The Playing Field as Battlefield

The CIA & me & other adventures in American sports.

Photo Courtesy of US Army

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[This essay appears in “Sports & Games,” the Summer 2010 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly and is posted at with the kind permission of that magazine.]

“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.

Both my father and my grandfather taught the lesson on the golf course and at the card table. Golf they construed as a trying of the spirit and a searching of the soul. Scornful of what they called “the card-and-pencil point of view,” they looked askance at adding up the mundane trifle of a paltry score.

How one plays the game was more to the point than whether the game is won or lost. Play the shot and accept the consequences, play the shot and know thyself for a bragging scoundrel or a Christian gentleman. So fundamental was my grandfather’s disdain for mere numbers that, at the bridge table, he deemed it ungentlemanly to look at his cards before announcing a bid. The sporting gesture sometimes presented the obstacle of recruiting a partner on the premises of San Francisco’s Pacific Union Club, but it never failed to win him a game played for what he regarded as a truly sporting stake.

The approach was not without its antecedent. Alexander mentions a British officer on the Western Front in World War I bounding over the top of a trench with a soccer ball, gallantly kicking it into the face of the enemy before dying in a scrum of machine-gun bullets. Sportsmanship to the manner born, in line with Alexander’s further reference to an interview conducted by a British sergeant in 1914 with a seventeen-year-old recruit:

“Where were you at school?”

“Eton, sir.”

“In the Corps?”

“Yes sir, Sergeant.”

“Play any games? Cricket?”

I’d gladly read the Q and A as comedy contrived by Monty Python if it didn’t so closely resemble my own encounter in the autumn of 1957 with the admissions officers at the CIA. Prepared for the doing of high deeds in Hungary and the boarding of a night train from Berlin, I had spent the days prior to the interview studying the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the map coordinates of the Fulda Gap, the routing of Lenin’s transfer to the Finland Station. None of it was relevant.

My examiners, Yale men brave and true, didn’t stoop to a concern with mere numbers. They wished to know whether I was the right sort, socially presentable and good at games. Instead of asking about the topography of central Europe, they inquired about the terrain of a golf course on eastern Long Island, the positioning of the marker buoys for a sailboat race around Nantucket, whether I played tennis on grass or clay.

The questions put an end to my interest in the CIA, but they brought to mind the distinction between Homo ludens and Homo sapiens, and that the confusing of the one with the other results in the numbering of 96,000 English dead at the first battle of the Somme. Huizinga speaks of play not as a way of the world as presented by nature, but as the imagining of a second, poetic world set apart from the world of nature. Not serious, and yet utterly serious, a thing of its own and a law unto itself. A parallel or virtual reality released on waivers from the contract with death and time.

The Playing Field as the Battlefield

Play understood as free agent, unbound by the antithesis of good and evil, recognized by the essayist Jay Griffiths as a joy that “is superfluous and therefore absolutely necessary.” About the freedom of play, the British teachers of games to the post-Civil War Americans were not wrong, but in the late innings of the nineteenth-century the lesson was lost on a generation worried about going decadent and soft in the monied comforts of the Gilded Age, losing the rough-riding frontier spirit that swept the series against the Cheyenne and the Sioux in the old Trans-Mississippi West.

Teddy Roosevelt their most vigorous champion, the jeunesse dorée in Boston and New York reconfigured the idea of sport as preparation for war. Roosevelt’s faith in the virtue of violent competition, of letting “the wolf rise in the heart,” accorded with his passionate wish for “a bit of a spar” with Germany or Spain and prompted his founding of the Boone and Crockett Club in 1887 “to promote manly sport with the rifle.”

By 1893, he was proud to say that “it has been my good luck to kill every kind of game properly belonging to the United States.” Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Roosevelt’s lifelong friend and in 1898 an equally fond promoter of a shooting match in Cuba and the Philippines, regarded the injuries suffered in college athletic contests (by Harvard men brave and true) as a price that “the English-speaking race has paid for being world conquerors.” Not how one played the game, but the winning of it no matter what the cost.

