In the Lascaux caves of southwest France, prehistoric cave paintings depict several fascinating images. Along with the more famous depictions of horses, deer, and bison, there are figures of sprinters and wrestlers engaged in their sports. Thousands of miles away in Mongolia dating to 7000 B.C., similar images portray wrestlers surrounded by a cheering crowd; in far-off Neolithic Egypt other sports are depicted: archery and swimming.
These repeated depictions of sporting competition reveal that humans across the globe have always engaged in recreation. As civilizations advanced, their sports developed as well, growing in sophistication and complexity. The ancient Greeks developed the iconic Olympic games to celebrate their citizens’ athletic prowess. The Mayans played a type of ball game that sometimes ended in human sacrifice. Rome had their thrilling chariot races and gladiatorial games, and medieval Europe had jousting. Every culture seems to develop some way to play.
So why are sports so integral to human society? What role do they play within a civilization?
In this article we dive into three reasons why sports are important for a society. Sports teach individuals to navigate laws, channel aggression in a healthy way, and cultivate a sense of community within a culture.
Sports Teach Participants to Navigate a Law-Based Society
One reason that sports play a pivotal role in developed civilizations is that sports act as training grounds for proper behavior in a law-based society. Games, and play generally, act as microcosms of larger society and the interactions within these games can mirror the interactions one has in everyday life.
In any game one must learn to adhere to rules and accept outcomes that he or she disagrees with in the interest of the greater goal to win the game. When one party fails to adhere to the rules established in a particular game, the game itself dissolves, and little meaning can be derived from the interaction between opponents. When one cheats at chess, the participants cease to actually be playing chess since they are operating outside of the well-established rules of the game. Their failure to abide by the rules destroys the purpose of the game. Certainly, one can no longer determine who is the best chess player since the cheater’s actions ended the game prematurely.
However a skilled player can exercise the maximal amount of freedom allowed by the game while staying within the rules, hopefully resulting in victory. When both players allow themselves to be bound by the predetermined rules, then a valid winner can be declared and the uncertainty over who is the more skilled player can be settled. Thus, the goal of the game is accomplished.
In the same way that rules must be adhered to in sports, rules must also be followed in larger society. The rules in a game are correlative to the laws in society, and failure to follow the law has the same detrimental effects on society as failure to play by the rules does on any given game. When one chooses to break a law, their actions present a barrier to society’s goals and prevent the “game” of civilization from playing out properly. Instead of energy and resources being directed toward the flourishing of the society, they must now be directed toward restraining the law-breakers actions and preventing more lawlessness in the future. Once accomplished, society can “get back on track” toward its forward progress of general well-being, technology, art, culture, etc.
Properly oriented individuals will have a solid grasp of the laws of their city, state, or nation and will be able stay well within those boundaries. The individual will then be able to direct all energy toward interests that do not conflict with the greater civilization’s interest and contribute to the flourishing of society.
Thus we see how sporting activities can closely map the basic structures of society. When one can learn to obey the rules of various games, they can learn to obey society’s rules as well. Games are especially important during an individual’s development phases because games allow a safe environment to fail repeatedly without detrimental consequences like jail time. The individual can learn how to handle success, failure, rule-breaking by opponents, and high pressure situations which all contain analogues in greater society. Sports prepare young people for the game of life.
Sports Channel Aggression in a Healthy Way
Another reason sports are important for a civilization is that they channel aggressive energy in a healthy, non-violent way. Sports allow the young, energetic male populace to compete against each other and prove their prowess without bloodshed or collateral damage. In some cultures friendly sporting matches have even been used to settle disputes that would otherwise result in war.
A prime example of sport being used as an alternative to warfare is the Native American sport of Lacrosse. During colonial times, the Iroquois League was a collection of Native American tribes in the Northeast and Midwestern United States. Instead of allowing disagreements between tribes to break apart their confederation, often tribes would use the sport as a way to let out aggression and settle the dispute. Since no warriors were killed like they would have been in a war, individual tribes remained strong in numbers and the League as a whole remained unified.
Sporting matches not only allow participants to let out their aggression, but allow spectators the opportunity as well. The feeling of being on a team helps fans simulate the “us versus them” tribal mentality without actually vilifying or excluding others in larger society. Spectators can get the sweet taste of a team’s victory (or the sourness of defeat) without a real loser involved. Ideally, what happens on the field stays on the field.
Sports allow both participants and fans alike the opportunity to let out aggressive behavior in a socially acceptable way, like a giant, communal stress ball. Otherwise destructive energy is channeled into a positive activity.
Sports Help Establish Culture and Cultivate Community
One of the biggest attractions at sporting events are the cultural elements that run tangential to the sport itself. Whether it be college football’s bands, cheerleaders, and mascots or Major League Baseball’s “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” religiously sung at each game, culture is cultivated when people come together for sports.
Any time large groups of people are in close proximity, cultural elements develop that are unique to that group of people. This is why each city, state, and nation has a distinctive culture. Sports are the same way. Since huge amounts of people coalesce around a particular team, that team develops a unique identity and tradition. Sometimes the cultural elements are so substantial that they bleed into the greater culture of a state or nation. For example, the sport of baseball has become an important element of American culture, just as NFL football has. When one thinks about the United States, often images of these sports come to mind. The same is true of English cricket or Spanish bull-fighting. These sports have become something that the entire nation can unify around and identify with.
It’s difficult to quantify the impact that this creation of culture has on a civilization. Certainly from a monetary standpoint, the amount of money exchanged during sporting events is astronomical. How many t-shirts, hats, beverages, or jerseys are sold, providing income to the manufacturers and service employees? How many pizzas are ordered on super-bowl weekend? How many multi-million dollar business deals were closed from spectators in box seats? You get the idea.
Of course the monetary aspect is only one benefit of these cultural hubs. Countless memories are forged at these events as families and friends gather together to enjoy the spectacle. Sporting events, like all cultural traditions, ultimately bond a community together and ground individuals within the group.
Sports play a vital role in a healthy society. By teaching citizens to follow rules and channel aggression, a more ordered society flourishes. Sports also bring communities together, developing cultural elements that define a people. As long as humans continue to live and work in communities, there will be some form of sport to captivate us.