I’m in mourning over Michigan’s State’s very early exit from the NCAA tournament. Even so, here’s a post in honor of March and all its Madness. [Note to self: next year, do a post during March Madness about the history of abnormal psychology.]
I first encountered the history of basketball in a March Madness-honoring lecture by State’s inimitable intellectual historian: Dave Bailey. I learned that James Naismith developed the sport in the winter of 1891/92 to keep his students at the YMCA’s college in Springfield, MA physically, mentally, and spiritually pure during the frozen months when weather precluded other wholesome sporting. Basketball emerged from a particular approach to Christian practice that went light on theology and heavy on chaste but manly activity—it’s often called muscular Christianity.
I’ll let Naismith give you a taste for the theory behind this peculiar (yet still thriving) conjunction of sport and faith:
“The nearest to preaching [that Naismith ever did] came in Y.M.C.A. service with the 20th Kansas on the Mexican border and in two years of service with the “Y” in France. And the preaching was rather indirect, at that. For example, we found that too many of the boys from our camp were going into a near-by town and getting into all kinds of devilment. [!!] We set up a boxing ring near the camp entrance, and would start a lively match about the time the boys began starting to ‘leave.’ They stopped to watch; then begged for a chance to participate; and the next thing they knew it was time to be back in quarters. Prize fights may sound like strange preaching, but they did the work.” –James Naismith, “Basketball–A Game the World Plays,” Rotarian (January 1939): 33-36.
Some of Naismith’s contemporaries found this a very strange preaching indeed. Perhaps most famously, Sinclair Lewis parodied muscular Christianity and the people who championed it (hypocrites all, he proclaimed) in Elmer Gantry (although Gantry, like Naismith, started out as a football star). If Gantry stood for an America that Lewis despised, Martin Arrowsmith, the protagonist of his 1925 novel Arrowsmith looked like one of Lewis’ heroes. Arrowsmith stood for science: over tradition, over parochialism, over commerce, and inadvertently over the life of his only love.
Lewis, in his literature, argued for a secularizing, scientized America—but would a secular, scientized America be free from basketball too? I don’t think Lewis ever weighed in on the question.
At least one college student at Yale didn’t wait for Lewis. In 1916, before Naismith was setting up his boxing rings in France, an undergraduate named Frederick Blackall was already actively rebranding basketball as a scientific endeavor, stripped of its religious origins.
Basketball, Blackall wrote in the Yale Courant, was a “scientific experiment” born of one man’s mind and meticulously designed. Although Naismith had actually designed the game in response to the request of his boss Luther Gulick, who wanted to keep Y students on the straight and narrow, Blackall’s revised history claimed that Naismith came up with basketball as the solution to a homework problem. Naismith, in Blackall’s version, had heard “a lecturer on psychology …on the subject of the mental processes of invention, and during the course of his address proposed as a sort of experiment the invention of a game which could be played indoors in winter….” (152)
I have no reason to believe Blackall intentionally changed the basketball invention story. Nor do I think Blackall even pioneered the story. I think it’s far more likely that Blackall repeated a story told him by his phys ed instructors: men who by the 10s and 20s were much more likely to have advanced degrees and who considered themselves as much scientists or doctors as athletes (on these professional transformations, see Prescott). For them, the moralist origins of basketball might have been an embarrassment best ignored.