between race and class, rehabilitates the
principle of justice under law. The coach doesn’t start the kid
at quarterback because the kid is underprivileged; the manager doesn’t
insist that the dugout vote Republican.
On the far
side of the left-field wall, wars bleed and children starve; men
cheat, women rot, banks foreclose, politicians lie. Inside the park
the world is as it was in the beginning, as green as the grass of
childhood, as bright as the sky at noon with what the British novelist
V.S. Pritchett regarded as "the emotion of being American…
that feeling of nostalgia for some undetermined future when man
will have improved himself beyond recognition and all will be well."
The team plays
to even the score with everything else gone wrong with the world.
The box score is immortal; the goal posts don’t decline and fall.
If the Chicago Cubs can emerge from the cellar, then maybe so can
the state legislature, the board of education, and the sheriff.
sells $2,500 field-box seats, luxury skyboxes priced at $12,900
a game, but as with most other forms of modern poetry, the meaning
can be elusive, in need of a little help from its friends. Exceptional
talent is as rare among athletes as it is among bond traders and
dentists, and if in the Rose Bowl and the Sugar Bowl we don’t grow
noble savages in an abundance sufficient to seed and staff the dream
of America’s innocence regained, what happens to the gate receipts?
with the broad technological advance occurring elsewhere in the
society, the sports industry looked to its bullpen for digital and
pharmaceutical enhancements. Labor passed the hat for steroids.
Management multiplied the camera angles, narrowed the strike zone,
sodded the diamonds and the gridirons with AstroTurf, enlarged the
jumbotrons, shortened the distance to the outfield fences, strengthened
the golf clubs, adjusted the rules and the clocks to allow more
time for the beer and truck commercials, bulked up the salaries
paid to players bulked up to resemble the designated hitters in
World of Warcraft. Goliath signed to a five-year contract, David
sent back to Pawtucket.
additives produce record-breaking profit margins for teams in a
league with major media, but what shows up on the field is the weight
of money as opposed to the lightness of spirit that is "superfluous,
and therefore absolutely necessary." During the three-hour
broadcast of an NFL football game, the ball is in play for maybe
eleven minutes. The rest of the program is advertising, replays
and video segments, shots of the players standing around in a huddle
or gathering at the line of scrimmage, shots of coaches defending
the sidelines, of celebrities decorating the mezzanine, of broadcasters
in the booth generating the honeyed flows of artisanal nostalgia.
NBC deploys seven production trucks, hires as many as 100 or 200
stagehands to prepare the graphic equivalent of hypodermic needles
to resuscitate the dead airtime. How else is heaven made if not
with artificial sweeteners?
The NFL makes
the most flagrant use of the substitutions that send in the buzz
to bat for the bee, but the same modus operandi controls
the televised presentation of every other sport competing for market
share. I don’t know how or why it could be otherwise. Tickets to
the game now come at a price that most people can’t afford. The
fans aren’t in the park with the afternoon sun; they’re at home
with the dog, the kids, their boredom, and the remote, and what
the camera gets paid to deliver is spectacle.
American Republic on a Losing Streak
rising cost of the production values (Alex Rodriguez paid $33 million
for the season, $2.8 million for a 30-second commercial in attendance
at the Super Bowl) speaks to the steadily mounting fear of imminent
defeat – if not for the New York Yankees or the Dallas Cowboys,
then for the home-team American promise of a democratic republic,
which, for the last 40 years, has been on a losing streak. The freedoms
of movement and thought don’t fit the game plan of a national-security
state. What is wanted is a statue of liberty, not the fooling around
with it. To keep up appearances, the sports industry fields increasingly
precious objects, heraldic and finely carved, that stand and serve
as totem poles at the increasingly elaborate and expensive rituals
designed to demonstrate the truth of a political hypothesis, prove
that Uncle Sam hasn’t gone weak in the knees, that the flag is still
To the degree
that sports and games become a product of Homo economicus
as distinct from the pleasure of Homo ludens, they lose
the coherence of a world set apart from nature. Not irretrievably
lost, as was evident to Eric Nesterenko during his career with the
Chicago Blackhawks, but "harder," for the player if not
for the fan, to rejoice in.
is a wonder to behold no matter how often the game is interrupted
with a word from the sponsor. The same can be said of every other
sport in which a brilliant performance brings joy to Mudville –
the dancing on ice at last winter’s Olympics, the fooling around
with a soccer ball at this summer’s World Cup – but the glory
of it isn’t the winning or losing, the bombastic Rooseveltian beating
of the others; it is Einstein’s equation made flesh, the unity of
energy and mass seen in a movement of light.
something of the same thought. Play as the making of civilization,
which becomes possible only when "an influx of mind breaks
down the absolute determinism of the cosmos," not serious and
yet entirely serious, brimming with possibility and tending to become
beautiful. The proposition is backed up by Norman Maclean telling
the story of his encounter in 1928 with Albert Michelson in the
billiard room in the University of Chicago’s Quadrangle Club.
who first took the measurement of Betelgeuse (a star 640 light years
from the earth, 1,000 times the diameter of the sun), Michelson
at age 75 was the best billiard player that Maclean had ever seen.
One day when Michelson was returning his cue to the rack, Maclean
told him so. Michelson acknowledged the beauty of the game to which
Mozart was addicted, but then, rolling down his sleeves, putting
on his coat, and walking toward the door, he proposed amendments,
each of them after a moment of further reflection.
was a good game, but not as good a game as painting, which in turn
was not as good a game as music which, when one had a chance to
think about it, was not as good a game as physics. Einstein derived
his theory of special relativity from Michelson’s observations,
and I see no reason to dispute their setting the boundaries and
laying out the chalk lines on the field of dreams.
H. Lapham is editor of Lapham’s
Quarterly. Formerly editor of Harper’s Magazine,
he is the author of numerous books, including Money
and Class in America, Theater
of War, Gag
Rule, and, most recently, Pretensions
to Empire. The New York Times has likened him to
H.L. Mencken; Vanity Fair has suggested a strong resemblance
to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared him to Montaigne.