Thursday, May 20, 2021

Review: From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports

From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern SportsFrom Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports by Allen Guttmann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(cross posted at The Sports Ethicist)

Guttmann’s classic From Ritual to Record is, in many ways, two books. The first “book” fits the title: it explains modern sport as something that comes out of but differs in essential ways from pre-modern sports. He provides a context and theory that attempts to account for the change. This first part of the book is (has been) the more important one for scholars of sport.

The second “book” is an attempt to try to account for the (somewhat) unique popularity of baseball and (American) football in America. Although this discussion is personally interesting, both because I’m a fan of both sports and because Guttmann makes extensive use of literature and film to provide illustrations and support of his ideas, it ultimately is too out of date to be all that relevant. Writing in the late 70s and appealing to data and sources from even earlier decades, Guttmann identifies some of the origins of some of the trends we see today (e.g. the slower growth of baseball relative to the growing popularity of football). But to be useful in a contemporary discussion of how American sports differ from the sports of other nations (and what that might tell us), we’d have to update most of that data.

Guttmann starts the “main” book with an attempt at a definition of sport. Working through the ideas of various thinkers, including Suits, Huizinga, Callois, Sutton-Smith, and others, Guttmann draws distinctions between play, games, and sport; and defines sport as a playful physical contest. I have several quibbles with his topology of play, games, and sport, in particular in the manner in which he treats play. He follows the line of thought (which I think is mistaken) that treats play as purely autotelic, with no room for the instrumental or the purposive. This leads, I think, to several errors in how Guttmann conceptualizes sport and its role in our lives. That aside, the general thrust of his description of sport are sufficient to make sense of his argument about the shift from pre-modern to modern sport. His discussion examines how sports modernized in terms of seven main characteristics:

• Secularism
• Equality of opportunity to compete and conditions of competition
• Specialization of roles
• Rationalization
• Bureaucratic organization
• Quantification
• Quest for records

While discussing all of these, secularism and quantification seem to be the essential characteristics. These are the ones he focuses on the most, and in many ways they undergird and explain the other characteristics. For example, the quest for records seems to me to be a function of quantification – since the statistics and measures used for the records are things quantified.

Guttmann explains secularism as the long term shift from the origins of many sports and games in terms of the sacred towards sports as secular. In most cultures, athletic contests were, like most things, bound up with religion, the sacred. The games honored the gods or the contests were themselves sacred rituals (not recreation). Most know that the ancient Olympics and other Pan-Hellenic games were (at least in part) sacred religious events.

As he argues, part of the development of the modern world is a process of secularization. By this Guttmann doesn’t mean an outright rejection or eschewing of religion. It is that things that were sacred move in to the mundane. Sport modernize by moving from the sacred realm into the ordinary, everyday world.

Guttmann does briefly touch on the idea that sports have become a kind of secular religion, that it involves many rituals and myths of its own (26). After all, what sports fan hasn’t prayed to the “sports gods” at some point! But Guttmann argues that the point and role of sport in our lives is secular: it’s not about the transcendent or the sacred. It’s about fun, play, and profit.
I think this might dismiss the idea of a sacred secular, if such a thing makes sense. It’s not a transcendence that is mystic or other-worldly; it’s of this world and time but still sacred insofar as it is acknowledged and seen as extraordinary and special. A sacred secular just might be an essential aspect of modern sport. We all, I think, have the need for the sacred and sport might be a secular, non-supernatural way to experience the sacred. Towards the end of chapter 2, Guttmann seems to suggest something like a sacred secular: “Once the gods have vanished from Mount Olympus or from Dante’s paradise, we can no longer run to appease them or to save our souls, but we can set a new record. It is a uniquely modern form of immortality” (55).

The other key element of modern sport is the quantification: the desire to measure and quantify each aspect of sports. Again this is a broad modern trend we see in most aspects of modern life. It deeply impacts sport because there is so much to measure! And these measures become a (or maybe even the) means of comparison and evaluation. How many yards? How many baskets? How many strikes? And this is before we even step in to the age of advance metrics!

Another element of the book is Guttmann’s critique of Marxist (and neo-Marxist) analyses of modern sport. Though he takes pains to point to some positive contributions, he rejects these approaches as the nonsense they are. (In the Afterword, added in 2004, he walks this critique back a little bit and is a bit more accommodating, while still nonetheless rejecting these approaches).

Guttmann’s conclusion about the development of modern sport is best summed up by his claim that: “The emergence of modern sports represents neither the triumph of capitalism nor the rise of Protestantism but rather the slow development of an empirical, experimental, mathematical Weltanschauung[a kind of world-view]” (85). The modernization process, in sport and elsewhere, is a function of this world-view: a view that looks to reason and evidence to understand, make sense of, and organize the world in which one lives. Modern sport is an outgrowth of this process. I’m inclined to think that capitalism (understood as the freedom of consenting adults to produce and freely trade goods and services) is equally a result of the same modernization process. But Guttmann’s point still holds that modern sport is not the result of market economies per se; it is rather a parallel, inherently modern development.

Guttmann’s book is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of sport and how modern sport is different from early forms of sport. Though I am less convinced that modern sport is different in kind from earlier forms (though that may not be Guttmann’s point), I think Guttmann is right about the slow development of the world view that ultimate brings about what we recognize as modern sport.

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