Sport & Play
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Sport and Play

Updated 25 January 2006

"...hero-worship is the national disease that does most to keep the grandstands full and the playgrounds empty."


This essay was originally published in Civilization in the United States: An Inquiry by Thirty Americans, edited by Harold E. Stearns, in 1922 (Harcourt, Brace and Company).

artlett does not tell us who pulled the one about all work and no play, but it probably was the man who said that the longest way round was the shortest way home. There is as much sense in one remark as in the other.

Give me an even start with George M. Cohan, who lives in Great Neck, where I also live, without his suspecting it--give us an even start in the Pennsylvania Station and route me on a Long Island train through Flushing and Bayside while he travels via San Francisco and Yokohama, and I shall undertake to beat him home, even in a blizzard. So much for "the longest way round." Now for the other. If it were your ambition to spend an evening with a dull boy, whom would you choose, H.G. Wells, whose output indicates that he doesn't even take time off to sleep, or the man that closes his desk at two o'clock every afternoon and goes to the ball-game?

You may argue that watching ball-games is not play.  It is the American idea of play, which amounts to the same thing, and seventy-five per cent. of the three hundred thousand citizens who do it daily, in season, will tell you seriously that is all the recreation they get; moreover, that deprived of it, their brain would crack under the strain of "business," that, on account of it, they are able to do more work in the forenoon, and do it better, than would be possible in two or three full days of close sticking on the job. If you believe them, inveterate baseball fans can, in a single morning, dictate as many as four or five twenty-word letters to customers or salesmen, and finish as fresh as a daisy; whereas the non-fan, the grind, is logy and torpid by the time he reaches the second "in reply to same."

But if you won't concede, in the face of the fans' own statement, that it is recreation to look on at baseball or any other sport, then let me ask you to invite to your home some evening, not a mere spectator, but an active participant in any of our popular games--say a champion or near-champion golfer, or a first string pitcher on a big league baseball club. The golfer, let us say, sells insurance half the year and golfs the rest. The pitcher plays eight months of the year and loafs the other four. Bar conversation about their specialty and you won't find two duller boys than those outside the motion-picture studios.

...you won't find two duller boys than those outside the motion-picture studios

No, brothers, the bright minds of this or any other country are owned by the men who leave off work only to eat or go to bed. The doodles are the boys who divide their time fifty-fifty between work and play, or who play all the time and don't even pretend to work. Proper exercise undoubtedly promotes good health, but the theory that good health and an active brain are inseparable can be shot full of holes by the mention of two names--Stanislaus Zbyzsk and Robert Louis Stevenson.

It is silly, then, to propound that sport is of mental benefit. Its true,. basic function is the cultivation of bodily vigour, with a view to longevity. And longevity, despite the fact that we profess belief in a post-mortem existence that makes this one look sick, is a thing we poignantly desire. Bonehead and wise guy, believer and sceptic--all of us want to postpone as long as possible the promised joy-ride to the Great Beyond. If to participate in sport helps us to do that, then there is good reason to participate in sport.

Well, how many "grown-ups" (normal human beings of twenty-two and under need not be considered; they get all the exercise they require, and then some) in this country, a country that boasts champions in nearly every branch of athletics, derive from play the physical benefit there is in it? What percentage take an active part in what the sporting editors call "the five major sports"--baseball, football, boxing, horse racing, and golf? Let us take them one by one and figure it out, beginning with "the national pastime."

Baseball. Twenty or twenty-one play. Three hundred to forty thousand look on. The latter are, for two hours, "out in the open air," and this, when the air is not so open as to give them pneumonia and when they don't catch something as bad or worse in the street-car or subway train that takes them and brings them back, is a physical benefit. Moreover, the habitual attendant at ball-games is not likely to die of brain fever. But otherwise, the only ones whose health is appreciably promoted are the twenty or twenty-one who play. And they are not doing it for their health.

Football. Thirty play. Thirty thousand look on. One or two of the thirty may be killed or suffer a broken bone, but the general health of the other twenty-nine or twenty-eight is improved by the exercise. As for the thirty thousand, all they get is the open air--usually a little too much of it--and, unless they are hardened to the present-day cheer-leader, a slight feeling of nausea.

