My wife thinks that football is a stupid waste of time and that I take it too seriously. As I write this, there is a war being fought over football in our house. There are Pac-12 fans all across the country who will not be able to watch our game tomorrow against the San Diego State Aztecs. You may be one of them. I may be one of them. But the reason that you will not be able to watch the game, if you cannot watch the game, likely has to do with your television provider not carrying the game. Our household is served by Comcast and we live in city of Denver, just south of the University of Colorado-Boulder, which we brought into the Pac-12 fold primarily so that the Pac-12 network would have access to the television market in which I live. Comcast provides my internet service and Comcast provides our telephone landline. Up until last spring, Comcast also provided our television feed, but, since we only watch three television shows last year, all of which we could stream less expensively over the internet from another content provider, we cut the cable off months ago. I had assumed that we would turn it back on when college football began. My wife, apparently, assumed otherwise. You may not get to watch the game for a host of reasons. All it would take for me to watch the game tomorrow is to pick up that landline, call Comcast, and ask whomever answered to flip a switch that would let the goodness that is Husky Football flow through the cable that is already plugged into the back of my television, but I can only do that if, and when, I can convince my wife that football is important, and she does not think that it is, and I am losing hope that I will ever be able to convince her.
Sport is older history, and there are many reasons why humans engage in sports, whether that engagement comes from playing them directly or watching them indirectly. We are passionate creatures who are given to great emotion and sport satisfies a need that exists within us. Our ancestors knew this, and, while some people would point to sport and tell those of us who love it to look within ourselves at our "barbarity" and put it behind us with all else that is primitive, I would and do argue that the human passion for sport may be primal, but it is primal in the way that lust and hunger and primal. We can no more condemn love or lunch than we can condemn sport, which can bring about in those who play and watch it that which is fine and noble even more often than it brings out that which is base.
The human race has known of the value of sport for millennia, and sport has been played all over the world by almost all of its known cultures. It is important to note that ball games did not originate in one corner of the world and spread as a cultural meme. Sport arose independently, all over the world, suggesting the human need to play. The sport of football that we know and love in this country evolved from ancient sports that spawned the football known in the rest of the world that we Americans call soccer. But there was another ball sport that evolved independently in the Americans while football evolved in Europe that historians refer to as the Mesoamerican ballgame, which was played, under different names and various rules, by the many different cultures who lived in Central America.
Despite the claims of some researchers that the ball game had an Egyptian, Chinese, or even a Greco-Roman heritage, the ancient Mesoamericans invented the game, for they alone had learned the secret of producing a bouncing ball from the juices of the rubber tree unique to the Americas. This New World discovery was to transform the Old World — where people still made balls of leather, cloth, wood, or other inert material — and lay the foundations for many sports today. (Crowther 161)
Evidence for the game's ancient roots are found in the archaeological record. Art that dates to 1500 BC depicts the rulers of the Olmecs, the first culture known to use rubber, dressed as ballplayers. The oldest balls that were used to play the game date back to 1600 BC. These balls that were between four and twelve inches in diameter weighed as much as seven to nine pounds, and they were used on on stone ball courts that were common across the various Mesoamerican cultures and changed little over 2700 years. These courts were long and high alleys with stone walls and a stone floor against and off of which the rubber balls could bounce, and the courts were flanked with stands from which spectators could enjoy the action. More than 1500 of these ball courts have been found and identified by archaeologists, who agree that many more remain to be found. The largest known ball court, located at the Mayan city of Chichén Itzá, is 160 yards long.
