More on “Why no gatherer-sports?”

Posted on September 18, 2010

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[This post picks up where the previous one left off. Both are jumping off from a question posed on the blog Overcoming Bias. Somehow two weeks elapsed since that last post — coincidentally the onset of my fall teaching term at Duke.]

It seems to make sense to enquire about the “primordial” roots of either a given sport, or about the skills that are most essential to a given sport. But the initial prodding in the previous post suggests that both intuitions are misleading.

In evolutionary terms, it would be hard to justify drawing a straight line between particular basic skills — like running, throwing, tackling, evading, and so forth — and some particular primitive vocation. Virtually all of these “skills” evolved before human beings did; and all of them can be used for several primordial purposes by the particular animal that possesses them: from hunting, to gathering, to avoiding being hunted, to establishing dominance in your pack, pride, or tribe.

In the end, the only sports or competitions that merit being traced to a “basic primordial activity” are those that do so in a perfectly obvious way. Archery, target shooting, sport hunting, fishing contests, fox-hunting, could obviously be called “hunting sports.” Rodeo and various harvesting competitions are “farming sports (or games).” Scavenger hunts could be called “gathering sports.” Tree cutting contests, log-rolling, etc, could be called “lumberjack sports.” Paintball, capture the flag and, well, actual war games, could be called “war games.”

But I doubt it makes much sense to try to pigeon-hole any of the great team sports in this way. Nor even the speed-and-distance sports that involve running, jumping, throwing, swimming, cycling, skiing, or racing horses and cars.

Again, while some of the latter involve skills used in hunting, say, these skills are also used in other basic human (and animal) activities. But perhaps the more important point is that the reason human communities developed competitions involving these skills surely has much more to do with other interesting features of human psychology. For example, that we like to play. Or that we like to show off, or to prove our dominance, or to impress the women folk who may be looking for a mate with good genes (even if, like the pea hen flummoxed by some peacock’s useless but gorgeous tail, they don’t realize this is what they are doing). It is as plausible to trace most contemporary sporting skills back to mating as it is to trace them back to hunting. [Click the button below to read more…] :

And if we are tiring of just making this stuff up, we can crack a book and learn, say, from the American dean of academic sports history, Allen Guttmann, that “Primitive cultures rarely have a word for sport in our sense. If we hold strictly to our definition of sport as a nonutilitarian physical contest, we may be tempted to say that primitive men had no sports at all. Carl Diem’s monumental world history of sports begins with the bold assertion, ‘All physical exercises were originally cultic.’ Plentiful evidence exists to document the claim that primitive societies frequently incorporated running, jumping, throwing, wrestling, and even ball playing in their religious rituals and ceremonies.” (From Ritual to Record, 1978/2004, p. 16.)

It seems like even more of a mug’s game to frame the great team sports — soccer, rugby, American football, baseball, cricket, basketball, ice hockey, and so on — as, say, “hunter” sports. If anything, several of these would seem to be closer to “war” sports, where one human clan is working in a coordinated way to defeat another clan using an array of skills, but also strategic rationality: they have to defeat an opponent they know possesses the same basic skills, and can try to guess and neutralize their tactics; an opponent who is also trying to defeat them.

And as a commenter on my last post, Sean Steele, pointed out, the “framing” of any given sport may be totally different for different players, and also for different spectators. One American football player may see it as a chess match, another as a boxing match, and another as war. Sporting matches provide wonderfully complex and vague tapestries on which different viewers can trace wildly different narratives. For the very most partisan spectators (especially hooligans and those who claim membership to “[team name] nation,” and who lose all interest in the sport once their team has been eliminated from the championship) it may be impossible not to see, and feel, their team’s struggles in almost exactly the same way they experience their country’s current or past wars.

(Consider how closely war coverage within countries engaged in a war now mirrors the coverage of sports in those countries? I presume there are several books on this phenomenon. And should we be surprised if citizens’ emotional responses to much of this coverage, especially early on in the build-up and the fighting, will feel like their engagement with important sporting contests involving a team they are passionate about? Maybe war-as-seen-on-TV is now more like sports than sports are like war.)

But again, a connoisseur of strategy (say, a sabrmetrician in American baseball, or the folks who dig what Zonal Marking reveals about soccer matches) watching the same contest as the hooligan may experience a totally different game being played — one that tests the tactical plans and hypotheses of two managers and the ability of the players to carry the strategy out. Some of the players in that game may simply see it as an opportunity to showcase their talents in order to increase their fortunes and fame… and mating opportunities. The disgruntled family members of the couch-potato fan may see nothing but a bunch of grown men chasing a ball like around like school boys. The Neo-Marxist sociologist sees capitalists exploiting the hopes and dreams of children while tranquilizing the masses.

One doesn’t have to be a flaming relativist to decline to say that one of these perspectives, and with it one particular way of framing the contest, is capturing the essential, primordial truth about the sport. And even if we tried, “hunting” or “gathering” would be way down the list of candidates.

But that is not to say that the sports connoisseur should not try to cultivate some ways of engaging with a given sport rather than other more “superficial” or “distracting” ways. This blog has been slowly trying to clarify the connoisseur’s perspective. As we romp through the seasons and major tournaments or championships of different sports, we find different things to love or regret in different sports, as well as in the ways they are presented to the spectator (especially on TV) and talked about.

The only interim conclusion: it seems to take many sports to satisfy the many different tastes and cravings of the genuine sports connoisseur; just as it takes many kinds of wine to please the wine lover, or many styles of cuisine to please the foodie. A person who really loves only one sport is not a person who loves and appreciates sport (any more than a person who loves only red Bourdeaux could be said to be a wine lover).

So much for pseudo-anthropology. Back now to actual sports. Since the last post the tennis season wound up, NHL training camps opened, the NFL season began (and ended for several players who tore up their knees or literally rattled their brains), baseball entered its best month, and Derek Jeter cheated.

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