In what ways did sport reflect American society?
This essay will concentrate on looking at the ethnic and class divide within the sports subculture of American society, and how it reflects American Society as a whole. When examining any society there is a always a broad area to cover, while looking at America’s society I will be looking at the arguments that it is the ‘land of the free’ a ‘new nation’ which immigrants flocked to start a new life in a country of much ‘opportunity’. I will be using the sport in the 19th century to examine just how much America was a land of opportunity and of the free, and whether it differed from the attitudes in countries from around the rest of the world. When looking at sport in American society in the 19th century, first we must look at the origins of the sport and games that were played, to see how they were seen within a new growing society. Before the birth of the American colonies, it has been argued that sport in America was a cultural practice for the most part associated with Native American ceremonies and religion, colonisation brought the idea of sport and games for leisure. The English brought with them recreational ideologies, it was not just the particular games and sports but the attitudes and practices in which leisure activities were rooted. The Native Americans had many sports/games similar to that of Europeans before colonisation but they had independent cultural contexts that gave them different meanings. Often the activities accompanied fertility ceremonies, burial rites, healing practices, and attempts to control the weather. It was reported in the American Anthropologist (1890) by James Mooney that Cherokees who played stickball (Also known as Lacrosse) must not engage in intercourse for a month before a game. Also, prior to games they would build fires and dance to the sound of drums, rattles and sacred chants. Players were prepared before games with prayer’s, pipe smoking, body painting and many other rituals designed more to enhance spirituality rather than to ensure them victory. Participation in these games was not voluntary as the reasons they were played were for crucial tribal concerns. Indeed, the English who came and colonised America also played games for similar cultural reasons, though these reasons were not as crucial of a concern for the whole nation, but for smaller areas of society. In general, the British played for leisure, in Europe this formed the counterpoint to the necessity of daily labour, and the ideal of playing sport for leisure is still very strong today all over the world. The English leisure ethic more so than its work ethic became idealised by Virginian plantation owners. They acted like English gentlemen, followed English press, fashion and played English sports such as Cricket, they did this in search of a class distinction. It was mainly for this reason that sporting displays became a big preoccupation among the Virginian gentry; they were some of the few that had the time and money to occupy themselves with such tasks. Due to this, leisure became a very class restricting custom, and the English educated gentry endeavoured to keep it this way. One such example of the class distinctions at this time within American society is that of James Bullocke who was a tailor, he defeated Mathew Slader a ‘gentleman’ in a 1674 horse race on which each man had placed a bet of two thousand pounds of tobacco. However, after this victory the county court told the men that it was “contrary to law for a labourer to make a race being a sport for Gentlemen”, and fined him one hundred pounds of tobacco. The court also confined Slader (the gentleman) to the stocks for an hour for his loss to a working man. A leading factor in the pursuit of leisure for whites was that slavery made it difficult for them to value hard work, and easy for them to appreciate sport and games. The logic of this was simple, if enslaved blacks had to work; play was proof of...
Bibliography: Gorn, E. & Goldstein, W. (1993) A Brief History of American Sports. University of Illinois Press. Chicago.
Wiggins, D. & Miller, P. (2003) The Unlevel Playing Field: A Documentary of the African American Experience in Sport. University of Illinois Press. Chicago.
Vincent, T. (1981) The Rise & Fall of American Sport: Mudville’s Revenge. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln.
Wiggins, D. (1995) Sport in America: From Wicked Amusement to National Obsession.
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