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.