Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Sports, History, and Culture

Randall Stephens

With the Super Bowl and the Puppy Bowl over, and the barrage of clever and not-so-clever ads that went with the former, I've been thinking about the history of sports. I admit, I know little to nothing about the subject. (I do know that a class on the history of sports would probably populate.)

I am fascinated by how recreation has changed over the centuries. Has it become less violent, less like hand-to-hand combat? Of course, we do have ultimate fighting in are era, and their are all sorts of ways to die in a high-speed Nascar race, but it strikes me that common sports are less violent than they were in previous ages. A man does not need to train an animal to kill another animal to show that he is a force to be reckoned with.

Is it natural that sports should become more humane? Would dog fighting or bear baiting have struck late antebellum Americans as being as cruel and debased as most Americans think those are today? Ideas about propriety and impropriety appear to have dominated conversations about recreation for centuries.

There are still class and cultural connotations to sports in our age, much as there were hundreds of years ago. (One of my favorite Onion articles in recent years revealed that "a professional wrestling 'fan' has written a shocking new book that claims wrestling fans are actually paid actors.") But were class and cultural markers much stronger 150 or 200 years ago?

What do sports tell us about the people who have enjoyed them? How long have sports been woven into consumer culture? What can we know about western history be looking at the way men and women "recreated." (I hear that those who work in the subfield of cricket studies have some interesting things to say about empire and global culture.)

Anthony Fletcher's Gender, Sex, and Subordination in England, 1500-1800 (Yale, 1999) explores some of these topics. On sport in 17th-century England, he writes:

The gentry enjoyed the sport of their deer parks, their bowls and tennis; communal sports tested men's physical prowess and endurance, absorbing competitive vigor. Local tradition was deeply founded in this respect. In Wiltshire football was entrenched in the downlands, while bat-and-ball games like stoolball and trapball flourished in the vales of the north. East Anglian villages had their 'camping' grounds with their own indigenous and popular team games. There was something for everyone at the Whitsun Cotswold games, held annually from around 1611 on Dover's Hill, a marvelous green amphitheater outside Chipping Camden which is now owned by the National Trust. There was hunting and horse-racing for the nobility and gentry and the old sports, like wrestling, singlestick fighting and shin-kicking, for the country populace. The games were a veritable celebration of manhood which, at least until the 1640s, attracted people of all social ranks from miles around. (94-95)

An observer of late-17th-century England, Guy Miège said a little about sports in his country. Notice the praise for bloodsports and the comment about foot-ball's popularity among the lower sort.
Guy Miège, The New State Of England Under Their Majesties K. William and Q. Mary: In Three Parts (London, 1691), 39-40.


hcr said...

A few weeks ago an elderly neighbor, who was a teacher and now had grandkids from babies to teenagers, was bemoaning what she saw as a growing American obsession with sports at all levels, detracting from education and civic engagement. She blamed cable TV, which made it possible to watch sports 24/7. I'm not up on this stuff at all (neither TV nor sports), but I thought that was an interesting take on the nation's problems.

Certainly it's a mistake to see sport history as somehow a side story to more traditional histories.

Joel said...

Great post.

I do want to point out that the History Department at UMass has been hosting a year-long series of classes, lectures, and other events on sports and society.

My colleague Brian Bunk, who is writing a terrific book on race, ethnicity, and boxing in a trans-Atlantic context, has been coordinating the series. It is funded by an endowment from UMass History alumnus, Kenneth Feinberg.

For details, see:

Randall said...

Joel: Thanks for the note about the series. The films on the blog look great. Will have to track those down when they're available.