Friday, September 27, 2013

The Birth of Modern Sport - The Ideological Context

This is the third in a series of posts about sport. The first is "Towards a Marxist Definition of Play"; the second is "The Relationship Between Play and Sport". The birth of sport in eighteenth century Britain was, fundamentally, the result of the development of capitalism. This is the point I make in the book "Capitalism and Sport" (a link can be found on the right hand side of this page). It is also the argument advanced by Tony Collins in his book "Sport in Capitalist Society", although Tony is far more erudite and convincing in his claims than I could possibly hope to be! Very few people, however, have examined the ideological context in which the development of modern sport took place. Here I suggest that the codification of sport mirrored the development of the nation state.

           “The man that has no friend at court,/ Must make the laws confine his sport,/
            But he that has, by dint of flaws, / May make his sport confine the laws.”[1]
                                                                                       - Thomas Chatterton, poet
The seventeenth century saw enormous changes in England. Before 1640 the “structure of society was essentially feudal”[2] yet the “economic developments of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries made the economic and social and political system hopelessly out of date.”[3] It would take the forces of Cromwell and the Parliamentarians in the English Revolution to push development forward. Economically the revolution had a huge impact. The Venetian ambassador in London, writing in 1651, concluded that trade in the country had:
“made great strides for some time past, and is now improved by the protection it receives from Parliament, the government of the commonwealth and of its trade being exercised by the same individuals”.[4]
The Restoration and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 point to the continued power struggles within English society, though the “defeats and compromises of the mid-17th century did not, however, destroy the trend towards capitalist development”.[5] Instead, with the political fetters weakened, growth could begin in earnest. Output in industry grew “by an estimated 0.7 percent a year from 1710 to 1760, 1.3 percent a year between 1760 and 1780, and 2 percent from 1780 to 1800”.[6] The application of capitalist methods to farming and the enclosure of common land led to an agricultural revolution. The century before the revolution had seen wages for workers in agriculture and industry fall by half; the century after saw them double.[7]
An explosion of innovation and invention mirrored, and was underpinned by, the thriving economy. The birth of the modern nation state and its accompanying democratic institutions, on the basis of “an extremely limited and anomalous franchise”[8], were theorised by Hobbes and Locke. Science also flourished. The Royal Society was founded in 1660 and Isaac Newton’s Principia was published in 1687. The improvements in spinning machinery would ensure that the names of Hargreaves, Arkwright and Compton entered the history books. Similarly the steam engines of Newcomen and Watt would prove important landmarks in the Industrial Revolution.
For more than a century England would legitimately consider itself the centre of scientific enquiry, intellectual progress and industrial advance. Amidst this blossoming of creativity another development was to take place. It was in the eighteenth century that “[m]odern sports were born in England,” before they “spread from their birthplace to the United States, to Western Europe, and to the world beyond.”[9] At this historical juncture sports such as boxing, horseracing and cricket become codified, sports clubs spring up in newly urbanized areas and the most high profile begin to evolve into administrative bodies.[10]
Prior to the development of cricket, stick and ball games proliferated across England. Stool-ball was popular in Gloucester and Wiltshire, and the Earl of Leicester recalls a “match at stoball” during the reign of Elizabeth I.[11] A similar game, bittle-battle, was played in Sussex.[12] Derek Birley suggests cricket’s “putative ancestor is pila baculorea (usually translated as ‘club-ball), which Edward III banned in 1369 as detrimental to his war effort”.[13] Each may claim with some justification to be the progenitor of the modern game, though it is equally possible that it emerged under influence from these and others besides.
By the 1640s cricket was conspicuous by its absence from those pastimes censured at the hands of the Puritans. Despite suggestions that this was a result of Cromwell’s affection for a game he played as a child,[14] it seems more likely that a game played only at inter-parish level escaped the glare of the authorities. What is certain is that by the start of the eighteenth century the game was held in such regard as to win royal approval, with Queen Anne commenting in 1710, “Cricket is not illegal, for it is a manly game”.[15]
Through the eighteenth century the popularity of the game increased dramatically, and “[b]y 1800, cricket had been transformed”.[16] The gentry, keen to pursue sporting interests, would patronise the pugilist and the jockey, but it was on the cricket pitch that they would participate alongside their ‘inferiors’, and it was “through the involvement of great aristocrats that the game was transformed from a peasant sport into an organised, professional one.”[17] The milieu of aristocrats, merchants and parliamentarians - those erstwhile ‘Noblemen and Gentlemen’ - first produced a code for cricket in 1744. The devotees of the game who frequented the Star and Garter public house subsequently revised this in 1774. In 1787 the Marylebone Cricket Club was formed and the following year they published the Laws of Cricket. From its humble beginnings the game had garnered a “small corps of paid professional players,” and also “attracted the interests of impresarios who had begun to exploit it commercially.”[18] Very quickly the separation that marks the modern sporting world came into being, with clearly demarcated roles for bureaucrat, businessman and spectator: “More and more, the booze-merchants and professional publicists assumed the role of cricket’s middle-men mediating between the aristocrats who controlled the game and the larger pubic now willing to pay to see it.”[19] What then lies behind the codification of cricket’s rules during this period?
