The British & Their Sports
Drs. Allison & Tomlinson
9 August 2010
1. Assess the impact of Rugby School on the development and diffusion of British sports.
The boys line up along the baselines and doff their caps for the national anthem. Some of them pay no attention but most sport a look of brave resolution, and when the song is over they make a circle, the ones in the white mixing with the ones in the grey. They hold hands and recite the Little League Baseball Pledge: “I trust in God, I love my country, and will respect its laws. I will play fair, and strive to win, but win or lose, I will always do my best.”
This scene might happen in America but it is the legacy of England. The orderly white boundaries, the mixing of sport and nationality, the construction of formal sporting organizations, and the impression of sport with moral codes of conduct all bear witness to the pervasive influence of English public-school games on the way sports are played today. Rugby School is responsible for a disproportionate amount of this influence, and crystallizes the argument that the sporting revolution in 19th-century England was due to the conditions at the public schools: at Rugby, pervasive moral standard, mixed with surplus time, land, and money, strongly influenced the sequence of events that led to the contemporary state of British sports.
In order to understand how Rugby might have influenced British sports, it is necessary to begin with a brief exposition of the state of sports before and after the proposed date of the “Rugby Revolution” around the time of Thomas Arnold as headmaster at Rugby, from 1828 to 1842. That there was change is indisputable: “there is no doubt that the period between the mid-nineteenth century and the outbreak of the First World War was characterized by a notable transformation in the scale and nature of Britain’s sporting culture” (Tranter 13). Sports before this period are often depicted as little more than riots, but this may be the result of surviving accounts being largely from segments of society that had reason to be upset at the scale and ferocity of these holiday games: “our appreciation of the content of popular recreation is regrettably partial” (Delves 95).
Some things can be known. Griffin reports that “[Football] was undoubtedly one of the most widely played outdoor sports, but it was usually played in a form much closer to the modern game than standard accounts allow” (45) because the accounts that survive generally detail games at big holidays, which were the exception in terms of their scale and rowdiness. Though the game would be hard to identify in any of its local permutations as today’s ‘beautiful game,’ it was true that “Football matches in all parts of England in the early nineteenth century…[were] not only widespread at this time but that it was also played by locally determined, formal rules” (Griffin 47). Football, the most prominent (if not the most British) of sports, is often located as a pre-Victorian source of class struggle (Delves), and sport was even more divided along class lines than it is today.
Sports are today both more widely practiced and essentially different. Most pre-Victorian popular recreation centered around baiting animals and local variants of football, whereas today even foxhunting is illegal and football is a codified game with a governing body with 208 member associations across the habitable continents. What happened to make the games of animal baiting disappear is also in part the story of why ball sports flourish today, and this process happened perhaps nowhere more explicitly than at Rugby School under Thomas Arnold. Delves identifies rational recreationalists and evangelicals as two cultural forces battling over the future of sport (110). The developments at Rugby, and then at other public schools, resolved the dialectical tension between these in the new synthesis—morally inflected organized games, reflecting the Enlightenment fascination with order and progress as well as the middle class’ obsession with morality.
Arnold himself is often cited as the talisman that makes Rugby so specially located at the center of the sporting revolution, but other conditions are likely more important to the public school sporting revolution as a whole. Firstly, many of the games at the center of British sports require lots of land (rugby, cricket), which Rugby had in the form of the Close. Secondly, games required specialized equipment (especially games like Rugby fives), which were paid for by the boys out of pocket—only possible for the sons of the upper crust. Thirdly, and this applies to public schools broadly, “masters atoned [for the strictness with which they conducted their actual teaching] with an almost total indifference to the way in which a boy employed his leisure” (Mangan 18). Fourthly, the link between the public schools and the universities, particularly Oxbridge, allowed organized games to continue their development and diffusion in a privileged socioeconomic context.
Thomas Arnold is not the architect of British sport; his direct influence on sport is at best limited to benign neglect. Any direct link between Arnold and sports “does not accord with the evidence and should be firmly rejected” (Mangan 16). If public schools broadly were responsible for the revitalization of sports, then he is only transitively due credit for this achievement, because “it was his success in projecting a personal moral image that was of considerable importance to the successful growth of the public school system” (Mangan 15). Arnold’s concern was not sport but moral reinvigoration, and his fame is due to the fact that this is exactly what was needed and wanted at that time and place. A restless middle class clamored for an outlet for their meritocratic inclinations: morality and then sport provided it.
