Skip to main content

The Sporting Life

ISSUE:  Winter 1979
From Ritual to Record. By Alan Guttmann. Columbia. $10.95.

IF the Sunday edition of the New York Times can be considered a kind of barometer of social change, one cannot help but notice in its sports section a balance that never existed before. Straight reporting and puff pieces by staff columnists now exist alongside an entire page devoted to hard-hitting debates, many of which challenge some of the cherished myths of sports aficionados and force them to think about the unthinkable, It is all part of a recent phenomenon that has spread to academia: the subject of sports has become intellectually respectable, an appropriate field for philosophical dispute and scholarly inquiry. One wonders why the idea has been so late in arriving, for our athletic contests, both ancient and modern, seem to offer a perfect microcosm for examining society and the behavior of those who comprise it. On the dark side, sports have become, in the minds of some, a metaphor for the ills which plague us: spiritual exhaustion, ideological warfare, violence. To others they constitute a new secular religion.

All of which brings us to Alan Guttmann’s new book, From Ritual to Record.While this study of the relationship between ancient and modern sports is not exactly a tome, it should not be regarded as a slight intellectual effort, for the ideas and arguments in its 161 pages have been massively researched. As one scans the footnotes (over 300), it becomes obvious that in the five years he devoted to preparing this book Guttmann has dipped into nearly every significant work, both scholarly and popular, that has been published on the subject of sport over the past 50 years. In spite of its brevity, From Ritual To Record has more breadth and depth than is customary for scholarly treatments of the topic. The depth is achieved largely through Guttmann’s access to a wide variety of significant German and French sources, most of which antedate studies undertaken in the United States, and the breadth is achieved by his ability to move comfortably in and out of such disciplines as cultural anthropology, sociology, psychology, economic theory, and literature. The result is a work that stands as a kind of compendium of the many recent efforts to discover a raison d’être or mythos for sports.

From Ritual to Record is especially useful for its historical perspective. The “ritual” side of Guttmann’s thesis is particularly fascinating for its examples, ranging from the cults of the Aztecs, the ancient Olympic Games, and the folk games of the Middle Ages, showing the distinctly sacred quality of ancient athletic contests: that is to say, the sense of wholeness which they inculcated in the participating athletes. The “record” segment of Guttmann’s thesis develops the idea that in modern sports the fusion of the secular and the sacred no longer exists and has been replaced by the entrenched contemporary value of specialization, bureaucratization, and “quantification.”

The chief advantage that Guttmann has over other sports theoreticians is a willingness to employ the techniques of modern rhetoric in creating some order out of the ideological confusion now swirling around his subject. He is a definer, a synthesizer, a causal analyst, a classifier, as well as an arguer and a counter-arguer. Some cases in point: at the outset he makes an important distinction among “play”, “games”, and “contests”; he clarifies the nature of modern sports by breakng it down into seven characteristics; he summarizes the prevailing Marxist and Neo-Marxist views, then proceeds to refute the arguments point by point; finally, he employs the technique of causal analysis in attempting to explain the uniquely American qualities of baseball and football. One must hasten to add, however, that by assuming this dryly pedantic stance toward a subject that is usually treated with light irony Guttmann comes dangerously close to unintentional parody. Still this flaw is somewhat offset by the sharp focus and understanding which result from his relentless employment of analytic skills.

The two chapters in From Ritual to Record which are most likely to seize the attention of sports theorists, both in and out of academia, are “Why Baseball Was Our National Game” and “The Fascination of Football.” Here, as he does in other parts of the book, Guttmann dismisses conventional explanations in order to make room for what he considers more plausible logic. His analysis of baseball, for’ example, rejects such arguments as the impact of technology, the nostalgic impulse, and the need for folk heroes as impractical and unrealistic. Instead, Guttmann claims that the popularity of baseball is related to (1) the cycle of the seasons, (2) the elements of time and space, and (3) an obsession with quantification. While these ideas are elaborately supported with empirical data and are certainly an improvement over those that are replaced, they are weakened somewhat by extremes of literary and Jungian speculation. For example, it is not bothersome when one refers to baseball as “the summer game” or even to suggest that the sport has something to do with the rites of spring; but it seems going a bit too far to suggest that the mass appeal of the game is rooted in “fertility rites of ancient vegetation myths.” Again, in analyzing the spatial uniqueness of baseball, Guttmann leans rather heavily on the literary symbologists:

There is still another spatial difference between baseball and other team sports. The others are organized on polarities. The movement is an oscillation between the goals. Baseball’s diamond is inscribed within the imaginary circle of the runner’s path as he rounds the bases. And among the popular team games its movement is uniquely circular: around the bases and back to home plate. To the degree that Mircea Eliade’s anthropological disquisitions are valid, the circle and line are perhaps the most basic of mankind’s metaphors for the eternally recurrent and the temporally unique. Is it wholly accidental that the four bases correspond numerically to the four seasons of the year? Perhaps it is. And yet. . . .”

