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The Ball: Discovering the Object of the Game

John Fox

(Harper Perennial; US: May 2012)

The 2012 Summer Olympics are just weeks away. Soon, news outlets will inundate viewers, listeners and clickers with stories of athletic triumph, unbelievable glory, and national pride. There will be the predictable story of the juggernaut that dominates the medal collection. There will be the story of the underdogs who fought tooth and nail just to be present for competition.  Every four years, the world gets a reminder of just how powerful athletics are in the ability to garner pride, to cultivate unity, and transcend differences.


Children all over the world engage, watch and emulate athletes.  Prompted by his son’s curiosity about why we play ball, John Fox explored some of the world’s most coveted popular sports with the intent of finding out just why we play what we play. “…the things we do every day, so naturally and without so much as a fleeting thought—things as fundamental as playing ball—can suddenly seem exotic and delightfully inexplicable. Almost absurd, really.”


In The Ball: Discovering the Object of the Game, Fox goes beyond the box scores, beyond the familiar modern icons of sport, and beyond folklore, to the geographical source of the game. He begins by exploring the definition of “playing” and why people of all ages do it, albeit the games may vary. When it comes to playing with a ball, just for fun, while some may consider it to be an escape of sorts, and a distraction, the activity of the brain is often heightened while kicking a ball or swinging a racket. According to Fox, when the ancient Romans weren’t “gathering decadently to watch slaves fight to the death or to crucify dogs in public, they passed time playing harpastum, the most popular ball game of the empire.”  Out of the Roman Empire lies the first claim of ball games as beneficial forms of exercise.


Once Fox establishes basic historical and cultural basis for human engagement with ball games, he then takes the reader to the Scottish island of Orkney. In Orkney, men play Kirkwall Ba’. But Fox’s trip to Scotland isn’t so much about researching the rules and nuances of the sport. He learns that Ba’ is about an ancient rivalry that is alive and well today: The Uppies versus the Doonies. In Kirkland, you are either an Uppie or a Doonie—by birth. In telling this and other such stories of historical meaning, Fox is sure to give just enough of the minutia regarding the sports themselves. 


In lieu of many of the intricacies of games, Fox focuses on the people that are playing them. In the case of the Uppies and Doonies, veterans of Ba’ go to schools and teach children the history, significance, and cultural pride of the sport. One middle-aged man tells Fox, “This is heritage. This is history. This is tradition.  This is what I won and my granddad and his granddad won before me and that’s what it’s about. It goes back that far and that deep. It’s hard to understand the depth of feeling we have for it. It’s huge.”


Moving from a game of commoners to the “Game of Kings”, Fox explores the origins of tennis. He travels to Fontainebleau, once the stomping grounds of French Kings, to play “real tennis” at one of the original courts of play. Throughout this diary-like text, Fox admits and succumbs to his own American biases toward sports as he takes the reader along with him.  An anthropologist by trade and a sports fan at heart, Fox isn’t afraid to admit that this experience exposed the fact that he really knew nothing about the sport he had played since childhood. From hand-crafted balls to specially made rackets, this court with the “echoing feel of a medieval castle’s great hall” is described as a far cry from the slick, polished, made-for-television event that is Wimbledon. 


Fox’s 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. 


For those who might consider some professional sports as activities for boorish cavemen (ala football or rugby), Fox proves that opinion to be both right and wrong. For those who check the scores of their favorite teams every hour, he provides anthropological context for that ingrained impulse. The Ball doesn’t seek to legitimatize sports as a vital part of anthropological history. They already are. Rather, The Ball lets everyone in on the secret on why playing like this is so fundmental —and so delightful—to our nature.

Rating:

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By John Fox
17 May 2012
Anthropologist John Fox sets off on a worldwide adventure to the farthest reaches of the globe and the deepest recesses of our ancient past to answer a question inspired by his sports-loving son: "Why do we play ball?"
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