That the boys might learn the rules

“Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play,” George Orwell wrote in London’s Tribune more than half a century ago. “It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”

War minus the shooting. That’s a condemning reflection on sport if I’ve ever heard one, and one with which I don’t necessarily agree. See, sports are different today than they were in 1945, having grown beyond limited audiences in small townships through the undeniable power of coaxial cables, television networks, and, more recently, the Internet. What has changed most since Orwell scrutinized the Sporting Spirit is the delinquent disregard of sporting rules—it isn’t as evident. But while sportsmanship today is probably at an all-time high (since many professional athletes are content to play for the money, and the money is good), “serious sport” is dominated by the referee’s whistle, though not because of increased subordination inside the lines.

It’s because the rules of the game have changed. Take the Hoop World’s Order, for instance: both National Basketball Association (NBA) and the International Basketball Federation‘s (FIBA) official rule books are more than 60 pages long. Today’s official sporting guides, with their rules and sections and articles, live in stark contrast to the regulations created by basketball’s law-giving father, James Naismith, in the wicked December of 1891. (Naismith, a physical fitness instructor at the YMCA International Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts, had but 13 rules which were tacked to a bulletin board in the gymnasium so that his students could learn the rules.)

As we race forward into the future in a rapidly changing world, it’s always entertaining to take a moment and remember we have come from. In a similar light, when children’s games like Naismith’s peach-basket pastime are, as Orwell put it, built up into heavily-financed activities “capable of attracting vast crowds and rousing savage passions,” it’s fascinating to imagine what the sport once represented and how the game was played.

James Naismith’s 13 rules of basketball, sold for $4.3 million in 2010 (transcript below):

Basket. Ball.

The ball to be an ordinary Association foot ball. [Editor's note: what modern day Americans would call a soccer ball.]

  1. The ball may be thrown in any direction with one or both hands.
  2. The ball may be batted in any direction with one or both hands (never with the fist).
  3. A player cannot run with the ball, the player must throw it from the spot on which he catches it, allowance to be made for a man who catches the ball when running at a good speed.
  4. The ball must be held in or between the hands, the arms or body must not be used for holding it.
  5. No shouldering, holding, pushing, tripping or striking in any way the person of an opponent shall be allowed. The first infringement of this rule by any person shall count as a foul, the second shall disqualify him until the next goal is made, or if there was evident intent to injure the person, for the whole of the game, no substitute allowed.
  6. A foul is striking at the ball with the fist, violation of rules 3 and 4, and such as described in rule 5.
  7. If either side makes three consecutive fouls it shall count a goal for the opponents (consecutive means without the opponents in the meantime making a foul).
  8. A goal shall be made when the ball is thrown or batted from the grounds into the basket and stays there, providing those defending the goal do not touch or disturb the goal. If the ball rests on the edges and the opponent moves the basket it shall count as a goal.
  9. When the ball goes out of bounds it shall be thrown into the field, and played by the person first touching it. In case of a dispute the umpire shall throw it straight into the field. The thrower in is allowed five seconds, if he holds it longer it shall go to the opponent. If any side persists in delaying the game, the umpire shall call a foul on them.
  10. The umpire shall be judge of the men, and shall note the fouls, and notify the referee when three consecutive fouls have been made. He shall have power to disqualify men according to Rule 5.
  11. The referee shall be judge of the ball and shall decide when the ball is in play, in bounds, and to which side it belongs, and shall keep the time. He shall decide when a goal has been made, and keep account of the goals with any other duties that are usually performed by a referee.
  12. The time shall be two fifteen minute halves, with five minutes rest between.
  13. The side making the most goals in that time shall be declared the winners. In case of a draw the game may, by agreement of the captains, be continued until another goal is made.
First draft of Basket Ball rules. Hung in the gym that the boys might learn the rules – Dec 1891

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