In comparison to the strict edicts of the Puritans, the reign of Charles II following the Restoration seemed positively licentious, but the “corridors of Whitehall resounded to quarrels as well as mirth…The main cause of this grinding of teeth was gambling.”[20] It was a craze that was to sweep through the wealthy, where a “passion for gambling was an indication of certain characteristics of the English upper classes, particularly the new town-bred sort, that came to flower in Restoration times.”[21]

As early as 1664, in an attempt to curb the activities of gamblers, an act was passed “against ‘deceitful, disorderly and excessive’ gambling…It limited stakes to £100 ‘upon tick or credit or otherwise, a generous enough amount since it exceeded the annual income of over 99 per cent of the population”.[22] Legally, gambling became the preserve of the rich, although it undoubtedly continued throughout society and by the 1720s it was clear that “[g]ambling was, increasingly, a national addiction”.[23]
Cricket and gambling made for easy bedfellows. The Foreign Post reported in 1697 how a “great match at Cricket was played in Sussex, they were eleven a side, and they played for fifty guineas apiece”.[24] The course of the eighteenth century saw an explosion in the popularity of the game whereby between “1730 and 1740, some 150 cricket matches were recorded in the contemporary press; between 1750 and 1760, 230; between 1770 and 1790, over 500”.[25] Such an increase in the popularity and reportage of the game was inevitably accompanied by a concomitant increase in the frequency of gambling. And with gambling came disputes. A match played between Rochester and London at the White Conduit Field in 1718, ended in the law courts when, according to the Saturday Post, Rochester, “thought they should be worsted and therefore to the surprise of a numerous crowd of spectators, three of their men made an elopement and got off the ground without going in…hoping thereby to save their money”.[26]
Such evidence prompts Harvey to conclude, “written rules were produced by socially influential clubs, and were an inevitable corollary of gambling”.[27] Gambling could be regulated, and disputes minimised, if the rules of cricket were standardised. There is a great weight of evidence in favour of such a theory with stipulations to cover gambling in cricket’s early rules and articles of association.[28] Similarly in boxing, three of Broughton’s rules outline what constitutes victory and one dictates how prize money is to be distributed.
However, a focus on gambling alone does not explain why codification should take place at this particular time in history. Articles of association had been in place for over fifty years, with the earliest known example appearing in 1727. One can quite reasonably assume that the presence of such contracts had both facilitated betting and maintained some sense of order in that time. There were examples of disputes whose resolution came only with the intervention of the law courts, however articles did make provision for such eventualities, which were normally to be settled by gentlemanly agreement. In the 1727 articles of agreement we find:

“if any Doubt or Dispute arises on any of the afore-md. Articles, or whatever else is not settled therein, it shall be determined by the Duke of Richmond and Mr Brodrick on their honours; by whom the Umpires are likewise to be determined by any Difference between Them.”[29]
In the absence of the socially privileged and the noblesse oblige, more popular forms of decision making were evident: “Sometimes crowds were left to ensure fair play, which they did by beating up ‘cheats’. Decisions were also made by the competitors themselves, for example many pigeon-racing disputes were resolved by a show of hands.”[30] Furthermore the codification of sports did not eradicate disputes or attempts to circumvent the laws. The MCC and Jockey Club were consistently asked to adjudicate over challenges to the results of matches.[31] Finally, even if we accept betting as the proximate trigger for codification, it does not help us understand why the response took the form it did.
The relationship between the birth of modern sport and the emergence of capitalism is, according to Guttmann, common currency amongst Marxists. Summarising their position, he says, “It was inevitable, therefore, that England, the homeland of industrial capitalism, was also the birthplace of modern sports.”[32] Certainly capitalism had a profound effect on all aspects of society. Marx commented that, “Competition has penetrated all the relationships of our life and completed the reciprocal bondage in which men now hold themselves…Competition governs the numerical advance of mankind; it likewise governs its moral advance.”[33] Increasingly economics affected cultural pursuits. In 1751 Henry Fielding argued:
“But nothing has wrought such an alteration in this order of people as the introduction of trade. This hath indeed given a new face to the whole nation, hath in a great measure subverted the former state of affairs, and hath almost totally changed the manners, customs, and habits of the people, more especially of the lower sort.”[34]
We may say with some certainty that capitalism was responsible for the creation of the social conditions in which sport could flourish. The enclosure movement found its echo in the establishment of ‘grounds’ on which matches were played. It has been suggested, “the founding of Lord’s and the MCC had at its heart the capitalist drive for enclosure, the compulsion to transform common property into private property.”[35] Simultaneously people were excluded from the game and transformed into spectators. The popularity of the sport as a spectacle was clear as early as 1743 when 10,000 people witnessed a match at the Artillery Ground in Finsbury.[36]
Yet to acknowledge sport and society as structurally analogous, or recognise that economic forces shaped the development of sport, is not the same as to demonstrate an immediate causal relationship between the beginnings of capitalism and the codification of sports. Later, as sport became a commercial entity, it would seem likely that “economic factors have had more importance”.[37] But it seems unlikely that the economic impulses of the late eighteenth century were the primary consideration behind the initial actions of such groups as the MCC and the Jockey Club.