Arnold and therefore Rugby in particular are therefore rightly associated with the growing tendency to view sports as an arena of morality. Arnold’s Rugby boy was supposed to exemplify ‘First religious and moral principle, second gentlemanly conduct, third academic ability’ (Rugby School) throughout his life. The phrase ‘gentlemanly conduct’ echoes today explicitly in the FIFA Code of Conduct and implicitly in the public shaming of sportsmen found to have transgressed that code, with all its chivalric connotations. If at Rugby conduct preceded ability, this thread continued on in the sporting world (with particular strength in England) in the form of amateurism. The amateur was expected not only to play without monetary compensation but also to play fairly, without taking pride in a victorious result, the same way that the moral reformers of the Victorian era valued reservation as a virtue. Through the spread of the amateur, ‘Corinthian’ spirit, sport was transformed into an activity that was not only suitable for Christians but a desirable expression of that ‘muscular’ Christianity. Sports became a medium of evangelization, as “Muscular Christians… pursued their policy of a healthy mind in a healthy body, resulting in 25 of the 112 soccer teams in Liverpool in 1885 having religious affiliations” (Mangan, Imperial Mentalities 12). Perhaps the best-known delivery of this message is found in Thomas Hughes’ account of a Rugby education in Tom Brown’s School Days, which through Pierre de Coubertin had an immense impact not only on British sports but on sports across the world.
De Coubertin found Hughes’ novel revelatory and concluded that “from a moral point of view, no system could stand higher than the English athletic sports system” (Mangan 16). De Coubertin would go on to build this framework into the Olympic Games, which are for most sports the pinnacle of international competition. The Olympics for decades jealously guarded the amateur spirit handed down from Arnoldian ‘gentlemanly conduct.’ Moreover, the Olympics tie together nation and sport with moral fabric—one needs only remember cases as varied as that of Kazuhiro Kakubo, the snowboarder shamed in Japan for bad fashion sense, and Ben Johnson, the Canadian sprinter blacklisted after being caught using steroids. They are moral battles not only on the individual but also on the cultural level, from Jesse Owens’ triumph in the ‘Nazi’ Olympics to the ‘Miracle’ hockey game at the height of the Cold War, an attitude reproduced in the Vitaï Lampada, fusing the battlefield and the pitch. Rugby’s involvement in this attitude is directly exemplified by Hughes’ writing that the Rugby pupil should be “the true sort of captain, too, for a boy’s army” (107). The pitch, along with the chapel and the classroom, was seen as the forge for the muscular Christian who would be the bedrock of British empire.
Though de Coubertin only wished he had been a Rugbeian, many Rugbeians did have a direct impact on the development of British sports. Many of them were like Coubertin in that they contributed to the spread and institutionalization of sport. Writing down rules to a game, as the boys at Rugby did, was not new; disseminating them was. The public-school network extended naturally into the boys’ hometowns and into Oxbridge, and while it is debatable exactly how diffuse the ‘revolution’ really was, there is no doubting the definite contributions of public-schoolers and Old Rugbeians in particular: “It was, after all, ex-public schoolboys and university men who instigated the formation of the English Football Assocation, devised the first common set of rules for sports like rugby and soccer, set up the athletics clubs and the Amateur Athletic Association and dominated Scottish rugby union” (Tranter 26).
The public schools in this time were tied up with colonialism: “It is no coincidence that many of the sports-promoting headmasters were great enthusiasts for the Empire” (Mangan xxv). To that end, Rugbeians and others spread and innovated across the empire. The public school boy was considered uniquely equipped for colonial administration, having been prepared on the pitch with British organized games; Rugby in particular provided the third-most of all schools to the Sudan Political Service (Mangan, Games Ethic 51). Implicitly (in the language of sportsmen as ‘heroes’ and derbies as ‘battles’) and explicitly (Vitae Lampada, etc.), the “spirit of organized games” was promoted as integral to British imperial success. Games were as important to the enculturation of indigenous peoples as it was to the colonizers: at a Maori school in Australia (in mid-nineteenth-century Australia) “the children were said to be ‘quite English in their love of cricket’” (Mangan, Imperial Mentalities 176). As far abroad as Malaysia, “the provision of sports…became a significant part of the whole educational process” (Mangan, Imperial Mentalities 54). The Rugby approach became the standard.