Boxing. Eight to ten play. Five thousand to sixty thousand look on. Those of the participants who are masters of defence may profit physically by the training, though the rigorous methods sometimes employed to make an unnatural weight are certainly inimical to health. The ones not expert in defensive boxing, the ones who succeed in the game through their ability to "take punishment" (a trait that usually goes with a low mentality) die, as a rule, before reaching old age, as a result of the "gameness" that made them "successful." There is a limit to the number of punches on can "take" and retain one's health. The five or sixty thousand cannot boast that they even get the air. All but a few of the shows are given indoors, in an atmosphere as fresh and clean as that of the Gopher Prairie day-coach.

Horse Racing. Fifty horses and twenty-five jockeys play. Ten thousand people look on. I can't speak for the horses, but if a jockey wants to remain a jockey, he must, as a rule, eat a great deal less than his little stomach craves, and I don't know of any doctor who prescribes constant underfeeding as conducive to good health in a growing boy.

Racing fans, of course, are out for financial, not physical, gain. They, like the jockeys, are likely to starve to death while still young.

Golf. Here is a pastime in which the players far outnumber the lookers-on. It is a game, if it is a game, that not only takes you out in the open air, but makes you walk, and walking, the doctors say, is all the exercise you need, if you walk five miles or more a day. Golf, then, is really beneficial, and it costs you about $25.00 a week the year round.

So much for our "five major sports." We look on at four of them, and if we can support the family, and pay taxes and insurance, on $1250 a year less than we earn, we take part in the fifth.

The minor sports, as the editor will tell you, are tennis, boating, polo, track athletics, trap-shooting, archery, hockey, soccer, and so on. Not to mention games like poker, bridge, bowling, billiards, and pool (now officially known as "pocket billiards" because the Ladies' Guild thought "pool" must have something to do with betting), which we may dismiss as being of doubtful physical benefit, since they are all played indoors and in a fog of Camel smoke.

Of the outdoor "minors," tennis is unquestionably the most popular. And it is one whale of a game--if you can stand it. But what percentage of grown-ups play it? I have no statistics at hand, and must guess. The number of adult persons with whom I am acquainted, intimately or casually, is possibly two thousand. I can think of ten who play as many as five sets of tennis a year.

How many of the two thousand play polo or have ever played polo? One. How many are trap-shooters? Two. How many have boats? Six or seven. How many run footraces or jump? None. How many are archers? None. How many play hockey, soccer, la crosse? None.

If I felt like indulging in a game of cricket, which God forbid, whom should I call up and invite to join me?

Now, how many of my two thousand acquaintances are occasional or habitual spectators at baseball games, football games, boxing matches, or horse races? All but three or four. The people I know (I do not include ball-players, boxers, and wrestlers, who make their living from sport) are average people; they are the people you know. And the overwhelming majority of them don't play.

Why not? If regular participation in a more or less interesting outdoor game is going to lengthen our lives, why don't we participate? Is it because we haven't time? It takes just as much time to look on, and we do that. Is it because we can't afford it? We can play tennis for as little as it costs to go to the ball-game and infinitely less than it costs to go to the races.

We don't play because (1) we lack imagination, and because (2) we are a nation of hero-worshippers.

When we were kids, the nurse and the minister taught us that, if we weren't good, our next stop would be hell. But, to us, there was no chance of the train's starting for seventy years. And we couldn't visualize an infernal excursion that far off. It was too vague to be scary. We kept right on swiping the old man's cigars and giggling in the choir. If they had said that misdemeanours such as those would spell death and eternal fire, not when we were old, but to-morrow, most of us would have respected father's property rights and sat through the service with a sour pan. If the family doctor were to tell us now that unless we got outdoors and exercised every afternoon this week, we should die next Tuesday before lunch, you can bet we should get outdoors and exercise every afternoon this week. But when he tells us that, without healthful outdoor sport, we shall die in 1945 instead of 1949, why, it doesn't mean anything. It's a chimera, a myth, like the next war.

...hero worship is the national disease that does most to keep the grandstands full and the playgrounds empty

But hero-worship is the national disease that does most to keep the grandstands full and the playgrounds empty. To hell with those four extra years of life, if they are going to cut in on our afternoon at the Polo Grounds, where in blissful asininity, we may feast our eyes on the swarthy Champion of Swat, shouting now and then in an excess of anile idolatry, "Come on, you Babe. Come on, You Baby Doll!" And if an hour of tennis is going to make us late at the Garden, perhaps keep us out of our ringside seats, so close to Dempsey's corner that (O bounteous God!) a drop of the divine perspiration may splash our undeserving snout--Hang up, liver! You're on a busy wire!

Ring W. Lardner

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