The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Low-brow met high-brow when Sports Illustrated recommended sports fans pick up the summer edition of Lapham’s Quarterly, a literary journal founded by former Harper’s Magazine editor Lewis H. Lapham. The issue, entitled “Sports & Games,” features a cornucopia of articles, from all topics, places and times. The issue takes the reader from Wu-Ling, 1615, to Wonderland, 1865. You’ll read about the origins of Sumo wrestling in a Japanese passage dating to 29 B.C.E., then follow it with a passage from Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel “Fight Club,” wherein the narrator describes how Fight Club dictates the rest of your life. Victor Heiser’s 1910 accounting of Igorot tribesmen in the Phillipines replacing their brutal headhunting wars with baseball contrasts starkly with Ryszard Kapuściński’s 1969 accounting of a series of soccer matches between Honduras and El Salvador essentially causing a war. Through it all, the common theme is that, much as sport and sports writing have evolved through time, the essentials of sports and how we view them remain unchanged.

Take, for instance, Virgil’s 1174 B.C.E. tale of a boxing match between young stud Dares, “The Missile-y from Sicily,” and retired veteran fighter “Bull-crusher” Entellus (I made those nicknames up). Upon seeing Dares boasting of his incredible skill and strength, Entellus is coaxed into battling him by his friend and agent Acestes. What follows is a brutal battle wherein Entellus tries to out-think the stronger but less experienced Dares. In the end, he wins, and proclaims that the glory of the win is worth more than any trophy (which he promptly destroys, just to prove his point). This is essentially the same plot as Rocky Balboa, and I highly doubt Sylvester Stallone ever read The Aeneid. But even in real life we have any number of athletes for whom this story is exactly the same. Brett Favre, Roger Clemens, Lance Armstrong, the list goes on. The thrill of competition driving a man out of retirement is a timeless tale.

As another example, take this quote from Pliny the Younger, a Roman lawyer who wrote around the turn of the second century C.E.:

“And if, in the midst of the course and contest, the different parties were to change colors, their different partisans would change sides and instantly desert the very same men and horses whom just before they were eagerly following with their eyes, as far as they could see, and shouting out their names with all their might. Such mighty charms, such wondrous power reside in the color of a paltry tunic!”

Now, compare it with this:

“We’re basically rooting for laundry in sports. Of the 10 best guys on this particular Boston team, seven of them weren’t Celtics during last season’s despicable tank job, and two of them weren’t Celtics as recently as January. As much as I like the new guys and everything they brought to the team, I still feel like I’m getting to know them.”

This latter passage comes from ESPN columnist Bill Simmons’s June 18, 2008, article about the Celtics defeating the Lakers in the NBA Finals. The messages are one and the same: the uniform a player wears makes him a representative of the fans, and whoever wears the uniform is far less important than the simple fact that he wears it. Every Red Sox fan should identify with this notion: how quickly did we put ourselves in David Wells’s corner once he became a Boston pitcher, despite him publicly saying he’d help tear down Fenway Park given the chance when he was a Yankee? How quickly did we turn on those who left us, players like Johnny Damon or even Mark Bellhorn? How many Atlanta natives came to the support of Michael Vick, a man who made money hurting and killing animals, just because he wore a Falcon’s uniform? And as a more general point, how else can we explain our ability to love a team just as much as we did the year before, despite the sometimes complete changeover of personnel? The uniform matters more than the player. Always has, always will.

Lapham’s Quarterly is pretty self-aware with regards to this concept. It’s pretty clear to me that this message of continuity of sport and sports fandom is what the editors were going for. To that end, the issue features three “discussions,” wherein quotes from different athletes are put next to each other. The first, a series of quotes from Yogi Berra paired with a series from “Sir” Charles Barkley (highlights include “I usually take a two-hour nap from one to four” versus “We don’t need refs, but I guess white guys need something to do”), doesn’t do much beyond showing that sports breed their fair share of lunatics. The second “discussion” pairs John Northbrooke’s 1577 “Treatise Against Dicing, Dancing, Plays, and Interludes” with Rev. Steve Strickland’s 2006 indictment of the game “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City” before a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee following Devin Moore’s 2003 murder of several Alabama police officers. The messages are strikingly similar: gaming leads to violence and ruination. 500 years later, we’re still using religious imagery to warn against gaming. For the high-and-mighty, gaming (and by extension sports) has always been and will always be something sinful. The final “discussion” pairs a Bacchylides ode from 460 B.C.E. with a passage from Dutch historian Joseph Huizinga’s famous novel Homo Ludens. The message of both is that seeing a person victorious makes us feel victorious for having seen it. Through these pairings of ancient and modern text we see just how little the relationship between sport and the populace has changed over the millenia.

A year ago I wrote that “baseball only has so many stories to tell, and… most of them have already been told. But that doesn’t stop the media from rehashing them over and over again.” That is essentially true, but perhaps I missed the point. There are a finite number of stories about sports: the underdog team (Polybius, writing in Olympia, 212 B.C.E., nailed this notion), the veteran coming out of retirment, the sheer glory of competition, its maddening effect on the people and how that’s viewed by those with power (especially religious power), etc. But it’s amazing to think that these stories have lasted upwards of 2000 years. 2000 YEARS! How much of our civilization has remained constant for that long a period of time? Religions have changed. Politics have changed. Economics have changed. But sports remain essentially the same as they were before the time of Christ. New sports have come along, but it usually becomes clear that they are mere variations, retellings of the ancient tales. After all, what is Ultimate Frisbee, described by novelist and Yale professor John Crowley as “the world’s best new team sport,” but catching the discus (now made of plastic) hurled by the ancient Greeks?

That the same sports stories have existed for so long says that something about sport speaks to the human condition. These are not Greek stories, American stories, British stories, or Chinese stories. These are HUMAN stories. If there really is something like what we call “human nature,” a universal, almost genetic, set of behaviors and beliefs about the world, then sports are the only things we’ve discovered so far that act as a means to discovering it. “Play,” states Huizinga, “cannot be denied. You can deny, if you like, nearly all abstractions: justice, beauty, goodness, mind, God. You can deny seriousness, but not play.”

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