Organized games are especially good at mediating relations in the colonies for several reasons. The sports field is a liminoid space which, as an “autonomous form of expression,” has egalitarian implications and can serve as a stage for social drama (Rowe 134). In the end, organized games can end up providing a common language where there previously was none, whether between a father and son (Fever Pitch) or Methodist missionaries and Maori tribes (Allison, lecture). In India, cricket was the site of negotiations about postcolonial identity, articulated through the medium of a new kind of cricket, “far from…Rugby” (Appadurai 107). Trobriand Islanders, as shown in the documentary film Trobriand Cricket, melds the game of the colonizers in syncretic fashion to fit the local culture in fascinating ways (the home team always wins!). The Rugby style of games made this possible through a concomitant appreciation for the value of standardized rules and the spirit of innovation.
Tom Wills’ contributions to Australian sport encapsulate the primary facets of the Rugbeian influence: regularization of rules, moralization of play through the amateur ethos, and missionary spreading of these changes. Wills was an Australian who was sent to England for public school, arriving at Rugby in 1850. When he returned to the colony, he carried with him a zeal for organized games learned at Rugby. His words in a letter legendary to fans of Australian rules football carry several important messages (Blainey 19).
Firstly, the basis of his request is that the Australians should have a sport to play in the winter to keep cricketers in shape. Implicit in this analysis is that Wills’ vision of the athlete crosses sporting boundaries. An important part of the vision of the amateur, even into the twentieth century, was that he was a generalist (Allison); C.B. Fry is a perfect example. Secondly, he requests a code of laws drawn up by a club. This follows the Rugbeian formula, in which boys kept rulebooks on them at all times for consultation. Thirdly, he matrixes together morality, spirituality, patriotism, and physicality as being uniquely realized in organized sports. “A firm heart and a steady hand and a quick eye are all that is requisite,” he writes, of a sporting rifleman—even though, of course, it is easily plausible that a robot without ‘heart’ could be a much more proficient rifleman than a human with heart but no ability.
The Rugbeian mixture of morality and physicality contains the Platonic notion that the ‘higher’ (i.e., spiritual) can be reflected in the ‘lower’ (i.e., material) and persists to this day. In Major League Baseball, the Players’ Association gives an annual award called the ‘Heart & Hustle Award’. This award captures many influences, of which the amateur attitude promoted by Rugbeians like Wills is only one—but the fact that that influence was strong enough to survive into the 21st century, across an ocean, in a sport that rejects any ideas of European heritage, is incredible. The award was given to Craig Biggio in two consecutive years, in 2006 and 2007. This is not particularly remarkable—Biggio is in contention for the Hall of Fame—but upon closer examination Biggio’s embodiment of aspects of the amateur attitude yields interesting conclusions.
Biggio played for the same team, the Houston Astros, for his entire career, harking back to the days before the especially commercial practice of free agency (in which players often play for many teams in a career) and alumnus’ fierce loyalty to ‘Old Rugby’. Secondly, Biggio was a generalist, beginning his career as a catcher, then becoming an excellent second baseman and finally ending his career in the outfield—not quite C.B. Fry, but within the highly specialized arena of Major League Baseball, impressive enough. Perhaps the most interesting thing is how clearly disconnected ‘heart’ is from performance when one looks up Biggio’s statistics during his award-winning years (which occurred at the end of his career). He was, quite simply, atrocious (Posnanski). A world in which players are rewarded despite playing far below average is possible because of the particular attitude toward sport cultivated at British public schools like Rugby. This paradigm, which values ‘heart’—a certain manner of conduct unrelated to one’s physical ability—persists to this day, perpetuating the legacy of Wills, the Rugbeians, and the amateur hegemony. A survey of major sports reveals that most if not all award players or teams for ‘sportsmanship’ or ‘fair play’, demonstrating the extent to which the Rugbeian project of moralizing sport has succeeded.