The eighteenth century saw London assume the role of “cultural innovator”.[38] Its population “increased 50 percent between 1650 and 1750, so that it was easily the biggest city in Europe”[39] and it is estimated that “fully one sixth of England’s population had spent at least some time in London by the end of the 17th century.”[40] It is likely that the game of cricket arrived as a result of this migration, feeding into a “cultural diet of sentimental ruralism”.[41] The city experienced an explosion in clubs and societies reflecting a multitude of interests.[42] For Szymanski these forms of associativity, with their formalities and regulations, would inevitably be the locus of codification as for “rules to be established, there needs to be a law-giver, and in the case of modern sports such as cricket this Solon was inevitably a club.”[43]
The notion of associativity, with its allusions to the work of the political theorist John Locke, are suggestive of a link between the codification of sports and the development of the modern nation state which “evolved during the eighteenth and much of the nineteenth century”.[44] Surveying the form and function of the state, Stuart Hall has written:
“A ‘power’ is required which will keep the competition peaceful, within a defined system of ‘rules of the game’; but which will also pull some compromise solution together, which is likely to win the consensus of the largest number of people. The umpire is the state.”[45]
The analogy between government and governing body is profound. Locke surveyed the importance and functions of the state whilst it was still in its infancy. He compared its contemporary form with humanity’s ‘state of nature’, finding three crucial differences.[46] The first difference noted by Locke is ”an established, settled known Law, received and allowed by common consent to be the Standard of Right and Wrong, and the common measure to decide all Controversies between them”.[47] By the middle of the eighteenth century, the uneasy combination of statute law and common law was being criticised by jurists. In 1750 The Gentleman’s Magazine would claim that, “[the government] are so far from establishing a fixed and immutable rule, they oftentimes serve only to furish matters for suits, and even to perplex judges.”[48] Concerns over levels of gambling and the increased frequency of matches necessitated rules more permanent than articles of association. Codification, like the legislation passed by a parliament, facilitated participation, meaning that “[a]ll could play a single game under a single set of Laws.”[49] Interestingly, in both cricket and boxing “the general rules would be supplemented by specific contracts – Articles of Agreement – defining the terms of the individual match.”[50] In sport, as in the law courts, the tension between custom and law persisted throughout the century.
Having observed the necessity of law, Locke identifies a second difference between the state of nature and that of society under government, there being “a Known and indifferent Judge, with Authority to determine all differences according to the established law”[51] In cricket this manifested itself in two ways. On a national level this is represented by the development of a governing body: lawmakers characterised by their knowledge, standing and impartiality. Secondly it is the role of the umpire(s) to ensure the fair application of the Laws of the game. Provision for officials can be found in the laws laid down in 1744, where umpires were expected to adjudicate on “all outs and ins, of all fair and unfair play or frivolous delays, of all hurts real or pretended”.[52] In reality “appointing umpires seems to have boiled down to each team having their own, biased one.”[53] The role of the official is, like the state, that of the neutral arbiter, to whom one may appeal for adjudication. However, the umpire, akin to a laissez-faire government, will not intrude upon the action unless the laws are broken.[54]
Thirdly Locke argues that these neutral arbiters must have a “Power to back and support the Sentence when right, and to give it due Execution”.[55] Until the advent of television replays, umpires had exercised authority during the match itself, their judgement alone enforcing the laws.[56] The history of cricket’s governing body is, however, more complicated, as the MCC was decidedly reticent in accepting and exercising the power of a governing body. The men of the MCC did not codify in order to gain control of the sport. All the available evidence points to the idea that they drew up ‘Laws’ purely to formalise the game that they themselves were playing. As Birley argues:

“… the notion that MCC, at once, or even soon, became some kind of supreme governing body is quite wide of the mark. Neither they nor the other autonomous clubs would have recognised such a concept. True, they did put out a revised code, including a section on betting, but like the Jockey Club they made rules for their own matches; if other clubs wanted to use them, they could, but that was as far as it went.”[57]
In Locke’s theory “a ‘known, standing law’ has to be established which all who consent to be members of the new political society will recognise as authoritative.”[58] In the case of cricket, the lawmakers themselves were ill disposed to such recognition. As cricket develops from a parochial pastime, practiced in pockets of the country, towards a national sport, the opportunity presented itself for the MCC to constitute itself as an official national authority. By virtue of their status, they were constantly pushed into providing a sporting leadership irrespective of their wishes. Whether it was the question of Law X, or the continuing requests for the resolution of betting disputes, there existed a genuine pressure from below for the MCC to assume the role of neutral arbiter:
“The MCC ruled cricket, it seems, because cricket clubs followed the rules of the MCC No doubt this situation reflected perceptions of social class, patronage, as well as pure commercial logic (matches against MCC were extremely lucrative), but the development of the government of the game played by self governing clubs was a purely voluntary affair.”[59]
The Jockey Club too found itself prompted into the role of adjudicator. “In the desire to avoid disputes ending up in the law courts, many courses placed themselves under the club’s jurisdiction.”[60] Thus the embryonic governing bodies did not simply mimic the state but assumed responsibility for one of its functions. Gradually the “supervision of rules was fused with financial power, creating a national association.”[61] Even then the development of the laws of the game was slow and fraught with argument. Overarm bowling was finally permitted in 1864, whilst the number of players allowed on each team was not standardised until 1884.


For those responsible for the codification of cricket, the relationship between sports and state was much more than metaphorical. The men who frequented the Star and Garter tavern, the Committee of Noblemen and Gentlemen, the members of the MCC who originally drafted ‘the Laws of Cricket’, were men of Parliament, “among the leading political and social figures of their day.”[62] As Wiener has commented, what these men “admired most, the quality they sought most avidly in their own lives, was order, the establishment of control, the obliteration of chaos.”[63] It is not difficult to see members of Parliament viewing the folk football of the poor as an example of the Hobbesian ‘war of all against all’. On the other hand cricket, codified and civilized, represented “the shift from anarchy to organisation, and at the same time the adoption of government.”[64]

Dunning has suggested that the “relationship was correlative not causal. Parliamentarization happened in the political lives of these aristocrats and gentlemen, sportization in their leisure lives.”[65] Such a view suggests, perhaps unintentionally, that Parliamentarization and sportization are of equal importance, or that one did not precede the other. Mike Marqusee, one of the few writers to imply a link between state formation and codification, suggests that prior to codification England had become a “country in which the rule of law, as opposed to the dictates of individuals, was most advanced…The same people who passed these laws in Parliament drew up the Laws of Cricket, and for much the same purpose”.[66] Is it any surprise that the ideas that were employed to organise their play were inspired by the same ones deployed in their organisation of society? As Sharpe notes, “[b]y the eighteenth century the law… had come to replace religion as the main ideological cement of society.”[67] Acknowledging the importance of the wider political philosophy of the time does not contradict Bourdieu’s assessment that “the history of sport is a relatively autonomous history”.[68] Gambling, sports clubs and economic factors all play a part, as do the developments in the press and the increased ease of travel (both of which take place in the context, or under the auspices of the state’s maturation). But it is the ideology of the nation state and the rule of law that forms the intellectual context from which codification develops.

