Sports With Balls: A Timeless Human Ritual


It’s a Sunday in January in the U.S.A, which means that (according to a 2011 Harris Poll survey) 64% of the population will be watching football at some point today.  Among those, 2/3rds of men and just over half of all women.  According to another survey (by Gallup), only about 41% of Americans attend weekly religious services.   So, in theory, that means football is more of a religion than, well, religion.  It’s an interesting phenomenon, but one that’s not surprising, especially from an anthropological perspective.  These kinds of statistics for “ball sport” participation and spectatorship exist in most cultures where there is widespread ball-game play…which spans most cultures in general.  Here is an exhaustive list of current ballgames played by humans around the world:

Balls and sports surrounding them have existed since the most ancient of ancient times:  from the Pharoahs to the Scotts to the Mayans and cultural traditions spanning time and the globe.  And it’s something anthropologists have studies for years.  Check out a recent endeavor by John Fox called “The Ball: Discovering The Object of The Game. ” – a book about the history of ballgames with an exciting trailer featuring an ancient football game that’s still played in the Scottish Isle of Orkney twice every year.

So, why do we play?  Why do ballgames so wildly capture our attention, participation and dedicated following?  There are many theories: social, psychological and philosophical to explain and pontificate on the significance of these sports – but no definitive answer.  I would hypothesize that the literal shape of the ball – like the shape of the earth – is significant.  That the ball represents our ultimate human conundrum: at the mercy of gravity holding us on to this whirling and traveling object and trying to make sense of / assert some sort of spiritual control over it.  It would be a great argument if humans had known since the dawn of time and use of balls that the earth was round.  I would venture a guess that most did not – although it would seem civilizations like the Mayans had that down way before Copernicus.

Some say that game play with balls actually has cognitive / psychological benefits – that it actually makes us more intelligent in that it helps us think better and faster.   Most anthropologists will also tell you that there is significance in the ritual and that the ball typically represents something of spiritual significance.  Like in the Chinese  (Manchu) sport, Pearl Ball.  The Manchu regard the pearl as the symbol of brightness and happiness, with the ball in context of this sport being the representation of that object of desire.  The ancient Meso American (played by the Mayans, Aztecs, etc.  Ball game has been document as one of the oldest sport traditions and was played by kings and commoners alike – although the royal version also typically involved human sacrifice and had strong ritual significance – relating to astronomy, war, fertility and somehow participating in /  gaining control over the phenomenon of cosmic duality (day and night, life and the underworld).

Whatever the significance, it’s a human fact that can’t be refuted:  people like their balls and hold them quite near and dear.  It’s no wonder that metaphor is a mainstay for  a man’s most precious biological possession.  😉  So go forth with your Jerseys and face paint and tailgating accoutrements with pride in knowing that you are following an ancient tradition – one that unifies us all as one global culture under balls.

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