The growth and development of the American sporting scene during the first half of the twentieth century borrowed moves from two playbooks, Roosevelt’s and Queen Victoria’s—the freedom of spirit embodied in the figure of the amateur sportsman, the readiness for war in that of the professional athlete. To draw the distinction between the avocation and the occupation, Eric Nesterenko describes his years playing hockey, first as a boy and then as a man (for the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Chicago Blackhawks) as the playing of two different games. When he was four or five, he said, “We never had any gear… All our games were pickup, a never-ending game… Nobody would keep score.” He goes on to say that the selling of play for money makes it hard for pure play, “for play as an art,” to exist. “It’s corrupted, it’s made harder, perhaps it’s brutalized, but it’s still there.”

Certainly it’s still there in the provinces of amateur sport, whether on a schoolyard jungle gym, a country-club golf course, a college-basketball court, or a suburban bowling alley. The actors in the theaters of professional sport haven’t been as fortunate.

During the second half of the twentieth century, in conjunction with the rising of an American world empire and the expansionist policies of network television, the manufacture and sale of sports events has blossomed into a gargantuan enterprise serving the nation as both fountain of youth and river of gold. The stats account for $238 billion in annual revenue, from ticket sales, operating expenses, endorsements, media and broadcast rights, travel and professional services, publications, apparel, gambling, advertising, sponsorship, facility construction, and licensed merchandise.

The proceeds outpoint those posted by the food, communications, auto, and entertainment industries. Fatten the pot with the antes chipped in by parties unlisted on the official program (casino and online gambling, video games, billiard parlors, body-building gyms), and the numbers move up the leader board into the final threesome with the weapons and the drug trades.

A happy return to the old Roman Colosseum, games in progress at every hour of the day and night, live and on tape, gladiatorial shows upgraded with avatars, downloaded from 1924, 1951, and 1968. The playing for playing’s sake, the stillness of an art unto itself, transposed into a feeding of the lions in the stands.

The Empire Declines, But the Box Score Is Immortal

The confusion of realms presents the industry with a problem in metaphysics. How to square the lines of profit with the circle of emotions in which we tell ourselves the story of our lives, our liberties, and pursuits of happiness. Unlike every other big business in the United States, big-time sports tread on hallowed ground. The product is entertainment, but the franchise is the democratic dream of Eden, Adam at play on the fields of the Lord before Eve handed him the marked deck and the apple juiced with amphetamine.

It isn’t simply a matter of completing the deep pass into the corner of the end zone or sinking the shot for three points at the buzzer; it’s the business of sustaining the belief that democracy still works the way the Declaration of Independence says it’s supposed to work, Jefferson’s “aristocracy of virtue and talent” still out there in uniform on the level playing field, imparting substance to the nation’s fondest memories and dearest hopes.

Like the infantry platoons that won the Hollywood version of World War II, an American team in good working order affirms the doctrine of egalitarianism, erases the distinctions between race and class, rehabilitates the principle of justice under law. The coach doesn’t start the kid at quarterback because the kid is underprivileged; the manager doesn’t insist that the dugout vote Republican.

On the far side of the left-field wall, wars bleed and children starve; men cheat, women rot, banks foreclose, politicians lie. Inside the park the world is as it was in the beginning, as green as the grass of childhood, as bright as the sky at noon with what the British novelist V.S. Pritchett regarded as “the emotion of being American… that feeling of nostalgia for some undetermined future when man will have improved himself beyond recognition and all will be well.”

The team plays to even the score with everything else gone wrong with the world. The box score is immortal; the goal posts don’t decline and fall. If the Chicago Cubs can emerge from the cellar, then maybe so can the state legislature, the board of education, and the sheriff.

The romance sells $2,500 field-box seats, luxury skyboxes priced at $12,900 a game, but as with most other forms of modern poetry, the meaning can be elusive, in need of a little help from its friends. Exceptional talent is as rare among athletes as it is among bond traders and dentists, and if in the Rose Bowl and the Sugar Bowl we don’t grow noble savages in an abundance sufficient to seed and staff the dream of America’s innocence regained, what happens to the gate receipts?

In concert with the broad technological advance occurring elsewhere in the society, the sports industry looked to its bullpen for digital and pharmaceutical enhancements. Labor passed the hat for steroids. Management multiplied the camera angles, narrowed the strike zone, sodded the diamonds and the gridirons with AstroTurf, enlarged the jumbotrons, shortened the distance to the outfield fences, strengthened the golf clubs, adjusted the rules and the clocks to allow more time for the beer and truck commercials, bulked up the salaries paid to players bulked up to resemble the designated hitters in World of Warcraft. Goliath signed to a five-year contract, David sent back to Pawtucket.

