History is a discipline that considers considers the actions of people and the course of events in particular places and times. Time, for the historian, is a critical concept and underlies the logic of historical analysis. At the simplest level, time establishes a sequence of events. If event B happens after event A, then B cannot be a cause of A. Time however is both a scientifically measurable quantity and a concept. While we have been taught to think of time as a linear quantity that moves from one point towards another point and never repeats, and while our understanding of time includes the scientific notion that units of time have equal value (a minute is always sixty seconds), many societies and people do not think of time in this fashion.
For many cultures, time appears not as a linear phenomenon marking the passage of unique moments never to be repeated but rather as a circular phenomenon marking the repetitive passage of recurring events. Time, in this view, reflects our own lives in which we experience the days, the seasons, and the years as recurring events in a continuing process. A concept of time also reflects an understanding about progress, change, and the purpose of life. Most of us see time as a measure of the rate at which we improve, the speed of change towards something better. We think of time as an upward striving vector, moving from less to more--less civilization to more, less prosperity to more, less technology to more. We cherish each moment of time as a unique entity that we believe we must spend well lest we "waste" time. We imagine that if we allow any moment to pass unmanaged or unexploited, we will have lost forever the value of this unique element. The straight line of our time is composed of equally divided units, each one unique, never to be repeated, and therefore of special and specific value.
Other societies see time differently. They see time as an experiential quantity, something that marks the regularity of life itself. When we experience time as a circular phenomenon, then it does not measure what is unique but what is normal and repetitive. If we miss a sunrise we can see another one tomorrow. If we miss an appointment Monday at 10 AM there will be another day at 10 AM along soon. The purpose of our lives within circular time is to learn the repetitive characteristics of nature's cycles and bring our lives in closer synchronization. Success comes when we match our activities to the characteristics of each cycle. We plant and harvest each year at the right time, the right season, and we mark the passing of time by celebrating the successful completion of these important cycles. It is no accident that the Ancient Maya and the Aztecs both structured their calendars in circular form.
Sports have always served to model various aspects of human experience in stylized and simplified form. The element of time, so important in our own lives, is also a critical element in sports. Each sport, however, models time somewhat differently, reflecting the many ways we can understand and experience time, and capturing different values that time has within different circumstances. We have rigidly timed games such as football, where the clock serves as a critical element. We have almost infinitely flexible time in sports such as baseball or golf, where the rhythm of the action creates its own chronological limits. Highly regulated sports like tennis, look to the action of the competitors to determine the time spent on each cycle of the game. Basketball, although less rigorously structured than football, drives every element of the game against a clock, each element with its own specific moments. Some sports use time as the critical dimension of competition. Track and swimming events determine their winners by time, not by direct competition against each other. The primary measure of the 100 meter sprint is an individual's time, not the winner of the race between individuals. Each sport, then, models some aspect of our own lives. Time is an important element in life, for we all have a finite time to be alive and must struggle constantly to fit our goals, dreams, and activities into the chronological space we have. Each of our sports captures some element of our sense of the struggle against time and replays it within a stylized competition. Much of the satisfaction we get from watching or participating in sports reflects our relationship to the structure of time associated with each sport.
Historians also have a commitment to place. Although we seek answers to large questions of structure and organization, cause and effect, we do so by focusing on the specific actions of individual people who lived their lives at a particular place during a defined period of time. We focus on what happened in Latin America, the US South, Germany, or Africa, and within these large places, we often focus our view on a Atlanta, Berlin, or Caracas to more accurately measure the actions of individuals and groups within a particular time. Even in our most broadly based analysis when we seek to understand universal human dimensions such as oppression, revolution, progress, industrialization, or war we find ourselves comparing the behavior of specific groups of people in specific times and places to identify what is common among them or discover significant differences.Place, of course, is also a critical dimension of every sport. Each competition creates a clearly defined space within which the competition takes place. Each sport's space reflects a different understanding of the boundaries that contain the sports competition, and just as different aspects of life's competition occur within differently configured spaces (a home, a school, a city, a state, an ocean, a continent), so too do the competitions of sports. Some sports spaces are rigidly defined. Every football field today is exactly the same size as every other football field, and the markings and sub-domains within it are also rigidly defined. Soccer takes place within similar sized fields but their width's need not be exactly the same. Golf courses are famously variable in their spaces, although the general structure of golf spaces are similar. Cross country is a race through a course that varies from place to place, while the 100 meter run is always exactly 100 meters long. In some sports, the dimensions of space are absolutely critical (football, basketball, tennis) while in others the key events and action take place within the space but not primarily in relation to its borders (golf). We often appreciate sports whose definitions of space match our sense of space in our own lives.
People and Events
Although we can locate our understanding of history through a focus on time and place, these two quantities only establish the frame within which we understand the behavior of people as they participate in events. The events of history are the result of the actions of individuals within a place and over a period of time. A revolution is not a theoretical event but the consequence of the actions of people who revolt. We seek the causes of revolution by investigating what individuals and their groups do and by understanding why they do it.
