Source: Lapham’s Quarterly
“The space of play and the space of thought are the two theaters of freedom.” — Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy
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.”
True then, 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?
Grilled 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 England.
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.
The approach 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.