The unnatural additives produce record-breaking profit margins for teams in a league with major media, but what shows up on the field is the weight of money as opposed to the lightness of spirit that is “superfluous, and therefore absolutely necessary.” During the three-hour broadcast of an NFL football game, the ball is in play for maybe eleven minutes. The rest of the program is advertising, replays and video segments, shots of the players standing around in a huddle or gathering at the line of scrimmage, shots of coaches defending the sidelines, of celebrities decorating the mezzanine, of broadcasters in the booth generating the honeyed flows of artisanal nostalgia. NBC deploys seven production trucks, hires as many as 100 or 200 stagehands to prepare the graphic equivalent of hypodermic needles to resuscitate the dead airtime. How else is heaven made if not with artificial sweeteners?

The NFL makes the most flagrant use of the substitutions that send in the buzz to bat for the bee, but the same modus operandi controls the televised presentation of every other sport competing for market share. I don’t know how or why it could be otherwise. Tickets to the game now come at a price that most people can’t afford. The fans aren’t in the park with the afternoon sun; they’re at home with the dog, the kids, their boredom, and the remote, and what the camera gets paid to deliver is spectacle.

The American Republic on a Losing Streak

The steadily rising cost of the production values (Alex Rodriguez paid $33 million for the season, $2.8 million for a 30-second commercial in attendance at the Super Bowl) speaks to the steadily mounting fear of imminent defeat—if not for the New York Yankees or the Dallas Cowboys, then for the home-team American promise of a democratic republic, which, for the last 40 years, has been on a losing streak. The freedoms of movement and thought don’t fit the game plan of a national-security state. What is wanted is a statue of liberty, not the fooling around with it. To keep up appearances, the sports industry fields increasingly precious objects, heraldic and finely carved, that stand and serve as totem poles at the increasingly elaborate and expensive rituals designed to demonstrate the truth of a political hypothesis, prove that Uncle Sam hasn’t gone weak in the knees, that the flag is still there.

To the degree that sports and games become a product of Homo economicus as distinct from the pleasure of Homo ludens, they lose the coherence of a world set apart from nature. Not irretrievably lost, as was evident to Eric Nesterenko during his career with the Chicago Blackhawks, but “harder,” for the player if not for the fan, to rejoice in.

Roger Federer is a wonder to behold no matter how often the game is interrupted with a word from the sponsor. The same can be said of every other sport in which a brilliant performance brings joy to Mudville—the dancing on ice at last winter’s Olympics, the fooling around with a soccer ball at this summer’s World Cup—but the glory of it isn’t the winning or losing, the bombastic Rooseveltian beating of the others; it is Einstein’s equation made flesh, the unity of energy and mass seen in a movement of light.

Huizinga expresses something of the same thought. Play as the making of civilization, which becomes possible only when “an influx of mind breaks down the absolute determinism of the cosmos,” not serious and yet entirely serious, brimming with possibility and tending to become beautiful. The proposition is backed up by Norman Maclean telling the story of his encounter in 1928 with Albert Michelson in the billiard room in the University of Chicago’s Quadrangle Club.

The physicist who first took the measurement of Betelgeuse (a star 640 light years from the earth, 1,000 times the diameter of the sun), Michelson at age 75 was the best billiard player that Maclean had ever seen. One day when Michelson was returning his cue to the rack, Maclean told him so. Michelson acknowledged the beauty of the game to which Mozart was addicted, but then, rolling down his sleeves, putting on his coat, and walking toward the door, he proposed amendments, each of them after a moment of further reflection.

Yes, billiards was a good game, but not as good a game as painting, which in turn was not as good a game as music which, when one had a chance to think about it, was not as good a game as physics. Einstein derived his theory of special relativity from Michelson’s observations, and I see no reason to dispute their setting the boundaries and laying out the chalk lines on the field of dreams.

Lewis H. Lapham is editor of Lapham’s Quarterly. Formerly editor of Harper’s Magazine, he is the author of numerous books, including Money and Class in AmericaTheater of WarGag Rule, and, most recently, Pretensions to Empire. The New York Times has likened him to H.L. Mencken; Vanity Fair has suggested a strong resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared him to Montaigne. This essay introduces “Sports & Games,” the Summer 2010 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly.


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