The Meaning Of Sports


By Michael Mandelbaum

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In The Meaning of Sports, Michael Mandelbaum, a sports fan who is also one of the nation’s preeminent foreign policy thinkers, examines America’s century-long love affair with team sports. In keeping with his reputation for writing about big ideas in an illuminating and graceful way, he shows how sports respond to deep human needs; describes the ways in which baseball, football and basketball became national institutions and how they reached their present forms; and covers the evolution of rules, the rise and fall of the most successful teams, and the historical significance of the most famous and influential figures such as Babe Ruth, Vince Lombardi, and Michael Jordan.

Whether he is writing about baseball as the agrarian game, football as similar to warfare, basketball as the embodiment of post-industrial society, or the moral havoc created by baseball’s designated hitter rule, Mandelbaum applies the full force of his learning and wit to subjects about which so many Americans care passionately: the games they played in their youth and continue to follow as adults. By offering a fresh and unconventional perspective on these games, The Meaning of Sports makes for fascinating and rewarding reading both for fans and newcomers.


PRAISE FOR The Meaning of Sports
"The Meaning of Sports is not only fascinating but enormously entertaining. A knowledgeable sports fan will learn more than a thing or two. I'm one and I did. The non-sports fan will discover just why sports are woven so tightly into the fabric of American life."—Fred Barnes, The Wall Street Journal
"[Mr. Mandelbaum writes] with clarity, in prose mercifully free of academic jargon. He explains why Americans are usually absorbed by all three sports, almost always rooting for the home teams. He examines the crucial power of our nostalgias, the ways sports help erase ethnic and religious differences, the corruptions of money and the use of performance-enhancing drugs, which form a hidden script in our scriptless dramas. In its way, Mr. Mandelbaum's book can help explain America to Americans, but it is also a subtle extension of his own expertise in foreign policy. It can help explain the United States to the rest of the oftenbaffled world."—Pete Hamill, The New York Times
"Why do we care about spoiled millionaires who happen to be good at throwing, kicking, hitting or catching balls? It is the underlying question in this fascinating, anthropological look at the three dominant American team sports: baseball, basketball and football. Known largely for his foreign-policy expertise, Mandelbaum argues that these games are, in fact, extensions of 20th-century America. Baseball conveys a nostalgic relationship to a lost agrarian past; football embodies the post World War II admiration for a force battling for turf, and basketball is the techera competition in which players can use quick thinking and agility to defeat bigger opponents. These games are us—an idea compelling to sports lovers and haters alike."—Newsweek International
"The most fun I had reading a book was with Michael Mandelbaum's The Meaning of Sports, which gave me a chance to understand something mysterious but all around me."—Daniel Pipes, The New York Sun
"Colloquial and readable... when Mandelbaum is explaining how the games men play reflect the society we live in, he is at his best."—Washington Post Book World
"A great book for educated non-fans and recent initiates to American sports to kick off with."—The Economist
"Sports fans will find this fascinating; others (you know who you are) will find a deeper appreciation and understanding of the dynamics of sports."—Dallas Morning News
"Insightful explanations for why we care so much about sweaty men (and women) playing games."—
"A sports fan who also happens to be a pre-eminent foreign policy thinker, Mandelbaum goes deep into the American psyche."—Atlanta Journal Constitution
"This is a rich and immensely subtle work of historical sociology."—The Telegraph (Calcutta)
"A . . . readable study of why Americans watch so much baseball, football, and basketball."—USA Today
"Recommended reading: The Meaning of Sports . . . has confirmed what Southerners have known innately since the single-wing: Sports is a religious experience." —Arkansas Democrat Gazette
"Whether riffing on baseball's nostalgic evocations, football's warrior ethos, or the way basketball—with its always unfolding innovations and 'network' play—mirrors post industrial worklife, Mandelbaum reveals the subconscious reasons we're drawn, moth-to-lightbulb-style, to stadiums and TV sets."
Men's Journal
"[A]n intellectual tour de force... It is a dizzying but worthwhile experience to read a book so information-rich." —St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"So that's why we sports fans are so devoted. Thank you, Michael Mandelbaum, for your dazzling and witty insight into this addictive American wonder—for giving new meaning to the games we play. I will watch my next jump shot with renewed awe."—Lynn Sherr, ABC News 20/20, author of America the Beautiful: The Stirring True Story Behind Our Nation's Favorite Song
"A marvelous piece of work. This will be of interest to the entire spectrum of our society. A true history of sport."—Bill Walsh, former coach of the San Francisco 49ers, member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame
"Michael Mandelbaum has turned his fine eye and keen intellect toward sports—and shown us why they matter."—Michael Shapiro, author of The Last Good Season: Brooklyn, the Dodgers, and Their Final Pennant Race Together
"This is a great account of how and why sports have become so popular and important in America."—Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, Super Bowl XXXVI, XXXVIII, and XXXIX Champions