Once more, unintentional parody reminiscent of those critics of the 1950’s who became intensely preoccupied with the “shape” of Faulkner’s novels to the exclusion of more significant literary values. But Guttman’s third premise—quantification—makes complete sense. Certainly the obsession among baseball fans with batting averages, runs batted in, won-lost stastistics on pitchers, etc.justifies the claims of those who say that the game has shed its pastoral origins and become just another manifestation of computerized modern man and his detachment from the natural and the primitive.

Guttmann’s chapter on football focuses on violence and the well-worked-over analogy between football and war. While there is little here that is new, the “proof,” ranging from Konrad Lorenz’s classic On Aggression to Don DeLillo’s first-rate novel, End Zone, is impressive. Developing rational explanations for the mayhem, controlled and uncontrolled, which pervades modern sports has become a popular pastime among intellectuals and Guttmann gives the full treatment to the many hypotheses which have been advanced over the past ten years. Here again the author employs a land of dialectic in arriving at a rationale. Thus the catharthsis hypothesis (“the diversion of aggressive tendencies into the safely controlled domain of sports dimishes the incidence of aggression elsewhere in society”) is rejected in order to lend more validity to the proposition that aggressive behavior by both fans and players is a reaction to routinization in the world of work and to the pressures of socialization from other areas of modern life. Here Guttmann departs from the subject of athletes and explores the phenomenon of spectator violence in and out of stadiums. While his basic premise, the repression-aggression polarity, is perfectly sound as far as it goes, one wishes that he had extended the discussion to include the relationship between addictive television viewing and the frequent orgiastic behavior that accompanies “hyped up” sporting events such as the World Cup and the Super Bowl. Certainly, as Guttmann states, the parent, the employer, and the high school are important agents of socialization; but a considerable body of evidence points to television as the chief contributor to the apathy crisis facing those who teach the young. It would appear that while our citizens need occasionally “an emotional time out” from the repressive effects of socialization, the television medium has unquestionably deepened the repression and thus intensified and made more dangerous the aggression side of the dichotomy.

On the subject of television, an argument can be made that this pervasive medium has significantly changed the nature of modern sports, and one cannot help but feel that From Ritual to Record would have been enriched by a development of this hypothesis. This reviewer has in mind the fact that a recent critical league championship game was played in its entirety in a pouring rain, a situation that up to that point was considered unthinkable by sports purists. But, as was revealed in Senate hearings on possible collusion between the commercial networks and the sports industry, the game had to go on; there was too much money at stake from the networks, the sponsors, and the baseball enterprises involved. Other aspects of this trend not covered by Guttmann are: (1) The cyclic nature of sports is changing rapidly due largely to the acquisitive impulse of franchise owners and network presidents. The term “season,” which has always implied a link with the mythical past, has become meaningless as it applies to schedules. Schedules of most professional sports average about six months in length; the basketball “season” extends from September to early June.(2) Television coverage is changing the pace and essential rhythm of sports, a quality that has provided so much aesthetic pleasure to the spectator. Games have become longer due to commercial “breaks” and time-outs imposed by the networks.(An observor noted recently that in one football game the last two minutes of official play consumed a half-hour of television time.) (3) Rule changes are often motivated solely by the entertainment value and the higher television ratings which will result. The 100-year-old scoring system of tennis, for example, was changed to a less desirable form so that tournament matches could be completed within the narrow time slots of week-end programming.(4) “Media hype” is changing the perceptions of the fans from one of reflection to one of heightened expectancy. Ultimately, From Ritual to Record will be useful for its success in establishing the ancient mythic origins of modern sports and restating in concise form the many theories regarding the essential relationship between sports and society. The achievement is one of synthesis, the pulling together in a package most of the ideas on ancient and modern sports that have been advanced by creative thinkers and researchers over the past 50 years. Guttmann’s strategy is to set up a number of dichotomies—Marxism vs. Freedom, Co-operation vs. Competition, Individual Sports vs. Team Sports, Play vs. Games, Primitivism vs. Civilization, Repression vs. Aggression—and then establish an “on the other hand” Golden Mean. Although this emphasis on balance and sanity is aesthetically satisfying, it does not actually characterize the drift of sports in the real world. But that is a subject for another book. Perhaps one day Alan Guttmann will transcend his preoccupation with data, studies, tests, and other forms of empirical research and write a companion work to From Ritual to Record— a bold vision of modern sports.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading