At last! The football season is underway.
Pee wee, school and professional. Real time and fantasy. Packed stadiums and tailgate clusters. Marching bands and cheerleaders. Colorful uniforms. Gambling. Traffic jams, cold beer and barbecue. Crowds. All to celebrate the weekly battles. Players and fans can see the games as life and death struggles. In actuality, early ball games were just that.
Ball games go back thousands of years, according to ancient literature, architecture, murals, and pottery. For many hundreds of years, people around the world have played games involving a ball and scrummage. Ball games were played by ancient people in Greece, Rome, China, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, China, Scotland, England, Italy, Wales, Ireland and the Americas.
Football is the oldest known sport in the Americas, originating in southern Mexico approximately 3,700 years ago. The sport had different versions in different places among pre-Columbian peoples of Meso-America, but most were similar. A newer version, ulama, is still played among indigenous populations. Olmecs, Toltecs, Aztecs, and Mayans were among the early players. Eventually the game was exported to other countries in North America and the Caribbean. Many modern practices reflect much of the ancient ones.
Game courts and stadiums were a common feature in Meso-America by the Classical Period 300-900 CE. Over 1,300 ball courts have been found. Courts vary considerably in size, but all feature long alleys with sloping side walls, and often are part of a sacred complex with key buildings. Some cities had several stadiums. The ends of the court were open and high up on walls were stone rings which were the goals through which a rubber ball would be tossed, using no hands. Game balls were solid rubber, weighed up to 4kg or more. Ball sizes differed over time according to the version of the game being played. Special clothing was worn, including body covering and helmets.
Precise game rules are not known, but are probably similar to volleyball where the object is to keep a ball in play. In most versions a ball was struck by a player’s hip, although some versions used forearms or employed rackets or bats. Making a goal was extremely difficult. In fact, in many versions, a ball successfully put through a goal often signified the end of the game.
Ball games were full of pomp. The audience included hundreds of people, including high chiefs, priests and others. Sacred songs were sung; instruments were played. Games were often played for recreation, including children and even women. But games frequently had important ritual aspects. Major games were held: to resolve conflicts without resorting to real warfare, to solve major problems, as religious events, to determine hereditary issues, and to handle political decisions. They were also used for divination.
The entire community was involved in the ballgames in some way. Ballplayers were of nobility and winners gained wealth and social prestige. Sponsors were leaders who had provided support for the game; sponsorship reaffirmed importance of the sponsor. Ritual specialists performed ceremonies before and after games. Shaman used altered states to directly interact with gods and supernatural agents. Audiences for the games included all sorts of people, local residents and people coming from other towns, sports supporters, food sellers and other vendors. Gamblers were an integral component of the games. Bettors were both nobles and commoners, and there were often strict rules about debts and payments.
On formal occasions, football winners were feted with a hero feast and celebration, and some kind of trophy was presented. When defeat meant death, either one person, a team captain or leader of an opposing group, was killed for a special purpose — like health of the people, agriculture, trade, or victory. Trophies in early days may have been the heads of the losers. Later, it was replicas of heads. An entire team could be sacrificed if the team is a captured enemy. Historical ball games have been bathed in blood.
Violence has always been part of ball games, whether clothed in ritual and pomp as in Meso-America, or at the hands of mobs as in the ball games that began in Europe and came to the United States. Although some mentions are made of native Americans playing football-like games, modern American football had its primary origins in traditional games that were the early rugby played in the villages, towns and schools of Europe for centuries before America was settled.
The modern football game belongs to the era of the Industrial Revolution. Up to this time football was a mob sport played between neighboring villages and towns with any number of players on opposing teams, often more than 100. The teams would clash in a heavy mass of people struggling to kick or drag an inflated pig bladder by any means possible to markers at the end of town. Actions like pushing and assault were acceptable as long as they didn’t lead to manslaughter or murder. Games would be played on important days of year, like Shrove Tuesday, and for local festivals.
Various events, such as the American Civil War, economic, and industrial developments in the United States and Europe, caused many changing patterns of life. About 25 million immigrated to the United States between 1866 and 1915. Domestically and with immigrants, people moved to cities in large numbers, creating a large number of potential, but unskilled, workers. Lots of people without jobs can create problems. Unskilled workers, especially in view of rising numbers needing jobs, had decreased options.
The type of workers that industry required was different from those who played mob football games. Workers were needed that were disciplined, compliant, and organized by the clock. Workers were needed to be part of the machinery. Division of labor sped up work processes. People each had specific parts to play. Teamwork was critical to success.
The type of work that needed to be done had changed and so must the type of pastime activities for the workers. The mob style of ball games that workers played was violent and destructive. It stimulated unruliness and shoddy discipline that impacted society and the attitudes of workers. Because it was hard to ban these games, authorities tried to control them.
Churches were a strong factor in the organization of football games. Churches sought to boost the morale of workers and formed clubs for ball players. Clubs played each other. In the beginning there were no common rules among clubs, but rules did tend to be similar.
As the games progressed, factory owners saw this as a way to discipline the workforce. Bosses saw opportunities to use the sport of football to produce the necessary workforce. Teamwork, discipline and respectability were needed in the workplace. And these were to define the way ball games were to be played and organized. The new methods proved useful to the factories.
Eventually the players left their church affiliations to start self-reliant groups such as the Football Association in 1863. Eventually there was gridiron football and contemporary codes. Expansion of British Empire allowed the game and its rules to spread. At the end of the 19th century regional codes were developing. Games went into the public schools and universities in the Northeast. Football clubs expanded. Games were still brutal but more orderly. Kicking and running games were developed. The first formal football club in the United States was formed in 1862 by schoolboys who played the game on the Boston Common.
Because of brutality, football had left the college campuses, but in the late 1860s football began to return. Princeton, Yale, Rutgers, and Brown began kicking games. In 1867 Princeton used rules based on British football association rules. The first Intercollegiate football game was on November 6, 1869, between Rutgers and Princeton with a round ball and improvised rules.
Businesses sponsored ball clubs. Cities sponsored clubs. Rules became codified. Players were not paid. It was thought that paying players was unsporting and dishonorable. Football started to catch on with the U.S. general population. Local clubs worked together to form leagues.
On November 12, 1892, former All American guard William “Pudge” Heffelfinger became the first known professional football player when Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Athletic Association paid him to be a ringer in a game against rival Pittsburgh Athletic Club. Before then, players had traded their services on the field for expense money or trinkets that players could pawn back to the team. Commercialization moved in.
Whether played with an oblong ball, a round ball, or even a ball comprised of feathers; beginning as a game of skill and bathed in blood; a religious tool for decision-making and divination; mob frenzied and brutal; a way to train workers in the Industrial Age; to learn lessons or to entertain—football is a popular sport with millions of people worldwide.
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above editorial shows a goalmouth scramble, Victorian style. It is an England v. Scotland game, played at The Oval, London, in 1878.