The Nuclear Question: The United States and
Nuclear Weapons, 1946–1976 (1979)
The Nuclear Revolution: International Politics Before
and After Hiroshima (1981)
The Nuclear Future (1983)
Reagan and Gorbachev (Co-author, 1987)
The Fate of Nations: The Search for National Security in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (1988)
The Global Rivals (Co-author, 1988)
The Dawn of Peace in Europe (1996)
The Ideas That Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy and Free Markets in the Twenty-first Century (2002)

To Thomas L. Friedman, James Klurfeld,
Peter C. Kostant, Eugene A. Matthews, Alan Platt, and
Mark L. Wolf—sports fans;
and to Anne Mandelbaum, wife of a sports fan.

I have to admit it: I feel better when the Raiders win.

THIS BOOK has its origins in two incidents separated by three decades. One summer afternoon in 1966 my brother and I were making plans to attend a baseball game in San Francisco, to see the San Francisco Giants and their star players, Willie Mays and Willie McCovey. Also present was our maternal grandfather, who had emigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe fifty years earlier and had never to our knowledge displayed any interest in the game. We asked him, half-jokingly, "Would you like to see a ball game, Grandpa?" "No thanks," he replied, "I've already seen one."
One Monday night in 1996, I was watching a football game on television. My wife entered the room and stopped to look at the screen. Puzzled by something she saw, she asked me: "Didn't they just show that?" "Yes, they did," I responded. "They always show the play when it happens and then show it again, sometimes in slow motion. It's called instant replay." She thought for a moment and then asked, "Isn't once enough?"
These episodes illustrate two features of contemporary American society. One is that competitive team games play a significant role in the life of the nation. Millions of Americans devote considerable time, money, and emotional energy to following baseball, football, and basketball. The other is that, for many of their fellow citizens, their interest in sports defies rational explanation. Their intense preoccupation with men performing odd, combative group exercises all centered on a mere ball seems unaccountable.
The passion for sports can strike those who do not share it as distinctly eccentric, and even downright sinister. According to the writer Fran Lebowitz, "What is truly chilling is that there are a lot of smart people interested in sports. That just gives you no hope at all for the human race."1
The author Richard Reeves once observed that when American men gather, two topics of conversation tend to predominate: real estate and sports. The reason for the first is obvious—everyone has to live somewhere—but why sports? The answer to that question is the subject of this book.
The book's intended audience includes both those who, like my grandfather and my wife, find the question utterly baffling, and those, like my brother and me, for whom sports are so much a part of their lives that they would never think to ask it.a For the mystified, The Meaning of Sports is an exercise in anthropological explanation, which makes strange customs, in which they cannot imagine themselves taking part, intelligible by connecting these three games to more widely shared social patterns and human needs. For the committed, the book is like a family history. It traces the origins, the development, and the social functions of a world that, like the home into which they were born, is so familiar that they take it for granted and are unable to explain its profound appeal to them.
Why is America so interested in sports? What do these games mean to Americans? The answer that follows in the pages of this book has four parts. The first part—the first chapter—divides that large question into three closely related smaller ones. First, what human purposes are served by organized athletic competitions, which date at least from the time of the ancient Greeks? Second, what accounts for the rise, in the last decades of the nineteenth century, of organized team sports, matching two cooperating groups of players against each other, to a place of cultural prominence alongside long-established individual competitions such as boxing, wrestling, and racing? Third, why did the United States develop its own distinctive set of team sports? Baseball, football, and basketball all have roots, or parallels, in the major British team games of cricket, rugby, and soccer. When transplanted to, or reinvented in, North America these British sports took different forms. What is the significance of these differences?
The answers to these three questions apply to all three major American team sports. But these sports also differ from one another, and the next three parts of The Meaning of Sports explore and explain the differences. The questions that Chapters 2, 3, and 4 of the book address are, respectively, why baseball? why football? and why basketball?