The Mesoamericans generally constructed I-shaped ball courts with two end zones. They built them of stone and plaster, which they whitewashed or painted in bright colors and adorned with artwork. Courts erected before 99 C.E. usually have low and sloping sides; later courts have dramatic vertical walls, as at Chichén Itzá. By 800 C.E., the two long sidewalls held stone rings, or hoops, at the center of the court that were placed vertically, not horizontally as in modern basketball. Because the rings varied in size, we may assume that balls were not of standard dimensions, as extant examples have shown. Spectators had ample accommodation, with modern-style comfortable box seats, or "bleachers." (Crowther 62-163)
Historians believe that the games were all slightly different in how they were played, just as the games themselves would have had different cultural meanings for each different society that adopted and adapted the game. The most noted example of the ballgame was the version called ullamalitzli that was played by the Aztecs. The Spaniards who came to what is now Mexico to conquer that place not only saw the game played there, Hernán Cortés was so impressed with the game that he sent Aztec exhibition teams back to Spain to play it there. The Europeans were not only taken with their athleticism, they were taken by the bouncing rubber ball, thought at first by some to be magic, which would come, as we well know, to revolutionize sport as we know it.
The premise of the game was to keep the ball airborne without using hands and feet.
The game was a public ceremony with ancient roots that combined ritual, sport, and entertainment. The ballgame was played with a hard rubber ball on a large I-shaped court. Carved stone rings were mounted vertically in the center of the walls, often at the top of a sloping ramp. Players could only hit the ball with hips or knees, and wore protective suits of deerskin. If a player hit the ball through a ring, his team won the game. Goals were rare occurrences, however, and most games were probably won and lost on points gained for various maneuvers and skills. Sometimes the game was played between teams of players; at other times, individuals faced off against each other. (Smith 238)
The rules of the game were different depending on the region where and period during which they were played, just as the rules of the games we know have evolved and changed. So it was with the cultural significance of the games that were played. The games were occasions for gambling, and we have historical reports that wagers could be a pittance or fortune. People might gamble away their homes or even themselves into slavery. The games were often played in conjunction with religious ceremonies and on what we would call religious holidays, and it is tough to tell if the ceremonies that surrounded the games were because of the games themselves or if the ceremonies were performed because of the holidays on which the games were incidentally played. Many of the cultures who played variations of the Mesoamerican also practiced human sacrifice. There are reports of people being sacrificed before games were played, just as it is also believed that, in some cases, the losers would be put to death. But this may not have been as barbaric as it sounds.
Among the Toltecs and the late Maya, ballgames involving human sacrifice were played as a form of jousting and a substitute for armed conflict. The popularity of such games persisted under the Aztecs. Divination may also have been strongly featured in the outcome of such games, as it was in Classic Maya centers where ballgames were held during rites of passage. Waged with limiting game-like rules between equals or antagonists with equal rights, warfare in many earlier societies was conducted according to a way of thought that was deeply concerned with fate, chance, judgment, and contest as different expressions of the sacred. Flower wars may be seen as a type of mock-war with a still unknown past in Mesoamerica, that continued to be practiced intermittently within the larger pattern of Aztec warfare. (Townsend 218)
We have reason to believe that these games may have sometimes been played to tone down barbarity rather than to exacerbate it. Kings who played each other and sometimes wagered their treasuries, but sometimes they wagered their very kingdoms, which makes the regional rivalries that we engage in seem trivial. The games were thought of in religious terms as symbolizing death and rebirth, a key idea in all major religions, and an idea that all of us who follow sport can understand. One game is played so that another may begin, just as it is with seasons, a word that we take from something larger than football itself.
Sport celebrates a cycle. It always has in human civilization. To think that sport is not important or that it is something that we can or should separate from the human condition is an attitude that does not just trivialize sport, it trivializes what it means to be human. To those who would allege that sports are barbaric and uncivilized rites, we might counter that sports make us civilized. Sports are fundamental to who we are, and if someone tells you otherwise, tell that philistine to be thankful that we don't sacrifice nonbelievers during the pre-game show like the Aztecs might have done.
Crowther, Nigel B. Sport In Ancient Times. Westport: Praeger, 2007.
Smith, Michael E. The Aztecs. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.
Townsend, Richard F. The Aztecs. London: Thames and Hudson, 2009.