You've got balls

- Scott R. Garceau (The Philippine Star) - June 27, 2012 - 12:00am

Some say money makes the world go round, some say love. Ask John Fox, author of The Ball: Discovering the Object of the Game, and he’ll make a strong case for the common, everyday ball.

Whether it’s basketball, football, baseball, tennis, golf, or any other competition revolving around a spherical object, anthropologist Fox traces its origins back to the annals of human history. Ball games have existed in ancient cultures spread throughout the globe (think Mexico and the Aztecs, or ancient Egyptians with their orbs), and Fox has visited excavation sites worldwide to answer the question posed by his son one day while tossing around a baseball in the backyard: Why do we play with balls?

No, not what you’re thinking. Balls, Fox learns, are multipurpose objects that encourage play. And play is very important in human mental development. Play encourages our brains to develop more synaptic connections, as it involves problem-solving: whether it’s putting a ball in a basket or keeping it away from 50 other cavemen trying to rip it from your hands.

Not only that, the ball in all its spherical simplicity is, in Fox’s words, “kinetically interesting.” “Balls can bounce, roll, be struck, thrown and caught fairly easily at a wide range of speeds,” he tells us. Yeah, we know that, dude. We watch Solar. In addition, they’re “highly aerodynamic and yet unpredictable in their trajectory.” In other words we like that balls don’t stay put: even dogs understand that it’s fun to chase something that moves around a lot, escaping their grasp.

So why do grown men enjoy ball games? The Ball takes us to various locations, exploring cultures that have kept ball games alive in their culture for thousands of years — places like Iran, Afghanistan, ancient Greece and the isolated Scottish isle of Orkney in the North Sea. It’s apparently a universal instinct, though largely male, and anthropologists trace it to early hunting: the “physical dexterity and visual-spatial skills” involved in, say, keeping a soccer ball from opponents while moving down a field toward a net can be traced to early hunter-gatherer societies, “For our protein-hungry ancestors, the object was simple: chase down and kill your prey (‘game’) before it can run off or get nabbed by a smarter or faster competitor.” This is the basis of pretty much every ball game we’ve come to adopt into our modern culture. What once was necessary for survival has evolved into pure sport and leisure activity, though English football and rugby is no less bloodthirsty than hunting was in ancient times.

But Fox goes further, looking into the sexual and socio-political roots of ball games. That’s right, sexual: taking a leaf from Frazer’s The Golden Bough, Fox points out that ball games were harbingers of fertility for ancient agricultural societies: he who caught and claimed the elusive ball could expect a good harvest, and possibly many children to boot. You don’t have to look far to see modern parallels to the attractiveness of ball-playing prowess — Tom Brady hooking up with Giselle Bundchen, for instance. But the reason the ball was so prized among ancient agricultural societies was probably a bit more basic: it was round, like the sun, and sun helps the crops grow. To claim the sphere was to claim fertility.

In digging up ancient cultures, Fox even sees a clear connection between spectator sports and drinking. Along with remains of ball-like objects, ancient Greek and Egyptian dig sites often contained pottery with traces of alcohol. So modern couch potatoes and Super Bowl parties can be traced to ancient civilizations, which knew the pleasure of kicking back with chips and beer to root for their teams. 

Fox also looks into the origins of games designed and reserved for the upper classes, such as tennis (as early as 12th century under French kings). Tennis may be called “the sport of kings,” but Fox points out it actually has its origins among Parisian priests who had vast monastery grounds to allow free play (Fox is full of geekish trivia like this). 

And did you know that early balls were not even spherical? Sometimes they were dead animals, as with the Afghan game of passing around a dead goat between players to place it in a basket at one end of a playing field (a version of this is featured in Sly Stallone’s Rambo II). Usually, balls were animal skins stuffed with any variety of things: sawdust, grass, beeswax, or, in some cases “the scrotum of a kangaroo.” Later, the invention of the inflated ball (as early as Chris Columbus’ voyage to the Americas in 1492) changed the game, so to speak.

We know about modern sports, and how much time and money is involved in what has become a sophisticated enterprise — signing players, managing, endorsements, high-tech equipment — but on a very basic level, Fox tells us in The Ball, the essential thrill of watching a game based around a spherical object still compels us.

But what I also find interesting is cultures that use manmade objects not for pleasure, but for survival. Specifically, to kill. Of course, throwing rocks at animals was a big breakthrough for man. Once he learned to aim and pitch at a mammoth or saber-toothed tiger, his chances of survival grew exponentially. Using tools to kill is just as interesting as using them to play. We only need note the boomerang of aborigine culture, or that mainstay of childhood idling, the yoyo, which was originally a Filipino device used to hunt prey.

Someone should do a history of that one.

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The Ball: Discovering the Object of the Game is available at National Book Store.

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