Though I was not a natural sportsman, forces associated with school and family pushed me into various sporting activities which (as I see even more clearly in retrospect than I did at the time) I endured rather than enjoyed.
Back then I pooh-poohed the idea that sports, especially team sports, were character-building. Quite the opposite, I thought. Observing the behavior of teammates and opponents alike, I came to believe that playing sports only serves to bring out our worst qualities. I have come to modify this point of view however.
One positive thing which can be said for traditional games and sports is that, because they reflect (at least to some extent) the harsh and intractable realities of a wider world, they serve to counter Walter Mitty-like tendencies. And this could be seen to be ever more important as gaming and virtual reality technologies extend the possibilities of personalized escapist fantasies in ways that Thurber could never have imagined.
Sporting contests can also teach you to lose – and to win – with grace and equanimity. This may be more about manners than morals but it is no less important for that.
As I see it, the only strictly moral benefit of an initiation into traditional sporting culture relates to the idea of fair play: of playing by the rules – and the spirit of the rules. I don’t want to go on about this. I could elaborate and give examples etc., but I am wary of moralizing. Besides, I am inclined to think that if these concepts are not real to you already, nothing I say will make them so.
I don’t want to claim that there is this special way of looking at human interactions – i.e. in terms of fair play and abiding by the spirit of agreed-upon rules or laws – which is accessible only to those who have had the benefit of certain experiences in childhood or adolescence, though it's possible that this is the case.
Some experience with sports or games may (conceivably at least) represent a necessary condition for seeing things in the way I describe, but it is certainly not a sufficient condition. For there are and always will be those natural thugs who bring their thuggishness to everything they do, including sport. In the realm of sports and games these people are often feared, but they are (or at least were in my experience) generally despised by players and sophisticated spectators alike.
The failing or failed sportsman is often a devoted sports fan, and (from about the age of ten) I was definitely that. I have autographs of many of the cricketing greats to prove it. But as I grew older I gradually lost interest. Moreover, changes in the general culture of the game were making it progressively less attractive. Now sports exist for me only to the extent that my exposure to them helped to form me and to the extent that they feature in my personal memories (two quite different things).
Technical and aesthetic factors are important but it is ultimately the human side of things which give sports an abiding interest to players and spectators alike. It helps that the conflicts and dramas usually stop short of anything too distressing. In wars, you have death in battle; in politics moral dilemmas, all sorts of unpleasantness and very little in the way of style or grace or beauty.
Sports and games occupy a protected space. In this and in other ways adult sports – at their best, at any rate – can be seen to represent, like the arts, a kind of benign hangover, an extension of certain aspects of childhood.
What prompted these reflections was coming across, by chance, an old cricketing story from the early 20th century. The story is quite moving, actually, and worth retelling. But, though it probably has some emblematic significance, my original idea – to see it as underscoring "the massive gulf which lies between the sporting culture which characterized the British Empire and the professional sporting culture which dominates today's world" – was clearly overblown. So scratch that. I’ll just tell the story. Make of it what you will.
First a bit of background to set the scene. Victor Trumper was born in 1877 in the British colony of New South Wales. A natural sportsman and brilliant cricketer, he was much loved and revered, both for his playing and for his natural humility. He is probably best remembered today as the subject of a photograph by George Beldam, taken when the batsman was in full flight at The Oval in London. This image is probably the most famous in the game's history. Dancing down the pitch, with a huge backswing, Trumper is poised – perfectly balanced – to execute a straight drive.
Trumper was one of the most gifted strokeplayers of all time. The writer A.A. Thomson recorded recollections of one of his great innings: "It was glory, it was wonder. Old men who saw it recall it with tears…" Trumper died of Bright's disease in 1915, at the age of 37.
As a very young man, leg-spin bowler Arthur Mailey encountered Trumper – his idol – in a club game in Sydney.
"This meeting had been nervously anticipated by Mailey," writes Chris Waters in an historical piece for the Yorkshire Post. "[M]ight something happen to prevent his hero from playing in the match (“a war, an earthquake, Trumper might fall sick”), or might Mailey’s captain not bring him on to bowl against the maestro, fearing that the youngster might take a terrible pounding?"
But Trumper played and Mailey was indeed brought on to bowl to him. And Mailey achieved something beyond his wildest dreams – he had Trumper stumped off a perfect googly.
As Trumper walked past Mailey on his way back to the pavilion, he smiled, patted the back of his bat and said, "It was too good for me."
Mailey recalls in his autobiography that he felt no sense of triumph as he watched the receding figure.
"I felt like a boy who had killed a dove," he wrote.
[This piece was published earlier in the year at The Electric Agora.]