That’s My Sport

Imperialism has stripped popular sports of their roots, and misremembering the history of these sports will only perpetuate this imperialistic damage.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Typically, sports aren’t thought of as a historical topic. Instead, students talk about wars and governments, where it’s easy to find the Eurocentric viewpoints our curriculums or teachers hold. But once we leave class, the criticisms ease up, and we forget the historical importance of everyday things. Sports, like many other activities in our everyday lives, have a significant history, even if it may be unknown or unpleasant. 

We often create our own history for sports and associate them with nations—this isn’t because we know that’s where the sport was created but simply because it feels right. Though this association doesn’t feel like a big deal, for sports like lacrosse and badminton, these assumptions of origin are examples of how imperialism affects us even today. Though both sports are associated with European culture, neither originated in Europe, demonstrating how imperialism has stripped sports of their roots. However, this is not an excuse to continue to deny their proper heritage now. We must acknowledge the origins of sports to avoid perpetuating the damage imperialism has caused.

The practice of imperialism has been frequently seen throughout recorded history. In 1450, imperialism was mainly focused on collecting colonies to gain resources in a tactic called “old imperialism.” After the mid-1700s, imperialism was refocused on subjugating existing countries so that powerful countries could get people to mass-produce resources and products for them. These kinds of imperialism are mainly responsible for the confusion in sports origin stories.

Lacrosse’s origin story does occasionally make the cut for history classes as a lesson taught, but it’s seldom more than a fun fact in a textbook under a “Did you know?” heading. This brief mention doesn’t account for how imperialism has failed the sport and spirit of lacrosse for centuries. Lacrosse originally started around 1100 in what is now New York and bordering areas of Canada; the game was used to prepare for war and to settle disputes, illustrating the important cultural meaning it serves for Native Americans. The legend of the first lacrosse game states that it was originally played between birds and mammals, showing how all animals have a purpose. Lacrosse was considered to be a gift from the Creator for entertainment purposes as well as health benefits. Furthermore, it was given many different names throughout America, including the Creator’s game, Baggataway, and Tewaaraton. 

The game was given its European name of lacrosse when French missionaries saw the game being played and thought the sticks being used looked similar to a Bishop’s cross. European colonists who settled in Canada also adopted the game, changing the rules as they saw fit and consequently discarding the cultural meaning the game had originally held. Colonists eventually brought lacrosse back to Europe in 1877 in addition to a group of Iroquois Indians, even playing in front of Queen Victoria. Lacrosse spread through Europe and is well-known today, with an Olympic appearance expected in 2028. However, despite its modern popularity, the history and importance of its roots have not spread with it. Imperialism has barred this narrative from spreading, as it is all about the eradication of other cultures for the sake of the empire. To spread the origins of lacrosse is to properly acknowledge how imperialism has erased the cultures of minority groups in the past and how these actions continue to affect the present-day perception of lacrosse. 

Though both sports have an imperialistic history, badminton’s overall origins are more contested than those of lacrosse. It has references in medieval Europe as a small children’s game as well as the countries of China and Greece up to 2000 years ago. But these beliefs of origin aren’t the ones that have led to modern-day badminton. Instead, today’s sport came from an indigenous game played in India, though its real name is now lost. The British soldiers who were stationed in India enjoyed the game and, therefore, adapted it to play it themselves. They added extra rules and a net, calling it their own new game that went by the name of poona. They adopted other aspects of the Indian game besides the shuttlecocks and rackets, some of which were variations for the outside weather. The indigenous game had been widespread throughout India, so in the Southern parts, rather than playing with a shuttlecock that would fly away in the wind, people played with a ball. This adjustment in equipment as a result of weather conditions also helped to spread the game amongst British soldiers. 

When British soldiers came back to England, they brought their newly discovered sport with them. It then caught the attention of an English Duke, who lived in an estate called the Badminton House. In 1873, the Duke introduced the sport to the rest of England at a party, where it was named after his estate. The name stuck. This game was made entirely because British soldiers liked an Indian game, so they created their own rules, their own name, and their own identity for a game that was once Indian. 

The erasure of India from badminton’s creation echoes how Britain has always treated India: it exists solely to please them. This is the core of what is wrong with imperialism and how it treats marginalized groups, and it extends into every aspect of society, politics, and sports. It is what causes the erasure of history, as the history of a country, besides the empire, is not considered worth remembering. But India’s role in creating badminton and the Native American role in the creation of modern-day lacrosse are worthy of being remembered. The fact that the erasure of their roots still lingers today is belittling to both the culture and the people they represent. 

Both badminton and lacrosse have been stripped of their roots as a result of imperialism, yet have grown into globally renowned sports that are centered in America and Europe. The popularity of these two sports resulted from removing non-European connections to the sports. It might even be true that without imperialism, these sports wouldn’t have survived to our global age. However, while we can appreciate having these sports now, we need to recognize that their pasts aren’t so simple.

On a global level, the history of these sports is about acknowledging colonization. However, such a big problem isn’t one that we can solve all by ourselves. But we can take our own actions to acknowledge the effects of imperialism and help to mitigate them. On a school level, the lacrosse team could host a Native American speaker regarding the sport’s history. Furthermore, the badminton team could try to learn about the roots of their sport by hosting an Indian speaker or researching articles on the subject. All students, not just those in sports teams, should try to learn more about the history behind the sport they play. Sports history lectures or a sports history class at Stuyvesant would make learning about our own sport easily accessible. For example, November is Native American Heritage Month, so Stuyvesant could host a lecture honoring Native American heritage concerning lacrosse and its significance. In addition, a class could be useful in allowing teachers to explore the origins of many different sports that kids don’t know about or don’t understand the history behind. By learning more about the turbulent past of sports, we can help reverse the erasure of culture embedded in imperialism and rebel against its damaging effects.