When we engage in this work, historians often carry with them a perspective on what matters more in the balance of causation: the individuals or the events. That is, do the opportunities of history create the heroic characters about whom we write, or do the heroic individuals make the events? The people-centric perspective examines the unique characteristics of individuals who take decisive roles in the development of events: generals and intellectuals, saints and villains, the great personalities whose words and deeds inform the heroic legends of the past and provide content for the biographies of outstanding men and women. In this view, it is the unique and extraordinary actions and abilities of individuals that cause the events to take place.
An event-centric perspective sees heroes emerging as the result of structures, circumstances, and movements that create opportunities for heroism and great deeds. In this perspective, the events make the hero rather than the hero making events. This point of view imagines that heroism and special talent exists always in any human population. The opportunity created by structural and long-term changes in human societies, the cumulative effect of the actions of many people over time, or by the opportunity of catastrophic events produces the heroic behavior as individuals exercise skills that always exist in a population. From this point of view, Simón Bolívar represents not a unique manifestation of Spanish American caudillesque genius but rather an example of a talented individual who, given the opportunities created by the independence wars and political and social turmoil of Northern South America, emerged as a hero. The times made the man, the man did not make the times.
Both perspectives of course have merit, for it is the action of individuals that produces the events of history but it is also the events that provide an opportunity for individuals to act. A Bolívar born twenty years earlier in Venezuela would never have become the Liberator of South America, although he might well have become a very successful merchant, planter, or government official.
Our sports, because they speak directly to our need to understand success and failure and to capture in symbolic and stylized form the meaning of competition (that universal constant of human existence), model various elements of causation. We have sports that focus entirely on the individual performance of heroic figures: track and swimming events for example isolate the individual's performance in competition against the clock that defines the performance of every other individual in the world who competes within the same frame of time and space. Other sports highlight the team's competition against other similarly configured teams. Here the individuals contribute talent and skill and perhaps heroic behavior to the competition, but success cannot rest on one person alone, the team must win and it wins during an immediate competition against another team. Heroic behavior can emerge out of the contest, out of the opportunities provide by the ebb and flow of the competition, but individual heroic behavior is always seen within the context of the team's competition against a similar team. A heroic performance by an individual track star highlights our sense of the importance of the individual. These individuals triumph because of what they have done, and their success may reinforce our own belief that if we only had the opportunity to compete and excel on our own merit and not within the complex constraints of society we too could triumph on our own merits. A dramatically successful football competition, however, highlights the our understanding that in real life, competition is done within and among groups, that the combination of talents produces a more powerful force than can be obtained by a single heroic individual. It shows us in stylized form that the great skills of individuals do not necessarily produce success unless the circumstances of the team and the game provide an opportunity. The superior receiver cannot be a hero unless an occasion arises where a pass is called for, the line protects the quarterback, and the completed pass frees him to run for a touchdown. In football, the circumstances create the opportunity for heroes to emerge within a context in which the talent is always there, but the opportunity must also appear. Much like our understanding of historical causation in which we see heroes as products of the opportunities created by events. In track, the circumstances are always there for the hero to emerge and only the individual is responsible for a heroic performance. This comes closer to an alternative notion of historical causation in which significant events are the product of individual performance. A world record in the 100 meters is caused by an individual, for the circumstances are always there for a world record, only the appearance of a hero is needed to make the world record moment take place. In all sports, as in life itself, we find elements of both models of causation. Some like football emphasize the importance of the team, the group, and the contest itself as the primary elements creating opportunities for heroism. Others like track emphasize the importance of the individual. Sometimes our sports highlight competitive structures and model individual behavior within those structures in ways that fulfill our wishes rather than our realities. We may wish that life rewarded heroic performances, knowing that often fate and accident are more significant. We may hope that the team around us is wholly supportive of our own individual performance within a larger competition, but often it is not. So we project these wishes onto our games, and our games respond with actions, rules, and performances that fulfill these idealized expectations. We may highlight the heroic performance of the quarterback, ignoring the fact that the members of the offensive line determine the quaterback's ability to perform. We may highlight the dramatic half-back's run for a score, minimizing the fact that two downfield blocks make the run possible. Our focus on the dramatic individual performance within team games may reflect our own frustration with the complexities and ambiguities of our highly organized and structured lives. Sports always speaks to our hopes, fears, dreams, and realities, and it draws its power in large part from its ability to model various essential elements of human competition that determine success or failure in our real world.
Sports is an artificial construct within which we capture a simplified version of history. We construct an artificial place, we create an artificial structure of time, and then we act out a human drama that serves as a model of some aspects of human behavior that interests us. Each sport has its own structure of time and place and its rules articulate different perspectives on a theory of human action.
Football, to take a high profile example, provides a fixed place that is always the same (exact length and width, exact yard lines, the exact same dimensions in every place we play the game). It provides fixed time frames within which the game models human behavior. The competition in football approximates warfare based on conquest and position, and the game allows us to participate in stylized competition emphasizing domination and power, either directly as participants or vicariously as observers. Football is essentially linear, in that it has a beginning and an end, each moment is unique and if lost cannot be recovered.
Yet the meta structure of the artificial football world also includes aspects of circular time. A season is a repetitive opportunity, and the actions in one season do not produce consequences for the next season. Each season starts anew, each season has exactly the same opportunity as the one before regardless of the outcome of the previous cycle. "Wait 'til next year," the cry of the defeated, recognizes the essentially circular nature of the meta-structure of football.
Among the questions we can ask ourselves and discuss online: