An Anthropologist Asks Why We Play Ball

Geek Culture

Innocent but esoteric questions from children can be hard to answer. When a child asks “How do birds fly?” “Who invented the alphabet?” or “Why is the sky blue?” sometimes the answer is difficult to distill enough for young minds. For the intrepid, this is a matter of breaking down complex ideas to very basic concepts, but for others, it can be too much of a challenge. Fortunately, author John Fox is dauntless. Playing catch with his seven-year-old son in the backyard, Fox was asked “Dad, why do we play ball, anyway?”

This simple question sent the trained anthropologist off on a global search to uncover the origins of our love affair with games and our inexplicably imperative tactile connections to small spheres. Why is it, that when we see a ball, we are compelled to pick it up and play with it? Fox was determined to find out.

Fox’s travels and research are detailed in his new book, The Ball. From the games the ancient Egyptians and Greeks played to the birth of basketball, Fox covers a lot of ground. However, the book focuses on many lesser known games and, for the most part, avoids modern sport.

Among his many stops, in Scotland, he witnesses a medieval version of football called ‘ba, the origins of which are as brutal and bloody as you might expect from those tough times. In France, Fox learns about jeu de paume, a predecessor to tennis. And not far from the beaches of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, he ventures into the jungle to play ulama on an ancient Mayan court.

The Ball has a full side of history and colorful stories that bring these old sports to life. In his investigations, he discovered that, aside from the obvious physical benefits, there are psychological and cognitive benefits as well — Fox says that playing ball games help us think better and faster. It’s an interesting observation, especially since when he does draw back to modern sport, it is to draw comparisons between the brutal sports of a more primitive age and the “concussion crisis” of the NFL.

At full time, The Ball is a fascinating read that – like a good ball game – is both compelling and fun. While Fox doesn’t come up with a simple answer to his son’s question, he does come up with many observations that help define our basic human need to play. Getting to the root of games and understanding why we love ball games, well, that might just be enough to answer a young boy’s question.

Disclosure: GeekDad received a review copy of this book.

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