April 19, 2010

Looking On

It is always better to play any game, however inexpertly, than to stand on the side lines and cheer the playing of others.

What is sport? To my mind it is the active playing of the game by the individual in place of being merely one of the crowd looking on or having sport done for you.

By true sport I mean any kind of game and activity that does you good and which you play yourself instead of looking on.
Robert Baden-Powell, Rovering to Success: A Guide for Young Manhood

Sir Robert Baden-Powell – founder of the Scouts, hero of Mafeking – thought so little of ‘looking on’ that he denounced it three times. He admitted that if he knew the men involved in a sport, or if he was watching a horse that he himself had trained, then watching became active, and was different. But in general, the rôle of what we would now call ‘the spectator’ was not one for a man emerging from the rutting season of adolescence, much less for one claiming a full manly stature.

The problem with watching is that it stunts doing. It is passive: an energy experienced only vicariously through the endeavour of others. Nothing is ventured, nothing is gained, not in terms of health, fortitude, esprit de corps, courage or valour. Any sense of achievement is borrowed; the adrenalin rush is second-hand. The sporting hero as aspirational figure becomes a mere idol; the spirit of emulation dies. Criticism follows: the overweight armchair punditry of ‘experts’ who know only how to talk.

America in particular could benefit by reading Baden-Powell. A good friend of mine tells me that the aggregate number of ‘fans’ who turned out for last Saturday’s college football games at Alabama and Auburn was 154,529. Perhaps there is a peculiar vested interest in ‘school spirit’ that ought not to be disparaged wholesale. But this kind of worship leads to further abdications of activity in later life unless we remind ourselves most self-consciously that we must not forget to do. For a man who does not, a man who merely looks on, is not much of a man in Baden-Powell’s book, of which, suffice to say, I am rather fond.


  1. As my son has joined the cub scouts this year, I can only hope he picks up the values and work ethic of Sir Robert. Well done post.

  2. Best of luck to him. And thanks Turling.

  3. Doctor,

    I am told free men nowadays have the constitutional rights to be the sorriest sight this side of slavery.

    Let me point out that it is the instrumental good that is crucial here: while true that boys enjoy sports, the real good is the development of the martial spirit and the habit of obeying rules and conventions.

    Do you see how a proper regime promises the good and delivers only on the beautiful - so far as concerns players and spectators alike?

    It would be horrible for people to be forced to be fit; but it is necessary that men be strong enough to bear arms and, I am told, multiple, assorted bags of shopping. - As opposed to stuff looted and pillaged, but at least this way the women come along all too willingly.

    For that reason, appeal to self-interest is not sufficient; some sense of duty is necessary and the means thereto are crucially interesting. Now, they include shame but must go beyond it.

  4. I miss sport - I remember when I was younger I played every day. There was something about young guys then, I don't know if it is still the case, but you could go into any park or field and get a game simply by asking to join in. Now I'm in my late-twenties it seems harder to find a game of anything, everyone has jobs and responsibilities and there seems no social norm for just finding one in progress and joining in.

  5. Kravien, not unusually you are on the money. I doubt very much that any reader of Baden-Powell could come away without the bigger picture. Remember the Scouting oath: 'On my honour I promise to do my best - to do my duty to God and the Queen [or 'to God and my country' if you're unfortunate enough not to be in the Commonwealth], To help other people at all times and to obey the Scout Law.'

    Peter, I think the 'pick-up game' is still out there. I found it Montreal easily enough in the summer. The child who wants to play remains in the man. It's just a matter of having the courage to let him out. If social norms do not permit, it may be easier to make a new one. Not too long ago in the UK I had a weekly game of football. Only the time was stipulated and the pitch booked. Email was sent to all and sundry, and forwarding was encouraged. Whoever showed up, played. Some nights in January there were three of us, playing headers and volleys. In the summer it was occasionally 11-a-side.

  6. Ah, headers and volleys, such were the glory days. I do like that idea, we used to do similar at college and had some great fun. I had no idea you could still find 'pick-up' games but I'll be on the look out, as you say the child is still there. I've been wondering about the prospects of the local Merchant Marine students; the Asian section seems to like using the park for Cricket so I may take my bat along one day and see if they have any objections.

  7. Any such objection would simply not be cricket! I wish you luck with the search.


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