Each of the three sports is a cultural practice, and like other cultural practices each has a social function. Each expresses part of the experience and some of the values of the wider society in which it is embedded. In particular, as the chapters describe, baseball, football, and basketball each reflects a particular era, with distinctive social and economic arrangements, through which the United States, and other Western countries, have passed: the agrarian, the industrial, and the post-industrial.
Baseball, football, and basketball are also American social institutions and, like other institutions, they have histories. Chapters 2, 3 and 4 therefore also deal with the origins and development of each sport. They chart the evolution of the rules of each game and the birth and growth of the associations—the leagues and conferences—within which competition at the highest levels takes place. These three chapters cover, as well, the most successful teams, the most important games, and the outstanding players and coaches in the history of each game. An historical overview of baseball, football, and basketball could no more exclude the New York Yankees, the Green Bay Packers, and the Boston Celtics, or Babe Ruth, Red Grange, and Michael Jordan, than a history of Hollywood could omit Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, and Marlon Brando.
A few years after Elvis Presley died someone observed that the accumulation of memorabilia, legend, and rumor about him—the Elvis industry—was like the universe itself: vast, unknowable, and expanding. So it is with the literature of team sports. Where does The Meaning of Sports fit into this literature? Most of the immense outpouring of writing about sports, much of it printed in the pages of daily newspapers, concerns the teams, the players, and the games. For these voluminous accounts this book provides a cultural and historical context.
A smaller part of the literature of sports is polemical in purpose, with two subjects in particular commanding special attention. One stems from the uniquely American relationship between major team sports and institutions of higher education. Universities in the United States, although not in other countries, play host to teams that perform at a high level of skill and attract huge audiences for their games. To qualify to play on one of these teams an athlete must enroll in the university. Whether this is a match made in heaven, enlivening campus life and providing otherwise unavailable opportunities for education to poor, deserving, athletically gifted youngsters, or, on the other hand, an unholy alliance that, because the ethos and the commercial orientation of major sports are at odds with the purposes of the university, has a corrupting effect on institutions of higher education, is a fiercely contested issue. The Meaning of Sports embraces neither position wholeheartedly but does explain the circumstances—especially the national popularity of collegiate sports—that give rise to the issue.
The second of the regularly debated topics concerns the comparative merits of teams and individual players. Sports are inherently comparative. The purpose of a game is, after all, to compare the performances of the opposing teams. So it is natural to make comparisons between individual players and between teams across time. It is natural to ask whether Barry Bonds, a star of the early twenty-first century, is the equal as a baseball player to the great Babe Ruth, the prime of whose career came in the 1920s, or whether the Green Bay Packers football teams of the 1960s could have defeated the San Francisco 49ers of the 1980s.
Because there are no agreed-upon standards for judgment there can be no final answer to such questions, which means that discussions of this kind are destined to be what the Dutch historian Pieter Geyl said the writing of history necessarily is: "an argument without end."2 The Meaning of Sports does not concentrate on these ongoing controversies, the subjects of innumerable conversations over the years, although the book does explain why individual comparisons are more common and more important for baseball than for football or basketball.
One other set of contributions to the literature of sports sees them through the eyes of the athletes themselves, telling what it is like to play the game. This book, by contrast, concerns what it is like to witness the game being played. The chapters that follow adopt the perspective that the military historian brings to war, surveying the broad patterns and investigating the origins and consequences of the clashes that are his or her subject.
This book's concerns are less the experience of the man in the arena than those of the person in the seats, the person who regularly travels long distances, pays substantial sums of money, and endures inclement weather to watch a game of baseball, football, and basketball in person, and who also devotes hundreds of hours each year to sitting in his or her home watching broadcasts of such games on television. The Meaning of Sports tells why so many Americans watch these games, and what they see when they do.

