Another lost season for our beloved Los Angeles Clippers has got us thinking about what fate our team would have faced in a less forgiving age. It’s easy to forget that sportsmanship is a rather recent innovation, and that athletes in the ancient world often faced dire consequences should they lose a single contest. We’re not necessarily speaking of the obvious examples, like those poor Roman gladiators or unfortunate Aztec ballplayers. The penalty for poor athletic performance wasn’t always death; sometimes it was simply abject humiliation:
An early Hittite text speaks of an archery contest held in the presence of the king, in which the winner received wine, and the loser suffered the humiliation of stripping naked and bringing water for the others.
As much as we’d like for the Clippers to be a wee bit more motivated on the floor, we have to say that the advent of sportsmanship speaks well for our species’ development over the past few millennia. Any society that builds punishments into its games’ rules is a society that has some serious problems with its power dynamics. Because ultimately, an over-reliance on sticks (as opposed to carrots) can only breed paranoia and fear between those who play the games, and those who use them for amusement.
That said, we wouldn’t mind seeing Clippers’ owner Donald T. Sterling get a little taste of Hittite mockery. Lord knows he deserves it.