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Digital History TOPIC ID 68

We live in a society obsessed with competitive team sports. Our cities are prepared to spend hundreds of millions of dollars of public funds to ensure that we have baseball, basketball, football, and hockey. Thus, it comes as a bit of a shock to discover that competitive team sports are a recent historical invention less than 150 years old.

People played sports before the 1850s. They tossed balls, rode horses, they went fishing, and wrestled. They watched horse races and cockfights. But they didn't have modern sports - that is, they didn't have competitive team sports, played according to clearly defined rules. They didn't have professional spectator sports with paid athletes. Nor did they keep records.

It was not until the 1840s that the first modern sports were invented. The timing was not accidental. During this period, America became more urban and industrial. Fewer and fewer people lived on farms or worked outdoors. Sports arose during this period for symbolic reasons: it was a way for men to demonstrate their masculinity.

Modern team sports were justified on the grounds that they embodied the manly virtues of self-discipline, responsibility, and dedication. Especially after the Civil War, team sports became a moral substitute for war. The sports team became a substitute for the local militia. Team sports also provided a symbolic embodiment of modern values of team work, sacrifice, cooperation, and playing by the rules.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, sports acquired additional ideological significance. Football was established on elite college campuses so that the country's elite would not become effete. It was a way for wealthy young men to prove their manliness and prepare them for social leadership. And while originally sports were targeted at the native born, immigrants soon discovered that sports offered a shortcut to cultural assimilation.

During the 20th century, sports truly became a field of dreams. Americans regarded the athletic field as the country's true melting pot, where immigrants could become truly American. Sports also symbolized a true meritocracy, where men achieved success based only on their skills, their drive, and their guts. Somehow, Americans blocked out sports' seamy side. Even in the 19th century, sports was big business. The first baseball teams were organized by streetcar magnates, eager to attract patrons to their new mode of transportation. Since World War II, however, the market for sports became truly national.

In recent years, sports have been stripped of their symbolic meaning. Instead of regarding sports stars as idealized versions of themselves, Americans have increasingly viewed athletes as little more than highly paid performers. Meanwhile, media have become much more open about publicizing antisocial acts by athletes and some psychologists and sociologists have argued that athletes have higher levels of aggression than other people. In short, sports has lost its larger moral and symbolic meaning. It has simply become another form of commercial entertainment.

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