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That Deceptively Simple, Universally Adored Orb

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I spent the next three summers crouched with trowel in hand and swatting mosquitoes in the sweltering Honduran heat, scraping back the remnants of these ancient stadiums. Layer by layer, I revealed the sloping stone walls and hard clay playing floors where forgotten athletes once knocked a solid rubber ball back and forth to entertain their kinsmen and their gods. The game had many names in multiple languages, but it is most commonly known as ulama. I wanted to learn more about this game, to shed light on its meaning and importance for the Maya. All around the courts, I found piles of broken bowls and jars tossed aside by generations of feasting fans after downing venison and chichi, an alcoholic drink made from fermented corn—the ancient Mayan equivalent of hot dogs and beer.


Back at my university, I probed just as deeply into arcane research on the subject. I studied drawings of carved stone monuments depicting kings striking balls with their hips, the most common method of play, while wearing lavish uniforms that included feather headdresses and heavy jade jewelry. I read the decoded hieroglyphic captions that described the rulers as great ballplayers and undefeated warriors, as though the two were somehow connected. I learned that the game itself was rich with religious symbolism. Along with serving as a playing field, the ball court was also regarded as a kind of temple, and the playing of the game akin to a ritual act. And the best part of all? The losers of this ritual contest were sometimes sacrificed through ritual decapitation. This, I discovered with delight, was no ordinary game.


Ten years later, I turned in my trowel and left academia behind. I returned to Central America on assignment from Smithsonian magazine to cover ulama as a journalist. This time, however, instead of picking through pottery shards or ancient texts I decided to seek out one of a handful of remote villages where the game was still played. In the span of several days, I learned things about the game by watching and playing it that six years of research had never brought to light.


When Aidan asked why we play ball, though, I’m quite sure he wasn’t asking about dead or dying Mesoamerican traditions (though he’d enjoy the human sacrifice part!). He was wondering why we play the games he can’t get enough of—baseball, soccer, basketball, football, tennis, lacrosse— the games that are still very much with us today.


However unscientific and perhaps unprovable, I deeply believe that there are seeds of meaning and values planted early on in these games that are still there, subliminally shaping how we think and play, even centuries later. That soccer began in the Dark Ages as a brutal no-holds-barred mob game played between neighboring villages is still dangerously present in the stands every time Manchester United faces archrival Liverpool. That tennis arose in medieval monasteries and the courts of French kings might explain why my friends and I weren’t so welcome to pick up rackets and play the game ourselves.


But I think Aidan was also asking why playing ball matters. Why it’s worth it. What it does for us that’s unique and utterly irreplaceable. As I’d already learned from my time among the ballplayers of western Mexico, no game or sport can be truly understood in the abstract or explored from the quiet comfort of a library carrel. No dry history can bring to life the visceral thrill of a fast break or a perfectly executed corner kick or a bottom-of-the-ninth home run. And so I took to the road to experience the games we love firsthand. This book will toggle back and forth between past and present to explore what’s changed, what’s remained stubbornly the same, and what might be essential to carry forward to the future.


Now seems a particularly relevant time to explore the importance that playing ball, or playing anything for that matter, has in our lives. Recent research by psychologists and others concerned with the well-being of our kids suggests that they are playing less than their parents did, and far less than they should. This “play deficit,” as it’s been called, could have lasting effects on their development and on society. The decline in children’s play over the past several decades has been well documented. According to a 2004 study funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, children now spend 50 percent less time playing outdoors than they did in the 1970s. The study found that children ages 10 to 16 spend an average of just 12.6 minutes per day in vigorous physical activity. As schools are pressed to boost test scores and achievement levels or lose funding, many are choosing to eliminate recess. Kids these days, many parents and researchers lament, are overscheduled, overstructured, overweight, and missing out on something fundamental to childhood. If anything, what I found in my research and travels suggests that the cost of this play deficit could have greater ramifications, socially and culturally, than research studies have accounted for.


