Sports History Term Paper

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Tom Brown's Schooldays," by Thomas Hughes. Specifically, it will look at how this work describes sports in 19th century England, and compare it with other historical descriptions of English sports.


Tom Brown's School Days," written in 1857, is the story of young Tom Brown, a student at the public school called Rugby School. The schoolboys at Rugby, as might be expected, play Rugby football, which is quite different from American football. The winner is the one who gets the "best of three goals; whichever side kicks two goals wins: and it won't do, you see, just to kick the ball through these posts -- it must go over the cross-bar; any height'll do, so long as it's between the posts" (Hughes), Tom's new friend tells him.

Rugby also uses far more people than our game, with 50-60 players on each side. Goals are kicked like American field goals, but that is really the only thing that is the same in this game. It is somewhat of a cross between soccer and football, with some odd rules thrown in. Baker notes that each school developed their own style of football, much of the style dependent on where the boys could play their game. Rugby had one of the largest playing fields, and so developed a running game along with kicking, and they were the only school to do so. However, the Rugby school played football that was closer to the American game than just about any other was. The Rugby players also created the first written rules for their game in 1845 (Baker 120-121).

The boys also play competitive cricket - in fact, one of the last chapters in the book is devoted to Tom's last game at Rugby, and how masterfully it is played. The boys spend a fair amount of time practicing their game, playing for fun, and even repairing their equipment throughout the book. Competitive games are a large part of their schooling at Rugby, but they do not take the place of schooling, they are extra-curricular activities meant to tax the body as well as the mind, and keep the boys hale and healthy.

Hughes associates sports with good sportsmanship, and love of one's school. The best players are heroes, who would rather win at Rugby than get an esteemed scholarship. Sports make a strong man, who knows right from wrong.

It's because we've more reliance on one another, more of a house feeling, more fellowship than the School can have. Each of us knows and can depend on his next-hand man better. That's why we beat 'em to-day. We've union, they've division -- there's the secret'" (Hughes).

Sports also developed the strong leaders of the school, such as Brooks, who the younger boys all look up to. The sports the boys play never take the place of what they are learning in school, they exist for the boys' enjoyment, and to teach them leadership skills not taught in the classroom.

Games, on the other hand, are often for those younger boys, who are new to the school, or not old enough to play football. They are sometimes harmless pranks, such as pelting each other with acorns, or shooting peashooters, but they do not develop character like the game of football, they are simply idle pursuits, done when you cannot play a "real" game. Many games also occupy the boys during school time, and so take their minds away from their studies.

Games are sometimes competitive, but more often they are amusements that poke fun at others or keep the boys out of other mischief. Some of the games are harmless, like the hare and hounds race. If anything, they build stamina. Others are more harmful, like the pea shooting and removing the pins from the wheels of the coaches. They are still fairly innocent games, however. They do not create many of the skills necessary for the boys to transform from boyhood to manhood however, like the games of football do.

The amusements of the lower classes at the "veast," or fair, were often combative, like back-swording (where men try to "break" the other's head), wrestling, and racing, "something to try the muscles of men's bodies, and the endurance of their hearts, and to make them rejoice in their strength" (Hughes II).

He sees the modern "society" class as more interested in less combative games, which to him remove all the enjoyment from the amusements. These upper classes take part in more "gentile" sports like horseback riding, and visiting museums or circulating libraries, or their private clubs for food and drink, or perhaps a game of cards. Even in these gentile pursuits there is still a bit of competition involved, men often wagered heavily on horse races and card games - someone still had to win.

Baker also makes numerous references to the nature of competition in his book, "Sports in the Western World," and notes that people compete for the joy of competing, and of course, to win. Hughes sees some of this joy of competition missing from the upper classes. In fact, he urged men of the upper classes to invite workingmen into their homes, become their friends, and compete with them.

Let them be men of your own ages, mind, and ask them to your homes; introduce them to your wives and sisters, and get introduced to theirs; give them good dinners, and talk to them about what is really at the bottom of your hearts; and box, and run, and row with them, when you have a chance. Do all this honestly as man to man, and by the time you come to ride old John, you'll be able to do something more than sit on his back, and may feel his mouth with some stronger bridle than a red-tape one (Hughes).

It is extremely interesting to note that women are never mentioned participating in any type of sport or amusement in "Tom Brown's School Days." Of course, Tom's school is a boy's school, and girls do not attend, but even at the "veast," only men take place in the competitions, the women stand by and watch, or even voice their displeasure at the "games."

Yet, during Victorian times, women often ran foot races where men bet large sums on the outcome, (somewhat like human horse races), and women sometimes boxed in the ring, too (Guttman 71-78). However, the Victorian ideal did not support strong, vibrant women, instead, weak simpering women were the model, and women's participation in sports was largely discouraged (Guttmann 89-91).

The book was extremely popular when it was published in 1857. Hughes essentially recreated the life he knew playing Victorian sports at school, and readers identified with his writing - especially young men. No one had ever written a story like this before, although several "university" novels followed "Tom Brown's" success.

The ideals were not profound: Christian manliness, sympathy for the downtrodden, bodily vigor, and the mind that lives in intimate communion with God -- these could have been the goals of any good man, and were in fact the common property of so many that "Tom Brown's School Days" quickly found a sympathetic audience and was, as Hughes intended it should be, a guide to generations of schoolboys (Proctor 105).

Hughes followed up his wildly successful book with another "Tom Brown at Oxford," which was not nearly as popular, since so many other authors had written similar novels by the time it came out in 1861.

In several places in the book, including Chapter 8, The War for Independence, Hughes speaks directly to the young boys reading the book, and admonishes them not to make the same mistakes the bullies were making at Rugby. Any young school boy reading the book must have felt Hughes was speaking directly to him, and so the book gained popularity because of its understanding of what young boys went through during their school years. It probably made them laugh, and it certainly made them think about their own thoughts and actions, making reading it a very personal experience.

Today, sports are much more than just an enjoyable way of competing. Sports in college have become "big business." In larger colleges and universities, the extensive athletic program funds many other operations in the school. These pampered athletes often go on to extremely lucrative pro-sports contracts paying millions of dollars. Most of what they have learned in school has not been academically oriented, but athletic. Their school schedules are altered so they can travel to and from games, and practice on the playing field. "College and university athletic programs similarly plunged headlong into the business maze. Athletes at all levels performed heroically, but often as pawns for commercial purposes. The best athletes prospered" (Baker 304).

In Tom Brown's day, sports were about the pride of the school, and learning lessons that could be used later in life, such as teamwork and leadership skills. Sports in schools began with…[continue]

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