By placing the birth of the nation state at the heart of the codification of modern sports, we find historical evidence in support of the theoretical position expounded in the previous posts. Colin Barker has argued that, “Law and state are forms of alienation, which consist not simply in the production of surplus value for our exploiters, but also and equally in our loss of control over society and its rules”[69] The sporting equivalents, codified rules overseen by governing bodies and officials, are, in effect, forms of alienation, separating play and players.
[1] Quoted in Pickering, Cassell’s Sports Quotations, p305
[2] Hill, C., The English Revolution 1640 (London: Lawrence & Wishart Ltd, 1940), p26
[3] Hill, The English Revolution 1640, p15
[4] Clarkson, L.A., The Pre-Industrial Economy in England: 1500-1750 (London: B.T. Batsford Ltd, 1971), p36
[5] Harman, C., Marxism and History (London: Bookmarks, 1998), p108
[6] Harman, C., A People’s History of the World (London: Bookmarks, 1999), p234
[7] Hill, The English Revolution 1640, p14
[8] Rude, G., Revolutionary Europe: 1783-1815 (London: Collins, 1964), p33
[9] Guttmann, From Ritual to Record, p57
[10] Although this summary is generally accepted there are some problems. First of all there is evidence of sports clubs prior to the eighteenth century, for example a Southampton-based bowling society in the thirteenth century. Equally one may point to the fact that in 1743, some thirteen years after the first thoroughbred was introduced to the colony and eight years before the formation of the English equivalent, the Maryland Jockey Club was formed in the American city of Annapolis. Nor can England claim to be the sole originator of contemporary sports. Athletic contests appear throughout history most often as an adjunct to, and glorification of, warfare. Yet the importance of the British in this period systematically developing, codifying and regulating sports cannot be downplayed. For an overview of this argument see Hutchinson, R. Empire Games: The British Invention of Twentieth-Century Sport (London: Mainstream Publishing, 1996), pp
[11] Gomme, A.B., The Traditional Games of England Scotland & Ireland (London: Thames & Hudson, 1984), p217
[12] Gomme, The Traditional Games, p34
[13] Birley, D., A Social History of English Cricket (London: Aurum Press Ltd, 1999), p3
[14], accessed 5 August 2011
[15] Quoted in Pickering, Cassell’s Sports Quotations, p336
[16] Marqusee, M., Anyone But England: Cricket and the National Malaise (London: Verso, 1994), p33
[17] Underdown, D., Start of Play (London: Penguin, 2000), p9
[18] Marqusee, Anyone But England, p33
[19] Marqusee, Anyone But England, p37
[20] Uglow, J., A Gambling Man: Charles II and the Restoration (London: Faber & Faber, 2009), p143
[21] Birley, A Social History of English Cricket, p12
[22] Birley, A Social History of English Cricket, pp11-12
[23] Birley, A Social History of English Cricket, p16
[24] Birley, A Social History of English Cricket, p14
[25] Marqusee, Anyone But Engand, p45
[26] Quoted in Birley, A Social History of English Cricket, p18
[27] Harvey, A. The Beginnings of a Commercial Sporting Culture in Britain, 1793-1850 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), p117
[28] Birley, A Social History of English Cricket, p19
[29] Birley, A Social History of English Cricket, p19
[30] Harvey, The Beginnings of a Commercial Sporting Culture, p131
[31] reference please! Harvey?
[32] Guttmann, From Ritual to Record, p60
[33] Marx, 1844 Manuscripts, p178
[34] Rule, J. (1986) The Labouring Classes in Early Industrial England: 1750-1850, Longman: London, p209
[35] Marqusee, Anyone But England, p42
[36] Holt, Sport and the British, p26
[37] Vamplew, W. “Playing with the Rules”, p3
[38] Sweet, R., The English Town, 1680-1840: Government, Society and Culture (London: Longman, 1999), p258
[39] Harman, Marxism and History, p108
[40] Harman, A People’s History, p235
[41] Marqusee, Anyone But England, p38
[42] Szymanski, S., “A Theory of the Evolution of Modern Sport”, Journal of Sport History, 35, 1 (2008), p8
[43] Szymanski, “A Theory of the Evolution of Modern Sport”, p11
[44] Hall, S., “The State in Question” in McLennan, G., Held, D., & Hall, S. (eds) The Idea of the Modern State (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1984), p10
[45] Hall, “The State in Question”, pp.26-27
[46] Parry, G., John Locke (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1978), p112
[47] Parry, John Locke, p112
[48] The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1750, vol. 20, p217, quoted in Bushaway, B., By Rite: Custom, Ceremony and Community in England 1700-1880 (London: Breviary Stuff Publications, 1982), p7
[49] Marqusee, Anyone But England, p44
[50] Brailsford, D., A Taste for Diversions: Sport in Georgian England (Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 1999), p42
[51] Parry, John Locke, p112
[52] Cited in Birley, A Social History of English Cricket, p27.
[53] Birley, A Social History of English Cricket, p27.
