"Sports may be among the most powerful human expressions in all history," Gerald Early writes in the opening essay of this issue, and perhaps more than sex, to which it relates in all kinds of complicated and not-so-complicated ways, sport elaborates in its rituals what it means to be human: the play, the risk, the trials, the collective impulse to games, the thrill of physicality, the necessity of strategy; defeat, victory, defeat again, pain, transcendence and, most of all, the certainty that nothing is certain--that everything can change and be changed.
But if sport is a powerful expression, it is also an expression of power. Any Olympics tells us this. In economic terms, what we might call the gross national sports product is at least $350 billion, six times what it was a decade ago. In terms of popular culture, probably nothing enters public consciousness on such a scale. Some 133 million Americans watched the Super Bowl this year, wildly outdistancing the 47 million Who re-elected Bill Clinton.
There is an old chestnut on the left that sports are nothing but cheap amusements to divert the people from their problems. To which one may ask, What's wrong with a little diversion? For most people, life is hard, leisure a luxury, and the physical arts are no less valid than any other, Denigration of sport merely recapitulates the modern devaluation of the physical--for, after all, if sports are an art, they are also an extravagant, often brutal form of work.
More to the point, as a cultural product, sport represents less an abdication from serious things than an arena in which these have always been enacted and contested. As far back as the sixteenth century, English kings proscribed the games of the people as a sacrilege or a distraction from the more useful practice of war skills. …