A Variety of Religious Experience
We sell fun. We sell the answer to "What do you want to do tonight?"
MARK CUBAN, Owner, Dallas Mavericks basketball team1


Baseball, football, and basketball loom large in American life. The annual professional football championship game, the Super Bowl, regularly attracts the largest television audience of the year: As many as half of all Americans tune in to watch it.2 The attention that team sports command is not only broad, it is also intense. A Web site for loyal supporters of the perennially unsuccessful Chicago Cubs baseball team called CubsAnonymous offers a 12-step program for curing an addiction to the team.3 Why are these sports so important? Why do people invest so much of their time, money,4 and emotional energy in following them? Why do team sports mean so much to Americans, and what is it that they mean?
One way to begin to answer these questions is to note that baseball, basketball, and football are distinctly modern creations. It is the modern era of world history, the era created by the vast political changes inspired by the French Revolution and the even more sweeping alterations triggered by the industrial revolution, that made them possible.
An essential feature of modern life, and a prerequisite for the rise of team sports, is longer childhoods. For almost all of human history, children joined the workforce as soon as they were physically able to do so. Only in the nineteenth century did the period between birth and work stretch beyond a few years. In the time that became available to them, children learned, among many other things, to play baseball, football, and basketball. Often they associated childhood—for many people the happiest, most carefree years of their lives—with the games they played then. This nostalgia for childhood often sustained their interest in these games into their adult lives. Watching others play these games became a way of recapturing their own past.
Beginning in the nineteenth century, a great part of American childhoods came to be spent in another modern innovation—public school. The industrial revolution created a world in which the skills needed for productive work could no longer all be acquired within the family or in guilds. School provided the setting not only in which skills were learned but also in which games were organized. The majority of the spaces for baseball, football, and basketball, including many of the largest ones, belong to institutions of education. The association between sports and school began in the private English academies that trained the leaders of English society and the British empire. From them sports spread to institutions open to all children, first in Britain and then in North America.5
One of the most striking nineteenth-century developments in America was the growth of cities, which were also crucial to the rise of team sports. By bringing large numbers of people together in one place, cities created the pools from which both players and spectators could be drawn. In the twentieth century baseball, football, and basketball became commercially viable enterprises that filled large arenas with paying spectators. These spectators live mainly in cities and their suburbs.
The industrial revolution brought to the United States and to the world modern methods of transportation, and on these, too, the emergence of team sports depended. Beginning with the railroad, the revolution in transportation had the same effect on sports as on American business: It provided both with the means to become national in scope. Teams from one section of the country could travel to compete in other regions. Local rail transport, including urban subways, also made it easier for spectators to travel to games in their home areas. Baseball teams in the early part of the century built their arenas on street car lines. In Brooklyn, the need to avoid these cars while walking to the games gave the local team its name: the Dodgers.
Dramatically increased mobility led to the need for uniform standards. Just as customers in New York expected the same quality of automobile as those in Texas or California, so baseball games played in New York had to have the same format as baseball in Texas.
While team sports could not have come into existence without the sweeping changes that the modern age produced, the meaning of sports, the source of their powerful grip on the imaginations of Americans, has deeper roots. These games respond to human needs that can be traced back to the earliest human communities, needs to which the dominant responses for most of human history came from organized religion .6 Sports and organized religion share several important features. Both address the needs of the spirit7 and the psyche rather than those of the flesh. Neither bears directly on what is necessary for physical survival: food and shelter. Both stand outside the working world.8 And team sports provide three satisfactions of life to twenty-first-century Americans that, before the modern age, only religion offered: a welcome diversion from the routines of daily life; a model of coherence and clarity; and heroic examples to admire and emulate.