[54] This detachment of the umpire is, of course, still legislated for in the game today. Law 42.2 states, “the umpires shall not interfere with the progress of play, except as required to do so by the Laws.” Laws of Cricket available at, accessed 25/09/11
[55] Cited in Parry, John Locke, p112
[56] Notwithstanding WG Grace’s infamous replacement of the bails having been bowled first ball in an exhibition match. His indignant response is perhaps the exception to the rule of alienation in sport: “They have come to see me bat, not you umpire. Play on!”
[57] Birley, A Social History of English Cricket, p48
[58] Parry, John Locke, p113
[59] Szymanski, “A Theory of the Evolution of Modern Sport”, p11
[60] Harvey, A., The Beginnings of a Commercial Sporting Culture, p119
[61] Harvey, A., The Beginnings of a Commercial Sporting Culture, p118
[62] Szymanski, “A Theory of the Evolution of Modern Sport”, p10
[63] Carol Wiener quoted in Sharpe, J.A., Crime in Early Modern England: 1550-1750 (London: Longman, 1984), p214
[64] Szymanski, “A Theory of the Evolution of Modern Sport”, p11
[65] Dunning, E., Sport Matters: Sociological Studies of Sport, Violence and Civilization (London: Routledge, 1999), p74
[66] Marqusee, Anyone But England, pp35-36
[67] Sharpe, Crime in Early Modern England, p207
[68] Bourdieu, “Sport and Social Class”, p821
[69] Barker, C., “In Praise of Custom”, International Socialism Journal, 55 (1992), p137

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Relationship Between Play And Sport

This post develops themes from a previous article, Towards a Marxist Definition of Play.

                  “What is sport? I suppose it’s anything they can make competitive
                               or entertaining enough to be good television.”[1]
                                                                                                - Observer (1982)

It is far easier to discern the main features of sport than it is to define play. Guttmann sees modern sport as being marked by seven key characteristics: secularism, equality of opportunity to compete and in the conditions of competition, specialisation of roles, rationalisation, bureaucratic organisation, quantification, and, finally, the quest for records.[2] For those, such as Jean Marie Brohm, who would disagree with Guttmann’s over-arching analysis there is extensive agreement over the key components of sport. In a section of A Prison of Measured Time, entitled “For a Revolutionary Marxist Definition of Sport”, Brohm states:
“…sport is an institutionalised system of competition, delimited, codified and conventionally governed physical practices which have the avowed aim of selecting the best competitor – the champion – or recording the best performance – a record – on the basis of comparing performances.”[3]
Of those characteristics listed in Guttmann’s description, four may be found in Brohm’s observations, and another – equality of competition – is implicit. Nor do these exhaust the possible definitions. Bale defines sports as “institutionalised contests involving the use of vigorous physical exertion, between human beings or teams of human beings.”[4] In none of these examples is sport described as, or defined by its relationship to play.
Guttmann does attempt to define the relationship between sport and play, suggesting that sports are best understood as “‘playful’ physical contests, that is, as non-utilitarian contests which include an important measure of physical as well as intellectual skill”.[5] Thus sport is a distinct subset of the play category, distinguished by competition, rules and physicality. This serves as a worthy working definition, but the quotation marks (scare quotes?) around ‘playful’ are instructive, pointing towards a conceptual difficulty. In light of this confusion Richard Gruneau asks a pertinent question:
“To what extent, and under what circumstances is it possible to see sport as a negation of play or, conversely, to see sport as an extension of play’s essential character into the broader spheres of institutional life in society?”[6]
The truism that ‘we all know play when we see it’ is applied to sport only with a certainty that comes from common-sense understanding. But to assume the nature of a thing is not to prove it. One obvious way to examine the relationship is to investigate the extent to which the accepted definition of play, as outlined in the previous chapter, is applicable to professional sport.
The idea that sport takes part in a separate and special place need not detain us long. Of the three defining characteristics of play this is the most immediately apparent in professional sport. From the football or rugby pitch to the Olympic pool and the boxing ring, sport does indeed take place in a specific place, and for a given duration. The notion that the space devoted to the playing of sports is somehow separate from real life is reinforced by the separation of players and spectators.
On the extent to which sports constitute an arena of freedom Gruneau has wryly remarked, “I suppose that one may assert that even institutionalised sports are ‘free’ to the extent that one has the option of either playing them and submitting to the rules in place, or not playing and thereby not submitting.”[7] Guttmann goes further suggesting, “modern sports hold forth the possibility of a realm of relative if not absolute freedom.”[8] They differ from play insofar as they represent a “freedom to” rather than a “freedom from”.[9] The codification of rules and the presence of sporting structures do not limit the freedom of the player, instead they facilitate it. Guttmann does note that “[s]pontaneous play is paradigmatically separate from modern sports”[10] but his theoretical conception of the relationship between sport and play exists in an unmediated vacuum, and is reducible to a simple formula: “play lies in the realm of voluntary action and freedom and, because sports are inherently playful, they also are voluntary and free.”[11]
One should be careful not to under-estimate the structural limitations that characterise modern sport. Professional sport is marked profoundly by a separation of players from the control of their games. Firstly professional sportspeople have no control over the rules of the sports they play, this power residing with the plethora of governing bodies both nationally and internationally. It is not true that “new rules are invented and old ones discarded whenever the participants decide that ludic convenience outweighs the inertia of convention.”[12]
If there is a distinct lack of control afforded players on a macro level, to what extent may sporting participants control the way in which they play on a micro level, i.e. in the act of sporting contest itself? Effectively critiquing the notion of positive freedom, Rigauer argues that the increasingly “technical-organizational- rationalizing measures” of top level sports has precipitated the “progressive diminution of the individual’s freedom to act.”[13] A foremost example comes in the division of labour inherent to team sports where “one can see quite explicitly the definitions of the roles: ‘middle stormer,’ ‘right runner,’ ‘left defender,’ ‘goalies,’ etc.”[14] These positions prescribe a “pattern of behaviour for the individual player”[15] which cannot help but limit their creative freedom.
