Friday, December 12, 2008

When a Sport is not a Sport (part II)

Last week Bob wrote a post about sports that aren't sports and argued that a sport should involve physical athletic skill, be minimally aerobic, and be competitive. If you happened to read "The Sports Academic" over the Summer, you know that I also deride competitions (and call them unsporting) where too much of the outcome lies in the hands of judges or officials. Both of these definitions probably reflect our personal likes and to some extent our own experiences and values. Bob actually played football, so has little tolerance for games that don't involve physical effort and skill. My 6th-grade floor hockey team got cheated out of the school championship by a bad call, so when it comes to determining a winner I want games to be as fair and objective as possible...

So what makes a sport a sport?

The eminent sports historian Allen Guttmann agrees with Bob. "The physical component is what distinguishes some contests as sports. . . . The animal joy of human movement and the opportunity to test one's physical skills against another person's are certainly among any sport's intrinsic pleasures." Here is how Guttmann's diagrams human activity:

= (divided down into)
Spontaneous Play / Organized Play (GAMES)
Noncompetitive Games / Competitive Games (CONTESTS)
Intellectual Contests / Physical Contests (SPORTS)

In this definition, Scrabble is a "contest" but not a sport. Frisbee is a "game" but frisbee football is a "sport."

I'm still not sure where tractor pulling fits into this, though. It is competitive, but not a physical contest. And I certainly wouldn't consider it an "intellectual contest." So Guttmann only solves part of our problem.

Perhaps a little history can resolve our dispute between Bob and Dana (see his comment about NASCAR after Bob's most recent post).

The word "sport" is an English word that defines the ensemble of athletic competitions born in England (or codified in England) in the second half of the nineteenth century. Consequently, the word has historically been associated with male games designed to create a better imperial subject, a more muscular Christian, a well rounded Englishman. Soccer, cricket, rugby, and their derivatives like football and baseball, were--and remain--the quintessential "sports."

But when the word migrated into other languages and to other countries, other activities were added to the rubric and the definition broadened.

The first sports-only newspaper in France was first published in 1854. Creatively titled, "Le Sport," it appeared weekly and included reports of recent "sporting" events. Here are some of the events covered in the paper: horse races, hunts, shooting competitions, chess matches, masked balls, beauty pageants, regattas, dog races, and banquets.

To a 19th-century Frenchman the word "sport" was synonymous with leisure. Historian J. J. Jusserand wrote in 1901 that the word "sport" began as the medieval French word "desport," traveled with the nobility to England, and finally "returned to its birth country, slightly changed by travels and by absence." When it was reintroduced in French as the word "sport," it maintained its Old French meaning: a simple pastime or any leisurely activity that reinvigorated its (usually upper-class) practitioner.

To be clear, I don't plan on putting on my gym clothes before my college's next annual banquet or strapping on spikes before my next chess match. But this French example does suggest that the nature of "sport" varies according to time and place.

I think the bottom line is that in today's world the word "sport" has maintained a positive, masculine connotation. If there is a competition I like, I would be offended were someone to say it is NOT a sport. On the flip side of the argument, if there is a competition I don't like, I can insult it by saying it is not a sport. Saying an activity is not a sport makes that activity somehow less valid, less masculine, less respectable. In this sense, when we claim an activity is a sport or not a sport, we are still bound by the nineteenth-century English definition, and we try to validate our competition by associating it with today's masculine, hegemonic, imperial power. Saying NASCAR is not a sport is a way to marginalize it (and, given that it is still primarily a regional competition, maybe it is fair to exclude it). The same could be said of many niche competitions (curling, gymnastics, ski jumping, etc.): since they are not widely followed contests (what Markovits calls "hegemonic sports") that appeal to and serve the entire culture, perhaps--according to a strict "originalist" reading of the word--they are not sports.

But if I adhere to other definitions, then I can claim that my favorite sport is the Miss America Pageant. Does anyone know a sports bookie who will let me put money on Miss Idaho? She could... go... all... the... way!

(1) The quote and chart are from Guttmann's book A Whole New Ball Game, University of North Carolina Press, 1988.


SM Sprenger said...

I think the confusion over the meaning of “sport” comes from being caught between a universal and local definition: what you point out is that each culture, each language has a way of slicing up the concept of sport into categories that do not line up precisely with the categories of other cultures. The confusion is compounded for us in the Anglo-American world by being the inheritors of the English definition: we naturally take our local definition to be universal. This has led to a presumptuous attitude about the definition because it is *our* sports that have become hegemonic; it becomes easy then to scorn what other cultures—foreign or regional—consider sports. In a way, it’s a false problem to try to decide since the definition only makes sense within a given culture. Who are we to say that ski jumpers cannot be gods for Austrians, or NASCAR drivers for North Carolinians, curling champions for Canadians, or maybe even Miss Idaho for Idahoans?

Corry Cropper said...

Absolutely. And dart hurlers for the Irish.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Corry. And, nice comment, Scott. This also satisfies the Polo and Golf debates as well.

So, Corry, does this mean you are giving concession to "muddin'" for the Georgians?

Corry Cropper said...

You know, we should adopt a "Muddin'" team here at the Sports Academic. We could follow their progress, wins, losses, etc. Is there actually a muddin' series or cup?

Dana said...

Corry, This much thought and research into sports, and the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed the read- sports academic or sports nerd? I laugh often at my nerdiness, and this was one of those moments. Way to do your homework!

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