In his book Class, Paul Fussell suggests, as a rule of thumb, that the bigger the ball used, the lower the sport’s prestige, or at least the likelihood of finding it among the the rich. This is obviously an oversimplification, but it does seem you can separate small golf, polo, and tennis balls from large footballs, basketballs, and bowling balls. Baseballs and ping-pong balls don’t seem to fit this formula very well, though.
At any rate, one now thinks of a caricatured football fan as a beerbellied proletarian slumped in front of the TV, or who paints his face and chest for a live game, intending, while in the stands, to expose the latter to an unfortunate and undeserving public. But if you think about it, American football got its start in the rarified milieu of universities in the 19th century. Given how few people went to college in those days, you can imagine that back then football was a rich man’s game, much like polo today. Few people had any association with a college or university, and hence little motivation to attend games or root for teams. The actual attendees were students and alumni, at that time more or less co-extensive with the upper social classes. Football has become greatly popularized since then, but has lost its aristocratic roots.
So what I’m interested in are examples of sports changing in social status over the years–and especially any sports that have gone the other way. Hunting might be an example of that, having started out as a survival skill in the very remote past, and now requiring extensive gear and travel to engage in now (requiring travel and expensive gear is another hallmark of ‘aristocratic’ sports, according to Fussell).
Well, let’s get the discussion started at least. I can offer up a little information on the origins of several sports.
One thing to consider is that for games with a long history, at one time only the wealthy class had the leisure time to participate in sports and hone their sporting skills.
So let’s see, here:
Tennis – my understanding is that tennis descended from a kind of handball game played in French monasteries. Subsequently, tennis’s popularity spread among the royal courts of France and England.
Bowling – the idea of knocking over objects with a ball or stone is thought to be quite ancient. A little Googling suggests that related games like lawn bowling and bocce have been played for centuries by all classes of society.
Basketball – A sport with relatively recent origins (1891) that became a common-folk pastime very early on.
Baseball – Traceable back to the “stool ball” of the 11th century. Seems that both commoners and gentry participated throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance in both England and France.
Polo – Seems to have had varied participation depending on what part of the world one was in. Central Asian nomads of all classes played the game in the 400s-500s A.D. For these people, horse ownership was a way of life, and not a luxury.
I’m interested, and a huge fan of Fussell, but I don’t know enough about sports to make much of a contribution.
I imagine geography would play a role in whether a sport is considered aristocratic or plebian. For example, playing hockey in Texas requires much more time and effort than playing it in Canada, and you would have to live somewhere that could support a rink.
You’ll have to expand on why you think hunting is now an aristocratic endeavor. All of the hunters that I know (and used to hunt with) were the least unaristocratic people I’ve ever known (and were likely to shoot you if they ever figured out what “aristocratic” meant).
I think he means fox hunting, or big game hunting (think African Safari)–hunting purely for sport, rather than getting a bunch of meat. We’ve had hunting since we became hunter-gatherers. It might be interesting to examine why any part of it became at all aristocratic, actually…
Swordfighting (or other melee-weapon fightnig). Used to be, anybody who was in the military got to learn how to use a sword, or an axe, or a polearm, or whatever kind of weapon the local armies preferred. Along came the rifle and the idea of waiting until you were within arm’s reach of your opponent to attack him didn’t look so much fun, so suddenly the only class of people getting any kind of serious melee weapon training were the comfortably well-off, and it had become a sport. Same sort of thing happened to the bow, I would wager.
I can speak to this, because I remember the section in Class fairly well. Hunting, according to Fussell, is proletarian, but what he terms “high prole”, a term he uses to denote successful tradesmen, contractors, and such. These people may do very well financially and make more money than some of the middle class; they need these resources to indulge in hunting because the sport entails considerable expenditures. You need expensive equipment, and you generally have to travel some distance, which also costs money. In this regard hunting is a bit like skiing.
Of course, I have to take much of what he says with a grain of salt; the opinions expressed in the book, which was published in 1983 are somewhat outdated, and they are very Northeastern-US centric.
Modern baseball seems to have attracted the same audience since its inception. In 1890, the average Brooklynite probably didn’t care about the football escapades of dear old Columbia or Yale, but I imagine that the Dodgers were followed with some zeal.
I think the original amateur baseball leagues of the 19 Century were fairly upper-class (although baseball was played by lower classes too.) However, after professional leagues were formed, according to my reading baseball became much more of an attraction for common folk.
Over the past 40 years ago, however, baseball’s status has risen quite a bit. While not exactly aristocratic, it is now a topic that the likes of George Will and Stephen Jay Gould have found fit to pontificate on.
Fox-hunting would require horses and, which would make the practice aristocratic.
I’d be interested to see what Fussel makes of Asian martial arts like karate or tae kwon do. On the one hand, they require learning a lot of foreign terminology and buying special equipment, but on the other, you see dojos all over and some of the most visible participants are kids.
Well there is an old saying that Cricket is a game played by thugs pretending to be gentlemen, whilst rugby is played by gentelmen pretending to be thugs.
Tennis of course came from the very upper class game of real tennis.
Baseball was for a long time a child’s game, but the modern game (played by 9 players on a 90 foot square diamond) was standardized, codified, and played and by lawyers, executives and other similarly professional folks in New York. It was very much a “gentleman’s game”. Not exactly aristrocratic, but played by people with enough money to have time to play a game for a few hours on the weekends.