Even in the supposed freedom to participate we find that “rules auxiliary to those of the game are needed to determine eligibility to participate”.[16] Vamplew is correct to suggest that there ”is nothing in the nature of sport itself which determines who can and cannot play. In the purest forms of sport only self-exclusion should apply.”[17] Yet in professional sport, people are confronted by a series of gatekeepers, set aside from the act of play itself, who determine access to the playing field. Tournament organisers, selectors, managers and coaches (especially in team sports) all potentially stand between the sportsperson and the opportunity to participate. Freed from compulsion, but not necessarily from impediments, we find another distinction between play and sport.
The most sophisticated attempt to resolve this question of sport’s relative freedom may be found in the work of Richard Gruneau. Charting a course between Marxism and liberal idealism, Gruneau argues that sport is, paradoxically, both freedom and constraint. Using the work of John Searle, he argues that, “in most examples of western institutionalised games and sports, the formal limiting of options within the institution appears to have occurred in two related cultural senses”.[18] The first is a technical or constitutive sense, the laying down of rules without which “the whole range of behaviour that they sustain simply would not exist.”[19] The second is a moral or regulative sense, whereby the unwritten codes of conduct guide one’s actions. These limitations are not bound in stasis rather the pressures brought to bear by interested parties condition the relationship. However, it is important to recognize that not all parties have the same weight of influence, and as such:
“their transformative capacity, can be seen to be closely related to the type and range of social resources that individuals or groups of players and nonplayers can bring to bear in order to restructure, reinterpret, and transform the limits in question.”[20]
By locating the question of freedom in the realm of the social constitution of organised sports Gruneau’s argument manages to avoid the twin pitfalls of theoretical parochialism and determinism. It is recognition that, under present circumstances, the wealth and power of clubs and governing institutions plays a greater role in determining the rules of the games than players and supporters.
The question of whether or not professional sport is an autotelic activity is perhaps the most important to resolve. The autotelic and non-instrumental qualities of play are the central thrust of established definitions and allegedly account for play’s uniqueness, demarcating it from the worlds of work and art. Yet a mere glimpse at professional sport will show that it is not autotelic. In professional sports the result is of primary importance, the experience a distant second. The ethos of play is contained within the injunction uttered by many a parent of an irate child: “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s the taking part that counts”, In the world of sport the logic is inverted - the victory is all-important. As Rigauer argues, “Human behavior becomes subsumed under certain goals and methodically regulated according to these goals”.[21] It follows that playful instincts are curtailed, subordinated to the logic of competition. Of the twin characteristics of sport, playfulness and competition, it is clear that it is the agonistic which predominates, the ludic trails in its wake.
Our attempt to match sports to the characteristics of play has been distinctly unsuccessful. Of the three key features found in play, only one, its spatial separation, can be said to apply to sport with any certainty. On the question of freedom, sport shares some similarity with play, though, at best, we can concur with the assessment that sport is both freedom and constraint. Yet on the crucial issue of sharing play’s non-instrumental character we must surely demur.
There is another problem for those who would see sport as a particular variant of non-utilitarian play. Paid professionals now populate the contemporary sporting landscape. If a defining feature of play is its non-instrumental character then sport can no longer be thought of in the same light. In an economic sense, “the athlete is the producer, the spectators the consumers”.[22] If play and work are antonyms then we have a paradox quite distinct from the one previously identified by Gruneau. Do professional sportspeople work at play? Or, play at work? Can they even be said to be playing at all? Anthony Giddens has written: “For the professional sportsman the game is not a play-activity, since it takes place within a context of economic obligation which gives it a predominantly instrumental character.”[23]Roger Callois takes a similar view:
“As for the professionals – the boxers, cyclists, jockeys, or actors who earn their living in the ring, track, or hippodrome or on the stage, and who must think in terms of prize, salary, or title – it is clear that they are not players but workers. When they play, it is at some other game.”[24]
If Giddens and Callois are correct and that sport is, in effect, the negation of play, then in solving one contradiction, they create another. If we take football as our example, then it is clear that in both form and content the game played in the Premier League is the same as the game played by ‘recreational footballers’ on a Sunday morning. Apart from the fact that one group of players is paid and the other is not, they are surely partaking of the same game. The form of the sport, the rules and the officials are identical. The standards and skills of the Sunday League player may be somewhat below their more famous and wealthier counterparts but the pitches, markings, aims, objectives, tactics and kit are all instantly recognisable as being of the same game played at Anfield or Old Trafford. Callois does in fact deal with this question, if only fleetingly:
“Neither does the professional player change the nature of the game in any way. To be sure, he himself does not play, merely practices a profession. The nature of competition or the performance is hardly modified if the athletes or comedians are professionals who play for money rather than amateurs who play for pleasure. The difference concerns only the players.”[25]
Callois is right to say that nature of the game itself is unchanged whether one is an amateur or a professional. In professional sports, players and competitors sell their labour power much as any other worker, and produce commodities - sporting spectacles - which are placed on the market. As is the general rule under capitalism, “[l]abour produces not only commodities: it produces itself and the worker as a commodity - and this at the same rate at which it produces commodities in general.”[26] Taken to its logical conclusion in some professional sports, workers “[a]s bearers of scarce and sought after qualities”[27] are quite literally bought and sold. As such professional sports are indeed work.
