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Foreign Policy in Focus

Blood Sport

In the Mayan game of pitz, the first team sport in human history, two sets of players squared off in a ball court that could stretch as long as a football field. The object of the game was to use hips and elbows to keep the ball in the air and, if possible, get it through a hoop set high on a stone wall. The ball was roughly the size and heft of a human head. Indeed, given the sheer number of decapitations in the Popol Vuh, the sacred Mayan text that prominently features the game, scholars have not ruled out the possibility that the teams sometimes played with the heads of sacrificial victims. It's also probable that, at the conclusion of the game, one team or the other fell en masse beneath the priests' daggers.

Pitz was intimately connected to the religious rituals of the Mayans. But it was also a re-enactment of war. Team sports faithfully reproduce the conditions of a battlefield: two irreconcilable foes, displays of courage and endurance, team loyalty as a form of tribalism or nationalism, the veneration of winners and the castigation of losers. Were the Mayans especially bloodthirsty in their combination of play and sacrifice? No more so than Romans egging on the gladiators at the Coliseum. And remember: It wasn't that long ago that we dispensed with ritual reenactments and treated war as a spectator sport. In July 1861, Washingtonians took their picnic baskets out to Bull Run stream in Manassas to take in the show and root for one side or the other. (Today, partisans cheer the home team from the safety of the living room, and TV networks are generally careful not to show too much carnage to ruin the evening meal.)

Sports and war have long had an intimate connection. The marathon was born during the Greek victory over the Persians at Marathon in 490 BC, when a Greek messenger allegedly ran 25 miles to Athens to announce the victory. The biathlon — skiing and shooting — began as training for Norwegian soldiers. Boxing, fencing, and martial arts all bring hand-to-hand combat into the sporting world. Like pitz, the Olympics are a ritual reenactment of battle, where nations compete for gold and glory.

Governments have also used sports more deliberately in the service of war and conquest. In the United States, for instance, "baseball prepped the nation for World War I with its close-order drills at ballparks," writes Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Robert Elias in The Foreign Policy of Baseball. "Ballplayers used their throwing skills to train soldiers in tossing hand grenades. Baseball accompanied the endless U.S. military and corporate interventions in the Caribbean and Latin America, including Nicaragua, Mexico, Panama, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic, and even Brazil, Chile, and Argentina. According to Albert Spalding, whose sporting goods company was an early supporter of American expansionism: 'The United States has no lands or tribes to conquer but it is only to be expected that Base Ball will invade our new possessions and [demonstrate] that possession's American-ness.'"

Sports have been bloodied by their association with politics. But politics, too, has become a blood sport. Like pitz, what goes on inside the sacred ring known as the Beltway is a fight to the death between two opposing teams. A Republican siding with the Democrats has become as unheard of as a Yankees pitcher striding over to the Red Sox dugout and offering to throw a few for the other side. Team loyalty is absolute. If you don't vote the party line, the party will sacrifice you in the next elections.

Then there's the increasingly disturbing connection between tea party anger and guns. "We are turning our guns on anyone who doesn't support constitutional conservative candidates," tea party leader Dale Robertson said as a warning to moderate Republicans. Sarah Palin's "Don't Retreat, Reload" campaign, with gun crosshairs over targeted state races, reinforces the image of politics as a blood sport. Anti-government militias are coming out of the woods to sponsor "open-carry" tea party rallies. The tea party movement, which draws on some legitimate populist anger over high unemployment rates and Wall Street excesses, looks more and more like one of those "hooligan firms" affiliated with soccer teams, whose expressed purpose is to brawl with the fans on the opposing side.

I don't get misty-eyed for the days of bipartisanism. After all, the bipartisan consensus on U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War was nothing to get nostalgic about. When we've gone to war, it's generally been a bipartisan affair. But when people start pulling out their guns, I start to worry. The Washington game is getting rougher and uglier. Kicking around human heads might be just around the corner.

Anyone for pitz?

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John Feffer

John Feffer

John Feffer, is the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands and the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. His new novel, Frostlands, a Dispatch Books original and book two of his Splinterlands series, has just been published. His podcast is available here.

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