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Past, Present and Future in the Arenas of America

Each of the three leading sports fits an era.

June 14, 2004|Michael Mandelbaum

Why are sports woven so tightly into the fabric of American life? Why do baseball, football and basketball have such a powerful grip on the national imagination? A major reason is that each of these games, in its history and its design, corresponds to one of the three social and economic periods through which the United States has passed. Baseball is the agrarian sport, football the industrial sport and basketball the postindustrial sport.

Baseball evokes -- and had its beginnings in -- traditional rural life. The game is not governed by the clock. Its pace is leisurely and unhurried, more attuned to the turning of the seasons, to sunup and sundown, than the disciplines of a time clock, deadlines and the eight-hour workday.

Baseball players use "natural" tools that were originally handmade and still could be -- a wood bat and a cowhide ball. And the players' skills are those required in earlier times: Superior hand-eye coordination and patience are needed by hunters and fishermen as well.

Because it evokes the era when people were close to nature, changes in baseball that involve synthetic materials are widely perceived to violate its spirit. Baseball played on artificial turf instead of grass, using aluminum rather than wood bats, is like Shakespeare staged for television: recognizable, to be sure, but irritatingly different, diminished, inauthentic.

Football was born in the Industrial Age, when the growth of cities provided large numbers of people to play the game and larger numbers to watch it. If baseball harks back to the farm and the field, football represents the world of the factory. Industrial life is lived by the clock, and football is timed. Football teams are like machines with specialized moving parts that must function in concert. Players are like workers in a factory. They perform their tasks in a precise sequence, and failure to do so leads to the kind of disaster depicted in "Modern Times," in which Charlie Chaplin gets tangled up in the assembly line machinery.

Basketball was invented in the Industrial Age, but it didn't come into its own until the late 20th century, in a postindustrial epoch of office workers, satellite TV and the Internet.

In postindustrial society, what counts economically is neither land, as in the Agrarian Age, nor capital, as in the industrial world, but something more portable and personal: knowledge. Basketball reflects this.

Unlike baseball and football players, competitors in a basketball game are relatively unencumbered. They have no need for bats and cleats, and, in contrast to the padded, helmeted warriors of the football field, their work clothes consist of shorts, a thin, sleeveless jersey and rubber-soled shoes. Like the "knowledge worker" of postindustrial society -- the designer, the economist, the psychologist -- what the basketball player brings to his enterprise is his own skill.

The way authority is exercised on a basketball team corresponds to the structure of postindustrial organizations, in which authority flows not only vertically from the coach but also horizontally, among the players. Basketball players interact directly with one another, and each has considerable scope for independent action. Many football coaches call all the plays, like a general or a dictator. A basketball coach, by contrast, trains players to decide for themselves, under pressure, how to proceed, and so resembles a group therapist or a management consultant.

Basketball corresponds to another distinctive feature of postindustrial society: gender equality. At first, women played the game by different rules, but in the 1970s, with the advent of the women's movement, they adopted the rules that governed the men's game. (Females don't play hardball or football much, except in kids' leagues.)

What are the prospects for these three sports in the 21st century? Though the world that baseball represents is long gone, the widespread nostalgia for a simpler, unhurried time assures the sport's survival. The world of the factory from which football comes is receding as well. But football has another feature that sustains its popularity: It is an exercise in controlled violence, and violence, from the real Trojan War to the latest movie version, has always attracted spectators. Indeed, as violence of all kinds becomes less and less accepted socially in the United States, the football field has the potential to be what the zoo became in the 20th century: a place where something once common but now rare is on display.

As for basketball, its connection to the main features of postindustrial life, as well as the simplicity of its rules and the soaring feats of its players, has given it the widest appeal of the three. Baseball will remain a way of recapturing the rural American past and football a riveting spectacle, but basketball seems set to become American team sports' gift to the world and the future.

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Michael Mandelbaum is the author of "The Meaning of Sports: Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football and Basketball and What They See When They Do" (PublicAffairs, 2004).

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