Can we really claim, though, that there is no element of play in professional sports? It is true that tactics are prescribed and, of course, plans and set pieces are part and parcel of the contemporary sporting world. Indeed one could easily argue that they predominate. Nowhere is this clearer than in the use of the word ‘play’ in the American version of football. Here a verb suggestive of spontaneity is transformed into a noun denoting a preordained manoeuvre.
Conscious that we must be “sensitive to the dialectical relationships between socially structured possibilities and human agency”[28] it is necessary to stress that the ability to ‘play’ is often determined by the context of the game. Where pure play offers the continued possibility of metamorphosis, both in terms of play forms and their concomitant rules, so the structural confines of the sporting world consistently prohibit experimentation. Instead we are left with competitors who ‘play it safe’, ‘play the percentages’ and who, increasingly it seems, set out to ‘stop the opposition from playing’. The playfulness of the jinking run, behind-the-back pass, or the lofted straight drive are incompatible with maximising the chances of success and so inevitably make way for sporting necessity. The huge sums of money at stake in modern sports only serve to exacerbate this tendency. Christopher Lasch summarises the state of play:
“Modern sport is dominated not so much by the undue emphasis on winning as on the desperate urge to avoid defeat, Coaches, not quarterbacks, often call the plays, and the managerial apparatus makes every effort to eliminate the risk and the uncertainty that contribute so centrally to the ritual and dramatic success of any contest. When sports can no longer be played with appropriate abandon, they lose the capacity to raise the spirits of players and spectators, to transport them into a higher realm. Prudence and calculation, so prominent in everyday life but so inimical to the spirit of games, come to shape sports as they shape everything else.”[29]
Despite similar misgivings about the state of contemporary sports, Bero Rigauer is forced to conclude that “[s]ince playing maneuvers are not related to each other deterministically, there is room for spontaneous ‘assists’ and thus for a widening of the role of player.”[30] Indeed top sports clubs will pay a high price for those players who can create ‘moments of magic’. When commentators talk of an inspired move or a piece of ingenuity, it is the case that the ludic is reasserting itself in the face of the demands of competition. It should come as no surprise that those sportspeople who acquire iconic status (Best, Botham, Ali) are the ones who look as though they are genuinely ‘playing’ even in the most serious competitive situation. The nature of the sporting contest, with its unfolding drama and the need for instantaneous individual and collective decision-making, means that individuality and personality can never be wholly removed from a game. It is possible for the quarterback to change the play.
Therefore sports, whose origins are to be found in play, bring with them a crucial ludic element. For example, football is football; only under certain conditions does it become professional sport. There is a tension that exists between the ludic and the competitive, and the balance between the two is conditioned by social and economic imperatives as well as the sporting context itself. It is no surprise, therefore, that at times is does seem that play is absent from the professional sporting world. But it is this recognition of the ludic component that necessitates a correct conception of play, the theoretical foundation on which our understanding of modern professional sports is built.[31]
Sport, by virtue of its dual nature, exhibits the characteristics of both work and play, two categories commonly understood as being mutually exclusive. Such a “stiffening”[32] of play was detected long ago. Despite his conservatism it was Huizinga, so sensitively attuned to the rhythms and nuances of play, who saw the impact professional sports had on the ludic world. Today some mourn that “little is left of play’s freedom and creatively expressive character”[33] but how may we assess the relationship between sport and play.
Existing Marxist literature on sport, when faced with this question, seems reluctant to venture an answer. Brohm, in an all too brief foray into the relationship between sport and play, is unsurprisingly dismissive stating, “Sport is one of the strongest factors removing the element of play from bodily activity… A child who practices sport is no longer playing but is taking his place in a world of serious matters, sanctioned by authority.”[34] Thus with a broad sweep of theoretical gusto Brohm states that where sport begins so play ceases, and never the twain shall meet. Rigauer (whom Brohm quotes extensively) takes a different stance despite writing from a similar leftist perspective. Rather than counterpose the two activities, Rigauer suggests that “play, sports and work are part of the same pattern of behaviour despite the differing accents.”[35] Such contradictory conclusions amongst Marxist thinkers is rooted in the fact that, so keen are they to dismiss sport as part of the “ideological state apparatus”[36] and so eager are they to reduce sports “to simple reflections of materialist categories”,[37] they fail to adequately theorise the concept of play. This failure is to the detriment of both writers. Without it, their critique of capital’s influence on sport is weakened and they are ill placed to see sport as a contested cultural space.[38] Ultimately it is a standpoint that denies agency to the very people it purports to represent, a view that ”downplays the reflexive capacities of human beings.”[39]
By previously seeing play as the unalienated, simultaneous production and consumption of use values we have prepared a theoretical groundwork that allows us to analyse the relationship between play and sport. The key to our understanding is the fact that “the structuring of sport has become increasingly systematised, formalised, and removed from the direct control of the individual players.”[40] We are unable to attribute to sport Hoberman’s belief that “[t]he power to create is the power to determine the meaning of the creation and the laws which govern it”.[41] Governing bodies now exercise control over sports across the globe. In addition, professional sportspeople engaged in ‘playful’ physical contests, have limited control over the way in which they play. The world of professional sports is not best understood as existing in the realm of pure play, or as its negation. If we use the criteria we previously employed in our analysis of play and look at “the relation of labour to the act of production in the labour process”[42] then professional sports are the alienation of play.[43]
Equally the use values produced by those playing sports no longer belong to them. Play is now a spectacle, and in turn, therefore, a commodity. For Marx, commodities have a dual character, consisting of both exchange value and “use values for others, social use values.”[44] In professional sports use values do not present as the fulfilment of the need of the player, but as the satisfaction of the wants of the spectators – who as consumers pay for the right to consume. In professional sports, play is mediated through the prism of capitalist relations and placed on the market as a commodity. The sporting spectacle is no longer the by-product of play; it is its product, deliberately cultivated. As Gideon Haigh laments of one sport, “cricket must be sold in order to be played.”[45]
As ‘work’ is the contemporary manifestation of labour, so sport is a historically conditioned form of play. We may still point to its physicality, its competitive nature and the development of physical and intellectual skills as important characteristics, but when defining its relationship to play these alone are insufficient. Instead professional sport is commodified, alienated play. We may, perhaps, be so bold as to re-write the famous aphorism of Marx and say, “Players play, but not in the conditions of their own choosing”.[46] This distinction does not exist in the abstract. Sport is a product of historical developments “and requires that we situate our study of play, games and sports in the context of understanding the historical struggle over the control of rules and resources in social life, and the ways in which this struggle relates to structured limits and possibilities.”[47] The alienation and commodification of play has its roots in the codification of modern sports and the death of custom.
