American sports are European at heart


Essay Overview
| How European influence remained in American life after the Revolution

Note: This was written for “Sports in American History” taught at Oxnard College by Dr. Joshua Lieser.

Sanctity of the Mind, Body, and Spirit

Sanctity and significance of the mind, body, and spirit has been emphasized across the globe for centuries. It asserts that an individual’s being is comprised of three components and that one must balance all three to transcend all worldly issues, achieving levels of peace. This concept was a phenomenon in America because its developing culture challenged the accepted religious values and norms. Regardless, one thing remained true: sanctity of the mind, body, and spirit was to persevere. John Betts’ “The Making of a Positive Sports Ideology in Antebellum America argues that mental benefits of sports stemmed from the Enlightenment and Era of Romanticism, but it is more plausible to argue that this transformation of sport in America derives from the Enlightenment and transcendentalism.

To begin, sport in America was, at first, thought of solely as a means to prove masculinity, and in a minimal sense, it was a way to ease the mind by flaunting virility. Sport was “aggressive, vigorous, courageous, and unchildlike.” [1] However, it was no secret that there were restorative properties in sport, giving new meaning to easing the mind. Generally, sport was not thought of as an activity for the mind and spirit; however, the impact of sport on the mind and spirit was undeniable. It combined two modes of thought in a new way for “in the community [there was] an impression that physical vigor and spiritual sanctity are incompatible… but, happily times [changed].” [2] There was an incentive to provide city playgrounds and gymnasiums to increase physical activity and benefit the public for the sake of health. Accessibility for sport increased this mode of thought the same way that churches and public libraries increased literacy. Initially, the concern for public health was top priority, but religious revival revamped the list. As a result, sport deviated from its traditional image, and it was reconceptualized to better capture the American persona.

Because sport was used to embody a more wholesome version of the American identity, transcendentalism captivated the essence of the mind, body, and spirit because it did not have any limitations. Transcendentalism was a movement in the mid-1800s that believed in the perfectibility of humans, resonating that God resides within. Transcendentalists exhibited these practices through various means, especially through self-reflection. [3] During the 1830s and 1840s, the United States focused on the Second Great Awakening, or the Second Coming of Christ, so the transcendentalist movement better aligns itself with upholding religious values while allowing some change. [4] Transcendentalist thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Immanuel Kant advocated for individuals to self-reflect while maintaining a relationship with God, stressing the importance of a balanced life. For Americans, it meant considering how their ideals and personal convictions were evolving with the developing American identity.

When work became less physical, fear of male effeminacy called for a substitute that would help rebuild the physique of someone leading a strenuous life. [5] Collectively, a religiously governed life was upheld by Victorian ideals and values, but these concepts were challenged by industrialization, urbanization, and immigration. Transcendentalist ideals were ways to overcome these obstacles without losing sight of religious core while being able to give way into forms of leisure. In contrast, romanticism was an artistic movement that emphasized personal excellence by valuing one’s emotions. Romanticism is an individual journey; it excludes religion because it aims to have individuals focus on a personal agenda and emotional enlightenment. As a result of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration, sport aided the adaptation of Victorian values to American life, meaning traditional European values were co-opted for the American identity.

Moreover, success in sanctity and significance of the mind, body, and spirit traces back to the Greeks, who excelled in this concept because “they had two kinds of schools – the one to train the minds, and the other to train the bodies of their children.” [6] This same belief circled its way to American values asserting that “[the] true university would teach a broad spectrum of literary and scientific subjects and would include fencing, riding, swimming, and gymnastics.” [7] This did not entirely align with what was good for the body was good for the soul. Instead, it aligned with the idea that there was a need to preserve the mind, body, and spirit. Following the Civil War, society was not as cohesive, and there was an increase of illness well-timed with political and religious agitation and the pursuit of wealth. All of these were conflicting, corrupting factors that furthered the importance of sport being a means to protect mind, body, and spirit. It forced people to ask how they knew what they knew, and it nudged social acceptance of sport among all classes, as the rise of sports coincided with social changes.

In closing, it is plausible to say these concepts derived from Europeans as most things in early American culture did. However, the classification of the romanticism movement deters the overall narrative. Sport was known to “awaken an intense interest in the competitors; [by] absorbing the attention, sharpening the perception, and communicating alertness to the motions of the mind as well as the body.” [8] For these reasons, it is fitting that sport is a means to preserve the mind, body, and spirit because of a certain leniency with sport that did not jeopardize devotion or social life.

[1] “The Making of a Modern Sporting Culture, 1840-1870,” in Major Problems in American Sport History, ed. Steven Riess. (New York City: Cengage Learning, 2015), 88.

[2] Higginson, Thomas W., “Thomas W. Higginson Analyzes the American Clergy and Their Need for Physical Fitness, 1858,” in in Major Problems in American Sport History, ed. Steven Riess. (New York City: Cengage Learning, 2015), 89.

[3] Maldonado, Jose. “Transcendentalism.” Lecture, Oxnard, CA, September 26, 2018.

[4] “The Making of a Modern Sporting Culture, 1840-1870,” in Major Problems in American Sport History, ed. Steven Riess. (New York City: Cengage Learning, 2015), 88.

[5] Lieser, Josh. “Baseball and Sports After the Civil War.” Lecture, Oxnard, CA, January 23, 2019.

[6] Beecher, Catharine. “Catharine Beecher Criticizes Women’s Frailty and Recommends What Should Be Done About It, 1855,” in Major Problems in American Sport History, ed. Steven Riess (New York City: Cengage Learning, 2015) 92.

[7] Betts, John R. “The Making of a Positive Sports Ideology in Antebellum America,” in Major Problems in American Sport History, ed. Steven Riess (New York City: Cengage Learning, 2015) 102.

[8] Betts, John R.,104.

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