“That’s not the ball” the other players chided as one young player accidentally brought a second ball onto the field. There were several identical balls scattered around the perimeter of the field, but what was it that distinguished the ball from just a ball to these six-year olds?
The scholarship around the history and evolution of ball sports is, in my opinion, quite impoverished. The popular story is essentially that ball sports (particularly invasion games) are either preparation for war or some sort of leftover from it. What is not accounted for in these “just so” evolutionary stories, however, is the nature of the ball. Group combat does not require a singular fixed reference point such as a ball. A true analog of group combat would seem to allow for multiple balls, as there may be many isolated skirmishes going on simultaneously.
Direct competitions such as wrestling, tag, or martial arts undoubtedly preceded ball sports, so what is it that is introduced with the ball? Consider a young child’s changing relationship to the ball. The ball may be introduced in any number of ways. Perhaps a parent rolls it to a toddler to swat, kick or throw. Perhaps our toddler stumbles across it as an object with no other context and explores what it affords. This ball is a ball, but it can not yet be the ball. To understand how it might become the ball, we will borrow from several central themes of psychoanalysis. What young children slowly begin to realize as they are introduced to team sports is that the original ball they were familiar with was incomplete. Their ball had, all along, desired to be the ball and in so doing become a member of a class of objects rather than the individual object it temporarily appeared as.
At this point the marxist might interject that this is but commodity fetishism. A simple object arbitrarily bestowed with magical qualities so that we might fight over it. Is the ball, then, an object of capital which we are ideologically driven to possess? This falls flat, however, when we consider another nearly universal feature of ball sports. A successful possession of the ball is one which ends in a goal or point and usually returns possession of the ball to the other team.
When we think about what type of “object” the ball is, we are confronted with some difficulty due to the proximity of the two. First, etymologically the linkage to throwing or pro-jecting is apparent. Second, it blurs the two meanings of object as an in objective, and object in the sense of a physical entity. In what sense is the ball objective? The existence of the ball requires the acceptance of a mediating presence or substrate. I no longer compete against my opposition but against their attempts to manipulate the ball-object. This can be understood intuitively in the common delineation for fouls being roughly whether the player “played the ball” or not. Playing the ball means accepting its mediating authority and allowing it to remain between the opponents. In this light, the age-old saying “the ball never lies” starts to seem like less of a coincidence.
By accepting this mediating authority, however, I am initiated into the symbolic order. This cut or separation is, like civilisation itself, a blessing and a curse. The separation of opponents (and teammates) imposed by the mediation of the ball-object allows higher-order patterns to emerge. The whole system becomes knit together in a meshwork of circular/reciprocal causality so dizzying that our best mathematics are forced to shrug (and sometimes speculate wildly). This way of relating is often frustrating, however. The player never possesses the entirety of the ball-object. What a young player feels in a fleeting moment of possession is the fantasy that the ball-object is theirs. This bubble is burst by the physical intrusion of other players. What players are left with is the realisation that their possession of the ball is limited to their ability to move in relation (deception and avoidance) to those who would take it from them.
This dialectic is also at work in a direct competition (boxing etc.) but it can not scale much past the level of the dyad. A boxer’s movements are skillful to the extent they take into account the movement of the opponent. The introduction of the ball affords higher-order perceptual information. For example, moving closer to the goal is a low-order variable that can be specified by the way it changes in size in your visual field – if you get closer it gets bigger. To go up one order we could say that we want to get closer to the goal relative to the position of our nearest opponent. Now, let’s say we want to get closer to the goal relative to the position of the opponent, but relative to our respective distances to the ball. Next we move up to this relation relative to our teammate’s distance to the ball relative to another opponent’s distance to the ball. This might sound complicated but our “smart” perceptual systems give us the ability to do all of this without having to compute any of it. In fact, this is the situation a center back might find themself in when judging to step up or drop back depending on whether their teammate is going to win a 50/50 further up the pitch.
Let’s imagine we are watching a bird’s-eye view time-lapse of the game moving through various developmental stages over the years. This view would essentially be the story of the infamous swarm crowding closely around the ball and gradually transitioning to these higher-order variables. To a casual observer, this transition might look like “spreading out” but it would be a mistake to try to explain the transformation in terms of lower-order variables like distance to the ball. It is the progressive attunement to these higher-order (relational) invariants that creates the distance to the ball. Remove the ball and suddenly the coordination of the system is lost. The whole web is held together by the ball – and more specifically by the player’s acceptance of the mediating authority of the ball.
My argument is that a purely mathematical analysis of such an object is bound to fail because the patterns which emerge hinge on a certain acceptance of a ball as the ball. This acceptance is the recognition that the ball can never be completely mine. The fact that some portion of the ball is always unattainable or “not-mine” echoes throughout the transitions to higher-order variables. We can never see the totality of what the ball is. It has no positive essence. Our best view of it comes via negativa – by glimpsing the behaviour of the dynamic field which surrounds it.
The ball, I claim, belongs to the order of transformative psychotechnologies like language, alphabets, and numeral systems. The ball signifies the emergence of a single game-world which we all play in. It links us together by keeping us apart.