[1] The Observer (1982) cited in Pickering, Cassell’s Sports Quotations, p335
[2] Guttmann, From Ritual to Record, p16
[3] Brohm, J-M., Sport, pp.68-69
[4] Bale, J., Sport and Place: A Geography of Sport in England, Scotland and Wales (London: C Hurst & Co., 1982), p2
[5] Guttmann, From Ritual to Record, p14
[6] Gruneau, “Freedom and Constraint”, p70 
[7] Gruneau, Class, Sports and Structural Development (The University of Massachusetts Press, 1983), p18
[8] Guttmann, From Ritual to Record, p157
[9] Guttmann, From Ritual to Record, p158
[10] Guttmann, From Ritual to Record, p161
[11] Gruneau, R. Class, Sports and Structural Development, p22
[12] Guttmann, From Ritual to Record, p40
[13] Rigauer, Sport and Work, p53
[14] Rigauer, Sport and Work, p50
[15] Rigauer, Sport and Work, p51
[16] Vamplew, W. “Playing with the Rules: Influences on the Development of Regulation in Sport” available at, accessed 7 August 2011
[17] Vamplew, W. “Playing with the Rules”, p15
[18] Gruneau, Class, Sports and Structural Development, p35
[19] Gruneau, Class, Sports and Structural Development, p36
[20] Gruneau, Class, Sports and Structural Development, p37
[21] Rigauer, Sport and Work, p28
[22] Rigauer, Sport and Work, p68
[23] Giddens, “Notes on the Concepts”, p75
[24] Caillois, Man, Play and Games, p6
[25] Caillois, Man, Play and Games, p45
[26] Marx, 1844 Manuscripts, p63
[27] Riaguer, Sport and Work, p68
[28] Gruneau, Class, Sports and Structural Development, p27
[29] Lasch, C. “The Corruption of Sports”, The New York Review of Book, April 28 1977, available at (accessed 17 August 2011)
[30] Rigauer, Sport and Work, p53
[31] The constraints of space prevent a full examination of the intermediary role of games in structuring the relationship between play and sports. In a bit to short circuit the distinctions a footnote must suffice. I would draw much the same conclusions as Guttmann (From Ritual to Record, pp6-9) and agree that games are, indeed, structured play, and that sports are a distinct sub category of games. However, where I would depart from Guttmann taxonomy is in seeing all sport as inherently playful. I would suggest that the ludic potential differs according to the sport. It would seem obvious to suggest that those sports derived most immediately from warfare – boxing, shooting, riding, athletic contests, etc. – contain a negligible degree of play. It is noticeable that none of these sports are ‘played’ (nobody ‘plays’ boxing, or ‘plays’ swimming) instead they register as pure contests. Investigation of this point is surprisingly absent from Homo Ludens, especially when one considers the premium Huizinga places on linguistic analysis. Of course, it is perfectly possible to swim and play at the same time, ride playfully, or even play fight, but at the professional level the play aspect is totally subsumed by the emphasis on competition. It is in these contests that the Marxist observation regarding the mechanization of the body is most pertinent. See for instance, Rigauer, Sport and Work, pp60-62. However all professional sports share the general trend suggested in this chapter, being both removed from the control of the participants and commodified spectacles.
[32] Huizinga, Homo Ludens, p199
[33] Gruneau, Class, Sports and Structural Development, p3
[34] Brohm, Sport, p41
[35] Rigauer, Sport and Work, p88
[36] Brohm, Sport, pp53-64
[37] Gruneau, Class, Sports and Structural Development, p27
[38] Bourdieu, P., “Sport and Social Class”, Social Science Information, 17, 6 (1978), pp819-40
[39] Gruneau, “Freedom and Constraint”, p74
[40] Gruneau, Class, Sports and Structural Development, p34
[41] Hoberman, Sport and Political Ideology, p49
[42] Marx, 1844 Manuscripts, p66
[43] One striking example of the alienation of play may be found in Holt, R. Sport and the British (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), p300. Here he examines the autobiography of one-time professional footballer Eamon Dunphy and points to how “the awful uncertainty of the job, the fear of failure or injury, were always present. There was the public humiliation of being dropped fro the side; the autocratic style of managers, who were themselves as afraid and insecure as their players; the refusal to let good players use their natural talent to play, forcing them through repetitive training ‘systems’ and na├»ve ‘game plans’; the petty jealousness of the players, their hierarchies, and childish pranks; the fear of the new signing, who has to be included at the expense of the old friend; the view of the match from ‘the inside’ when you know a team-mate does not want the ball but wants it to look as if you will not give it to him.”
[44] Marx, Capital, p131
[45] Haigh, Sphere of Influence, p372
[46] Marx, K., The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, available at (accessed 17 August 2011). The full quote in question is, of course, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”
[47] Gruneau, Class, Sports and Structural Development, p28