A Brief History of American Sports

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 307

English settlers in the seventeenth century colonies in North America brought with them their own amusements: festival games such as wrestling, cock-fighting, and foot races for the plebeians; horse racing, bear-baiting, and other pastimes for the planters of Virginia. These continued to be sources of recreation through much of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century until the industrial revolution began to change the structure of American society.

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Baseball, with its combination of teamwork and individual excellence, began to appeal to large numbers by the 1850’s. In the years after 1865, baseball became professionalized and was from the beginning very much a sport of men from the blue-collar class. Very soon, team owners (many of them brewery owners) took over the game, organized formal leagues, and instituted rules binding the players to their teams and limiting their bargaining power.

The late nineteenth century saw new emphasis on physical strength and skill, fostered by those who rejected the Victorian image of weakness. New games, chiefly football, intended to strengthen young men and prepare them for the combats of life, became popular toward the end of the century, changing forever the structure of American colleges and universities. Tennis, polo, bicycling, rowing, and yachting, some of which allowed feminine participation, grew in popularity among the wealthy. Basketball, fostered by the settlement house movement and the YMCA, spread rapidly in the limited spaces available in cities.

World War I and the years that followed brought increasing popularity and wealth in the major spectator sports, especially college and professional football, baseball and basketball, all of which, eventually stimulated by television, have become major businesses, with all the rewards and problems of such enterprises, including labor troubles, drug addiction, and gambling. Oddly, the authors ignore outdoor activities such as hiking, bicycling, and camping which have recently attracted millions who prefer participation to spectating.

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