The Transformation of “Play”

In my Global Sports Cultures class, we also read and discussed Johann Huizinga’s Homo Ludens. In our discussion section, we collectively derived that Huizinga’s main claim was that play is the center of life. Although I agree with Huizinga’s optimistic view of play and the majority of his characteristics of defining play, we have to keep in mind that Homo Ludens was written in 1938 and society has changed dramatically since that time. The question I pose is this: How much of what fit Huizinga’s definition of play in the 20th century still is play today? If we look at Europe in a sporting lens, soccer is and has been the most popular sport for centuries now. However, I’d argue the motivation behind the players, the teams, and the leagues have changed just as dramatically as society has changed between the early 20th century and today.


In 1901, the Football Association (England) passed a £4 maximum wage per week rule. In 1906, the average wage for the 30-player team of West Ham United was between £4 and £4 10s per week. Over the ensuing decades, the FA would continually raise the maximum wages to £14 in 1951 and £20 in 1958. Then in 1960, players threatened to strike in a debate over wage demands, causing the FA to abolish the maximum wage completely. Today, West Ham United spends £847,000 on player wages per week (211,750 times what it was paying its players 108 years ago) or £44 Million per year. Manchester United, ranked third on Forbes’ list of most valuable sports franchises, had a wage bill of £181 Million in 2014.     Andy-Carroll-West-Ham-United


Now, what do these figures have to do with figures have to do with Huizinga’s definitions of play? According to Huizinga’s perception of sport, “It is an activity connected with no material interest…”(Homo Ludens, Huizinga 1955). I argue what many thought play was in the early 19th century, has transformed out of Huizinga’s definition of play and into sport. The motivation behind the athletes behavior, in my opinion, is the stark difference between sport and play and between early 19th century soccer and soccer in the modern world. For such little wage mentioned of the 1906 West Ham soccer club, the players’ motivations and intentions would most likely fit the characteristics of play outlined in Homo Ludens. Those players most likely played because it was voluntary, it was an escape from their society, the outcome was uncertain, it had a unique set of rules that provided challenges, and finally it was not in the primary motivation to be productive monetarily. Players today make millions of dollars annually and I would agree that their main focus comes from a monetary point of view, differing form players on the same team in the same sport 100 years ago. A difference of 100 years seems to have transformed this form of play out of Huizinga’s definition and into a professional sport category, and what Huizinga and society viewed as play in the 20th century seems to no longer fit that definition.

A Mathematical Proof of Menand’s Theory 1

Last week I was meticulously studying the Syllabus for my Math 116 course in anticipation for an upcoming quiz.  A theme that my Graduate Student Instructor stressed was teamwork to encourage learning. Throughout the year we will be having group assignments and we will have opportunities to teach the other students. One point my instructor made about teamwork was that once we graduate and begin to work in the real world, we will be probably not be working individually but rather be part of a group. And to prove the power of teamwork outside of the classroom my Graduate Student Instructor alluded to a statement from some professionals in the working world. Below is taken directly from the syllabus,

Here’s what a principal aerodynamics engineer from The Boeing Company and members of the Washington State Software Alliance have to say.

What do we look for in employees? We hire those who have demonstrated that they:

  • Enjoy the process of learning & know how to learn independently
  • Thrive on intellectual challenges
  • Are creative and flexible in how they solve problems
  • Have a good understanding of the fundamentals (mathematics, science, economics)
  • Can manage knowledge and information, as well as tasks and things
  • Can operate effectively in a team environment
  • Have good communication skills

As I was studying, a light went off in my head, I thought, “where does it mention anything about an engineering degree?” It was my belief that an aerospace or software engineering degree was crucial for a job at Boeing or similar companies. I realized that these companies are following Louis Menand’s Theory 1. His theory states that college is simply a four year intelligence exam, so that by the end the smart and hardworking are separated from the lazy and dumb. My political theory professor, Mika LaVaque-Manty, was able to relate this theory to Harry Potter as he has done with many other aspects of our class. He said that this theory treats college like it is a sorting hat.  It will separate people based on their skills and strengths.  A controversial aspect of Menand’s theory is that the content of the classes a student takes is irrelevant; it does not matter what the students learn just so long as it is challenging.

Boeing and the Washington State Software Alliance are stating that just so long as someone is intelligent and willing to work hard then they are a good candidate for a position in their companies.  This is in direct opposition to Menand’s second and third theories of what college should be. Theory two is focused on knowledge and actually teaching students for the purpose of learning rather than for a job. Theory three is similar but is more focuses more on teaching students only one skill. This theory states that the purpose of college is to teach students a skill that they can then apply to a job later on.

This is an example of a real company putting their support behind theory one. Up to this point we have discussed these theories and their meanings, but we have not looked at any concrete examples of them being put to use. In my own experience I have seen other instances in which theory one has been applied.  After I graduate I am looking to go into business- hopefully finance or investment banking.  I have met a lot of people in that field who haven’t majored in finance or economics but rather in history. I can guarantee that Wall Street firms didn’t hire these people because they know a lot about ancient Greece.  These people were hired because of the skills they developed during their time in college- writing concise and “to the point” essays, and being able to read lots of information and pick out the important points. Employers look for these skills, and it doesn’t matter what the person has actually learned, just so long as they have a skill set that fits the job.

After seeing this in my math syllabus I was convinced.  Theory one is definitely the theory I put my support behind because up to this point I have not heard about a company strictly hiring people because they have an education in a relevant field. It is beginning to seem more and more like employers want people with skills, not with knowledge.  Companies can train and teach employees what they need to know, but it is much harder to teach good writing or communication.  The argument can be made that college is not all about getting a job.  But my time here at the University of Michigan will only be four years (hopefully). I need to get a job and make a living for the rest of my life and it seems that an education that follows theory one is the best way to achieve that goal.