September 19, 2008

The Sports Tradition

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Last semester, I was doing some reading for my Anthropology of Sport class. (Yes, reading, that thing we all deign to do if there isn’t a good game on or something else better happening around campus.) Barely halfway through the first chapter I saw a section about some ancient Egyptian murals that almost exactly demonstrated modern wrestling moves.
The page sort of stopped me in my tracks, which was bad since I was probably supposed to finish about three more chapters.
Anyways, I had never really thought about the idea before, — the extent to which modern sports are connected to their histories. We think it’s obvious, that football fans hearken back to the glory days and baseball fans can’t live without their trivia, but how important is that history to a spectator’s relationship with a sport? And in a sports world that is increasingly me-first and money-centric, does tradition and legacy have any real impact on modern athletes anymore?
After all, the oldest living major leaguer tore into today’s baseball players over the summer, calling them “a grubby-looking bunch of caterwaulers.” (Billy Werber and I are both looking at you, Manny.) He seemed to be talking about the lack of respect modern baseball players have for the legends.
Fast forward about six months, and I’m glued to Schedulizer trying to make sense of my life. (I don’t know about you all, but getting classes set for this semester was a downright ridiculous process.) Though my schedule is finally settling down now, which is probably a good thing since the deadline to add classes passes at 4 p.m. today, I got to spend a lot of quality time with the course catalogue over the past few weeks.
Here is what I learned that is relevant to you, my lovely sports-obsessed readers — as far as I know, the Cornell history department has two classes about sports on the books and one that might be created in the next few years.
So this is me … channeling my energies into an academic endeavor (not for my own education but for the rest of my fellow students). Exploring these classes — which focus on cricket, baseball and martial arts — I was trying to find out the approach each particular course’s subject sport took to its own history.
The class on cricket is still in the works, but it would apparently prove that sports have had an effect on global political history. Prof. Robert Travers, history, is on leave in Kolkata, India right now but spoke in an email about the class he would love to teach someday: “on the role of sports in the history of the British empire.”
“Cricket,” he added, “(apart from being, objectively speaking, the best game on the planet) is an interesting case of a sport that traveled mainly within the British Empire and retained (or grew) its popularity in many colonies after they became independent.”
So we can’t deny that sports is an international phenomenon that is not going away, but another Cornell class talks about a sport that is historically, patriotically American. The Milman Seminar, offered for juniors and seniors every other year, exclusively explores the role of baseball in American culture, with American Studies majors getting preference to enroll in the popular course.
“The course is a way of getting a deeper understanding of American culture and American values by looking at baseball,” said Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies Glenn Altschuler, who has taught the class at least four times. “For all intents and purposes, the course is divided into two principal components, at least in terms of the assigned reading. One deals with the history and economics of baseball. The second one deals with baseball fiction.”
It was a Cornell alum who got the seminar its permanent place in the catalogue. Altschuler co-taught a weeklong course for alums in the mid-1980s and got to know one of his students, Stephen Milman ’58.
“Steve Milman has one of the most extensive baseball libraries in existence,” Altschuler said, “and I got to know Steve [during that course]. He has taken subsequent alumni trips with me on related topics. But during one of them, we had a conversation about making a course on baseball a permanent part of the curriculum.”
Millman, along with his wife and fellow Cornell alum Evalyn, endowed the seminar.
Altschuler — who has been a baseball fan himself since boyhood and cheers on the Chicago White Sox (even as the limp into the upcoming playoffs) — talked about the personal relationship many baseball fans have with the sport’s history.
“I think baseball of all of the sports is the most amenable to comparison over time, much more than football, really much more than any other sport,” he said. “This is really the reason why people are so upset over the steroid controversy — because it has made, just as one example, hitting 500 home runs in one’s career perhaps less Hall of Fame worthy than it would have been. … That was essential in many ways to what baseball fans did.”
Now, I tried to get into the class as a sophomore last year and failed miserably, but Altschuler plans on offering the course again next fall even though he will be on leave that semester. With the commitment he made to the Milmans to offer it every other year, he feels “a sense of responsibility to them and also to the students.”
