The Ball: The Object of the Game

By Wing, Carlin | American Journal of Play, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

The Ball: The Object of the Game


Wing, Carlin, American Journal of Play


The Ball: The Object of the Game

John Fox

New York: Harper Perennial, 2012. Notes, bibliography, index. 400 pp. $14.99 paper. ISBN: 9780061881794

Why do we play ball? The Ball: The Object of the Game begins with the conceit that John Fox-prompted by an offhand question tossed out by his seven-yearold son-embarked on a quest to articulate why humans play ball. Although the underlying motivation for the work clearly comes from the years he spent researching an ancient Mayan ball game, this father son moment of bonding sets up the book's conversational tone and serves as its narrative thread. Fox begins by claiming the ball as a universal object: one that has been differently bounced, kicked, thrown, and batted about by cultures for all of human history. He wisely declines an attempt at an encyclopedia of ball games, and instead chooses to focus on eight exemplary ball sports from the past and present, those that, "best reveal . . . key historical moments in the evolution of ball games, from the ancient world to the present" (p. 10). Fox gives sustained attention to the Kirkwall Ba', jeu de paume (or royal tennis), the Mayan ball game and its presentday iteration ulama, the American Indian tradition of lacrosse, American baseball, football, and basketball, and, at the end, a nod to soccer. As Fox elaborates these examples of balls being batted around for the purposes of pick-up play, complex ritual, and major media event, another question comes to the fore: How do the ways we play, and their differences, matter?

Fox argues that playing with balls is and has been central to human development- among others, he points to William Calvin's work suggesting an evolutionary connection between human capacity for language and precision with projectiles. He also argues that our current forms of play have been corrupted by what other scholars have dubbed the sports-industrial complex. At times Fox's evolutionary and cultural arguments feel conflated, like his exhortation that we, "reclaim our purest, most primal connections to the games we love and remind ourselves why they matter so much" (p. 11). These calls for a return to purity are rarely compelling, not because our present moment does not desperately need transforming but rather because referring to a fantasy of an idyllic past is not the best tactic for making different and better futures. From Fox's own stories of ball games in early Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek, and Mayan civilizations, it does not seem as if earlier chronological iterations of ball games were somehow purer. They were just importantly different in the ways they served as reflections and material mediations of their times and places. But his argument gathers urgency when he locates it in relation to the recent work in child development, which indicates that, as a culture, we have a "play deficit." I wanted Fox to be both louder and more careful here. A lack of play is a big deal when you put it together with research on the importance of play to cognitive development. He could have taken more time to tease out the nuances of this research since it lends his own work some serious stakes.

Even the most serious sport, game, and play scholars will find something new in Fox's book. Readers will find themselves educated into the histories both of games that they have never heard of before and games that they only thought they knew all about. …

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