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May 30, 2011, 04:28 PM
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The history of most sports is quite woozy before the 19th Century. It`s obvious, such as from 17th Century Dutch paintings of daily life, that males played a lot of sports, but most of the rules we are familiar with go back to English-speakers of the 19th Century, or a little earlier. (The oldest evidence of the rules of golf being written down, for example, are from Edinburgh in 1744.)

What were sports like before the Victorian institutionalization? My guess from watching little boys play, is that they had traditional rules that varied across time and place, with lots of Calvinball improvisations, followed by lots of arguments over whether that was fair or not. For example, legend has it that in 1823 at Rugby School, schoolboy William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran toward the goal, breaking traditional rules and inventing rugby.

Maybe that story is not exactly true, but it`s likely that countless incidents like that have happened over the thousands of years — somebody would do something new, then everybody would argue over it, and it would either become precedent or disallowed. But, then after awhile, something else would happen, and the rules would change some more, endlessly.

But there was a new spirit abroad in the English-speaking world over the last couple of hundred years or so that said rules should be standardized.

The coming of the railroad encouraged sportsmen to compete more around the country, which led to conflicts between local traditions. The railway also allowed older sportsmen to get together and standardize rules. The history of the evolution of American football in the 19th Century, for example, is largely a history of guys getting together in hotels next to train stations during the off season to argue about rules changes.

In contrast, little girls tend to change the rules to make people feel less bad.

How many sports have women invented? I looked up rhythmic gymnastics, and most of the names cited in the history section were men, but the first person cited in America was Catharine Beecher (of the exhaustingly energetic Beechers — Harriet Beecher Stowe was her sister). The institutionalization of sports is a major human accomplishment. But are standardized rules for sports good in the long run, or is it better for young males to get more experience making up, debating, and agreeing upon their own rules ad hoc?