If Tom Brown’s Schooldays is an accurate portrait of life at Rugby, it may contain a seed of an explanation for one of sports’ more seedy problems. Since the seventies, increasing numbers of sports have suffered from problems with performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), starting with amphetamines, then steroids, and now human-growth hormone. It is one of the greatest problems in sports. When stories are broken about use of PEDs, they are never broken by athletes themselves; witness the stony-faced denials of knowledge about use by others by baseball players Mark McGwire (“I’m not here to talk about the past), Sammy Sosa (who suddenly lost his ability to speak coherent English), and Rafael Palmeiro (“I have never used steroids. Period.”) and the ostracism of those who do break the ‘code of silence’ (like trainer Brian McNamee and cyclist Floyd Landis). The ‘code of silence’ dominates Tom Brown’s Rugby as well: Tom, when thinking of going to the Doctor, is reminded of the school levy against ‘blabbing,’ as it is “against public morality and school tradition” (127). Though this ‘code of silence’ certainly has roots much deeper than Rugby, the public-school environment encouraged this kind of dark camaraderie and contributed to its presence in sport.
It has been shown that “from 1830 the sports scenario began to change significantly” (Mangan, PPP 11). Of course, sport was not the only thing to be changing “significantly” in Britain during this period: the Industrial Revolution was charging fiercely forward, changing the way Britons conducted themselves at work and in leisure. In some instances, the changes already set in motion by the public school boys were distorted or enhanced by sociological forces springing which had themselves sprung from the Industrial Revolution. As capitalism entered its fitful growth spurt, “sport and other leisure activities became industries in their own right,” changing not only the marketing of games but also the “character and structure…in the interests of Mammon” (ibid, 14). The codification of rules and organization of clubs into organization made profitable cross-geographical matches possible. Industrialists bought into the idea that sport could have a positive moral effect by sponsoring work teams—better the boys be staying healthy playing football than drinking and fighting in the pub, went the logic. The eventual increase in per capita production, as a result of the Industrial Revolution, led to “increased real incomes and leisure time which, in turn, stimulated a demand for commercialized spectator sport” (ibid, 17).
By identifying the influence of other processes on the development and diffusion of organized sport, one can systematically deduce which effects are specifically Rugbeian and which are not. The Industrial Revolution produced countervailing pressures on sport as presented by the public school model. The modern synthesis in sport is largely a compromise between the influences of the amateur hegemony, derived from Rugby and similar institutions, and the capitalist-industrial complex which turned organized games into industry. Using Raymond Williams’ framework of dominant, emergent, and residual cultures (Williams 121), it is clear that today’s organized games are dominated by the professional influence. However, the residual effect of Rugby is especially apparent in those phenomena in sport which have no explanatory basis in capitalism. One interesting example was provided recently when Dustin Johnson quietly accepted a penalty based on an abstruse rule at golf’s PGA Championship, costing him a chance at the substantial monetary reward. Golf, the ‘royal game’, retains a strong code of conduct that governs not only how loud spectators are expected to clap but also how players are expected to behave off the course: witness the recent ostracism of Tiger Woods as evidence.
Beyond the codification of rugby itself, Rugby School leaves an indelible mark upon British sports through its influence on their practice and audience. The loci of its effects are in moralization, internationalization, and institutionalization of British sports. In each process Rugbeian efforts combined with unique circumstances to propel change in sports from peripheral to prominent. In reforming the moral conditions of Rugby School, Thomas Arnold at once reversed its squalidness and set the table for the gentlemanly amateur to become not only the paragon of athleticism but also a moral hero. The admirer of this Rugbeian code of conduct, Pierre de Coubertin, joined with British imperialism to spread this sporting ideal across the world. The trend of centralization of rules, first found at Rugby in the production of rugby rule books, continued to include the founding of governing bodies and prominent clubs in the major British sports. If William Webb Ellis hadn’t picked up the ball in 1823, someone else surely would have; similar logic seems to apply to the accomplishments of Arnold and de Coubertin. That Rugby—its students, administrators, and admirers—was able to impart, in the form of institutionalized, amateur athletics, such a vital force to British social life should count considerably towards its notoriety, even if such developments were often the result of circumstance and happenstance. Rugby provided the proper environment, the soil for the seed of the revolution in sports; the seed itself was planted by the motivation of the boys, and the seed watered by a moralizing middle class and industrialists keen on harnessing the power of sport to attract the attention of the masses.
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 Of course, the award is called the ‘Heart and Hustle’ Award, and as much as it bears the mark of the amateur attitude, it is also meant to reward several values explicitly associated with the professional, mostly related to a willingness to win at all costs. The point, however, is that in the current synthesis of values surrounding the sportsman, the amateur attitude has persisted in important and unexpected ways.