The word sport is related to "disport"—to divert oneself. Baseball, football, and basketball divert spectators from the burdens of normal existence. They are modern forms of entertainment. Once virtually all of the diversion available to human beings came from organized religion. The writings that people read were religious, painting and sculpture had religious themes, and it was from religion that music drew its inspiration. The great buildings were churches, the great spectacles religious ceremonies. The days set aside for temporary escape from the daily routine had religious origins and religious significance.
The need for diversion became, if anything, more acute in the modern era. More people came to have more time to fill and in the confusions and traumas of a world of large cities and world wars they encountered new and different troubles from which to be diverted. Along with religion (and sometimes as part of religion), human beings have sought diversion in staged drama. Baseball, football, and basketball possess the defining property of drama, which is tension and release—that is, uncertainty ultimately relieved by a definitive conclusion. The prominence of the word "play" in team sports reveals their affinity with drama, the oldest form of which is, in English, the play, and the participants in which—the actors—are by tradition, like participants in games, called players.
Team sports offer a particularly compelling form of drama. The outcome of a game, unlike that of a scripted drama, is unknown. Few people watch the same play or motion picture repeatedly because after they have seen it once they know the ending. The tension is gone. But tension suffuses each and every game of baseball, football, and basketball. Moreover, in organized sports the tension carries beyond each individual game and tends to increase over time. Each game is part of a designated sequence—a season—the goal of which is to produce a champion. Both individual games and the season as a whole attract interest and attention. Spectators follow the first to find out which of the two contesting teams will win, and the second to learn which one will emerge as the ultimate champion. Suspense mounts because, as the end of the season approaches, games tend to become more important to the determination of the champion.
In this way baseball, football, and basketball resemble the oldest of literary forms, the epic. Like the greatest of them, the Odyssey, the protagonist—in the case of sports, the team—encounters a series of challenges that it must meet to achieve its ultimate goal.
Baseball, football, and basketball are powerfully attractive forms of entertainment because of another feature: coherence. It is easy to underestimate the importance in human affairs of coherence, which is the property of making sense, of hanging together. Coherence is not necessary to sustain life, as are food and shelter. It is not a cause for which people have fought and died, like liberty. But it is evidently a basic human need. All cultures have methods for making life intelligible to those who are living it.b For most of history this was a manageable task. In the premodern—traditional—world, life was, for most people, simple and predictable. It closely resembled the one their forbears had led. It contained little variety. A person lived his or her entire life in the same place, interacted with the same narrow circle, worked in an easily learned way—almost invariably in agriculture—and died at what by modern standards qualifies as an early age. The answers to the questions to which this simple pattern gave rise—what comes before and after life, and how should it be lived?—were supplied by religious teachings.
The industrial revolution changed all that. Human existence became far less routinized and predictable. People began to move about, change jobs, encounter others with whom they had not grown up, and find themselves in unfamiliar circumstances. Life for the average person became much more confusing. Indeed, almost the only thing about which a person could be certain was that his or her life would not duplicate the one his or her parents had led.
At the same time, powerful forces such as wars, revolutions, and convulsive swings in economic activity affected people's lives even more than they had in the past. Human beings found themselves at the mercy of social and political hurricanes that had not been predicted and that they could not understand, control, or escape. The modern era has been a time of disorientation, in which religion could not account for the vicissitudes of life as it once had.
Nor did art, traditionally an alternative, or at least supplementary, source of coherence, offer what was needed. The modern age brought incoherence to the traditional forms of artistic expression. The twentieth century was the era of free verse in poetry, stream-of-consciousness writing in literature, atonal music in place of traditional harmony and melody, and abstract rather than figurative art. James Joyce succeeded Charles Dickens, Jackson Pollack filled the place Rembrandt had occupied. The highest value of a work of art came to be regarded as originality; but what was original was also often obscure. For most people modernity in art served to mirror, even to compound, rather than to clarify, the confusion rampant in the world.


On Sale
May 11, 2005
Page Count
384 pages

Michael Mandelbaum

About the Author

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor of American Foreign Policy; Director of the American Foreign Policy Program at Johns Hopkins, SAIS. He is a former faculty member at Harvard University, Columbia University and the U.S. Naval Academy; his Ph.D. in political science came from Harvard University.

Learn more about this author