My travels took me not to multimillion-dollar corporate-sponsored arenas and ballparks, but to small-town playing fields, gyms, and pitches from Ohio to Massachusetts. They took me to places I never would have thought to look: a French palace, an Indian reservation, a remote Scottish isle, the Amazon rain forest, and a Florida marine park, among others. Along the way, in my search for the meaning and roots of ball games, I didn’t run into a single famous athlete, nor was I really expecting to. Instead I met ordinary players, coaches, die-hard fans, and keepers of the games who sew their own tennis balls, turn cowhide into footballs, craft lacrosse rackets from hickory wood—individuals whose extraordinary stories add up to as satisfying an answer to Aidan’s question as I could ever hope to match.


One central character that gets kicked and batted around throughout the book is the ball itself: that deceptively simple, universally adored orb whose invention and evolution put the bounce, dribble, roll, and spin in the games we play. “Probably no other plaything is as easily recognized, easily played with and universally enjoyed by people of all cultures, skills and ages.” That’s what the curator of the U.S. National Toy Hall of Fame had to say about the ball when it finally got inducted in 2009 to join such Johnny-come-lately distractions as the bicycle, kite, jump rope, and Mr. Potato Head. “High time!” I thought when I saw the announcement. The fascinating 5,000-year plus technological and social evolution of the ball, from papyrus to polymers, has never received its due—and my goal is to make up for that here.


By way of disclaimer, I should say up front what this book is not. It’s not, nor did I intend it to be, an encyclopedic history of every ball game that exists or has ever existed. For that, there are some very good surveys and textbooks that can be found in the bibliography and that I turned to in my research. I chose sports that each revealed a distinct answer or added fresh perspective to the guiding question of why we play. I also chose topics that I thought best revealed key historical moments in the evolution of ball games, from the ancient world to the present, knowing I had 2 million or more years to cover. My cultural perspective, which as an anthropologist I can’t pretend to shrug off, is that of a New Yorker turned Bostonian who grew up knowing that to play “football” without a helmet would be just plain foolish. I’ve tried, nevertheless, to take a global view and hope non-American readers will see themselves and their sporting passions (and perversions) reasonably reflected in these pages.


As I write this, our sports seem mired in controversy and the wrong kind of spectacle. When they’re not covering drug abuse or collegiate impropriety, the sports pages are barely distinguishable from the business section—chock-full of labor disputes, salary negotiations, new branding deals, and stadium real estate transactions as much as actual sports reporting.


The National Football League has emerged from a four-month lockout, and the National Basketball Association has just begun what is expected to be a much longer battle. While millionaire owners and players gear up for a fight, fans, most of whom can’t afford a bleacher seat anymore, wonder if they’ll have a season to enjoy or not. While his labor union representatives and lawyers are busy at work, LA Lakers star Ron Artest has decided to make the world a better place by changing his name to “Metta World Peace.” This from the guy who a few years back attacked a fan during a courtside brawl. Meanwhile, international soccer and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, better known by its acronym, FIFA, are still recovering from a wave of corruption scandals after executive committee members were accused of selling their votes for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup host countries to the highest bidders. And the darkest underbelly of American college football is being exposed with a convicted Ponzi schemer admitting to lavishing money and prostitutes on more than 70 University of Miami players over an eight-year period.


With all these sideshows distracting and detracting from the sports themselves, I think we need more than ever to find an answer to Aidan’s question. We need to reclaim our purest, most primal connections to the games we love and remind ourselves why they matter so much. My hope is that part of the answer might emerge from the stories to follow. The other part I think we already know.


Photo (partial) by Darlene DeVita

Photo (partial) by Darlene DeVita


John Fox has excavated ancient ball courts in Central America, traced Marco Polo’s route across China, and bicycled Africa’s Rift Valley in search of human origins. He has contributed commentary to Vermont Public Radio as well as Smithsonian, Outside, and Salon, among other publications. He lives in Boston.


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5 Jun 2012
John Fox does a fine job of providing lesser-known facts about ball games. The bulk of his stories, meanwhile, focus on our preoccupation with ball games through the lens of cultural history.
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