The Link Between Sports and Democracy

There is a parallel between sports and democracy.  Both depend on the ability to say, “You whipped me fair and square this round; just wait till next round.”  And both, as we know them today, were English inventions.

I have never been much of a fan or an enthusiast of sports.  I went out for track my last year of high school and rugby the last two years of college, just for the experience.  And if I or a close family member is attending a school sports event, I will cheer for the appropriate teams.  Otherwise I’m pretty indifferent.  The practice of sports, especially team sports, may teach certain skills you don’t learn in class; but I have never been impressed with the superior morality of athletes – far from it!

And yet the necessary customs of competitive sports are very similar to those required for a functioning democracy.  It is necessary to be able to say, “You beat me fair and square, but just wait for next season,” or it wouldn’t be sports, it would be war.  The same is true of democratic elections.  We must play fair and be able to say, “ We lost this round, but just wait till next time.”  That was one reason why the affair of January 6, 2021 [Epiphany] was so distressing; a mob actually broke into the Capitol with the avowed intent of changing the election results!  But  instead they merely escalated the stakes of the game.  In fact, exactly four years before – to the very day – a number of Democrats in the House shouted objections to certifying Trump’s victory.  They could not get a single vote in the Senate, and therefore, as outgoing Vice President and therefore President of the Senate, Joe Biden declared, “It is over.”

That story sounds very American; however, it is a fact that both competitive organized sports as we know them today and electoral democracy with the possibility of change of regime, both originated in England.

[Normally we should say Britain instead of England, as we generally say Spain instead of Castile, at least since 1707.  But I think the development of an elective Parliament, and a sportsmanlike turnover of power as a result, both originated in England specifically.]

In 1863 The Football Association was founded.  Their version of the sport did not allow for using the hands.  Certain schools demurred and adopted a hand-carrying game called Rugby football, named after a ‘public’ school where this version was popular.  Oxford slang at the time liked to shorten words and add the ending ‘-er’ or ‘-ers’ to the shortened words [pronounced ‘uh’ or ‘uz’]; thus, ‘association’ football became ‘soccer’.  This became the normal word in overseas English-speaking countries, including North America, where other forms of ‘football’ were more popular.  [The North American forms are greatly altered but derive from rugby – and a spectator of one of them can sort of follow rugby and vice versa.]

The English also subjected cricket to this kind of organization.  The Americans, and now Canada, Japan, and northern Latin America, adopted a somewhat different English bat-and-ball game called ‘rounders’ or ‘baseball’.

Because of British world dominance in the era before 1914, some of these sports spread widely around the world: baseball to the places mentioned, cricket especially to India and the Caribbean and nearby countries, and soccer [known as ‘football’ in Britain and countries not dominated by white English speakers] truly became the world sport.

As for electoral sportsmanship:  the United States passed its first test of handing over the presidential office to a different party in 1800, albeit with some friction– anyone who has seen the musical, Hamilton, will know a little about that.  Hamilton got shot in a duel by the loser of 1800.  Mexico failed its first test in 1828 and did not achieve a successful transfer of power until the year 2000.  Ironically, that same year the American presidential elections got tied up in a mess of hanging chads and were finally settled by the Supreme Court.  [I suspect the Mexicans were getting a good laugh out of that!]

In any case, the ability to lose gracefully, on which both sports and democracy depend, seems to have been an English gift to the world.  In recent years, at least in the United States, the ability to lose gracefully seems to be decreasing.

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