I’d like to thank you in advance, Prof. Altschuler, and beg for a spot in the class.
Maybe one of the easiest instances to see a sport dominated by its history, however, is the field of martial arts. Prof. T.J. Hinrichs, history, is offering a class right now about that very topic: East Asian Martial Arts.
A long-time practitioner of the martial art of aikido, Hinrichs brought the class to Cornell when she arrived in 2006, having taught earlier versions at Boston College and Columbia.
“The first year [offering the class] I had everyone do ethnography,” she said, “which means they actually as a term project spent some time, they didn’t have to practice, but they did have to at least observe one martial arts school in-depth and connect it to the historical and anthropological themes of the course.”
In its current incarnation, the class’s 23 students have to write papers about their experiences on field trips arranged by Hinrichs to local martial arts dojos. They’ve already observed judo or Brazilian jujitsu in one trip and aikido in another, with wushu as the final outing of the semester.
By observing and interviewing instructors, they are supposed to “think about what they can learn from the structure of the class and the social relations they observe in the class,” according to Hinrichs.
Class member Austin Boykin, a junior who has taken Japanese at Cornell and plans on minoring in East Asian Studies, clearly saw a link between historical tradition and the modern practice of the sport.
“From what we’ve learned in this class already, if you’re taking a martial art, a lot of what is involved is learning the history of the sport,” he said. “[One of the masters we talked to on a field trip said] that to be able to advance, they quiz you on the history.”
Boykin, who is also a midfielder for the men’s lacrosse team, was aware of his sport’s strong Native American origins but didn’t think that they had any effect on its modern practice. Another class member, however, junior John Stupinski, definitely saw a link between historical tradition and the practice of his own sport: judo.
“A lot of sports are heavily influenced by their origins, not only the founding but their philosophy,” he said. “In judo, for example, the time to pin [your opponent] is directly related to how long it would have taken to [kill someone].”
“Some sports more than others, and maybe martial arts more than others, they tend to build mythologies around their sports and use history in particular ways to give larger meaning to what that sport is all about,” Hinrichs said. “For some people it’s a way to find traditional human values in the modern world. So people find different things in these mythologies, but they [all] give meaning to the practice.”
Hinrichs gave the example of Japanese sword practitioners who feel a direct link with Japan’s samurai tradition when they compete. Her own sport, aikido, was invented in the 20th century with an entirely defensive ideal, not based on competition at all.
“The founder of aikido actually had an idea of aikido contributing to world peace,” Hinrichs said, “which was very important for Japanese people, especially after World War II. But it continues today. When I was in Japan, I did meet many people — not everyone but a substantial subgroup in aikido dojos — who were also peace activists. That history of that art ties in very specific ways to the way it’s practiced.”
And so, this past Tuesday afternoon, Hinrichs started off class with a discussion of the most recent field trip. The first observation was about the less active nature of the session, with an extra-long warmup and emphasis on quiet. The aikido practiced at the dojo was, according to Stupinski, “a lot more art and a little less martial than I expected.”
“My sensei in Boston said that it’s a martial art, and if it’s not work, it’s not aikido,” Hinrichs responded. “People come to [the sport] with different things and come away from it with different things.”
And that’s the bottom line. After all that academic wandering, I’ve come to the conclusion that some people will see sports as living history — continuously building on past traditions — while other people will choose to live only in the now.
Both professors referred to the Olympics as an example of sports colliding with their historical traditions, and the main idea of the Olympics is to place the world’s greatest athletes over time in a pantheon. Those names are passed down forever and provide inspiration for future athletes and spectators.
If there were no Mark Spitz — no unquestioned legend and gold standard to compare to — would Michael Phelps’ achievement have meant any less?
I would say yes.
Do what you want, but when Yankee Stadium goes silent after this Sunday’s final home game in the House that Ruth Built, I’m going to be thinking about how my team would not be what it is today (don’t laugh, you Yankee haters) without the greats who came before.
So why not take a class on sports history or just brush up on your own — since it’s something fun, there’s an excuse to actually do the reading. Mom and Dad will be so proud.