"The space of play and the space of thought are the two theaters of freedom." —Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy
Rosenstock-Huessy was a German army officer in World War I, afterward a professor of medieval law in Breslau until the Nazis acquired the franchise in 1933. Signed for the next year’s season by Harvard University to teach undergraduates the rudiments of Western civilization, he soon noticed that few of them grasped what he was trying to say, couldn’t square the lines of thought with the circle of their emotions. To overcome the difficulties, the professor recast his lectures in the idiom of sports and games, the only world, he said, "in which the American student really has confidence…. this world encompasses all of his virtues and experiences, affections and interests."
True then, even truer now, not only of college students but of every loyal American, naturalized or native-born, for whom sport is the soul of democracy, the field of dreams on which they come to bat, cut a deal, catch a break, stay the course, run out the clock. It is with the metaphor of sport that we forge an American consciousness, locate a national identity, replay our history, book the odds on a winning or a losing future. What other sets of reference do we share in common if not the ones that hold true to form in the fourth quarter as in the first, away and at home, inside and outside the ropes?
Grilled on Sports by the CIA
One need not be American to know that sport is play and play is freedom. It’s not a secret kept from children in Tahiti or Brazil. Dogs romp, whales leap, penguins dance. That play is older than the kingdoms of the Euphrates and the Nile is a truth told by the Dutch scholar, Johan Huizinga, in Homo Ludens, his study of history that discovers in the "primeval soil of play" the origin of "the great instinctive forces of civilized life," of myth and ritual, law and order, poetry and science. "Play," he said, "cannot be denied. You can deny, if you like, nearly all abstractions: justice, beauty, truth, goodness, mind, God. You can deny seriousness, but not play."
I take him at his word, and to the best of my knowledge and recollection have done so since I was old enough to bounce a ball or spin a top. Born into the generation taking the field before World War II and raised in a family strongly Anglophile in sentiment, my idea of sport as play complied with the rules in force on the lawns of Victorian England.
Prior to the Civil War, Americans made do with horse racing, cards, boxing, cockfighting and the early experiments with baseball; from Britain during the second half of the century we imported tennis, golf, soccer, badminton, football and croquet, the arrival of the games accompanied in the early going by a sense of their proper use that the historian Caroline Alexander attributes to the social graces of the British empire. Sport as a proof of character and a play of mind, rather than a show of strength.