March 5, 2013

Earth Ball: A catastrophic hippie sport

It's hard to invent new sports. The 1960s were a period of creativity in some fields, but seem lacking in team sports. The most ostentatiously 1960s team sport was Earth Ball, a sport sometimes attributed to Stewart Brand, creator of the Whole Earth catalog. Earth Ball was invented to be a coed, not very competitive game that emphasized teamwork and appreciation for ecology. A very light six-foot diameter ball with a map of the world on it is propelled by tapping with the fingertips by coed teams of any number across the opposing team's goal line. 

Since the ball floated in the air and only slowly descends, players had to look up and tap it.  In theory, this game sounds like the opposite of football. In practice, well ...

I first saw a picture of Earth Ball being played on a recruiting brochure from the Air Force Academy in 1975. Colorado Springs wanted to denote that that they were the with-it academy, so the brochure emphasized that each year the freshmen played the sophomores in the exciting new sport of Earth Ball. But looking at the photo, I noticed that all the freshmen were looking up in the air at the giant ball, hands raised to tap it, while all the sophomores (having more experience playing Earth Ball) were ignoring the ball and instead punching the defenseless freshmen in the gut or kneeing them in the groin.

I could see how that would be the better strategy.

I've only seen Earth Ball played once, at Rice U. in about 1977 in a dorm v. dorm mass melee. I would have played but I had a cold so I staked out a good viewing spot on the 50 yard line. 

The referee put the huge ball on the midfield stripe as two vast teams assembled on their own goal lines. When the ref blew his whistle, most of the 100 or so competitors ran at 3/4th speed toward midfield, but three guys from the opposing team dashed headlong toward the ball, along with one fellow from my dorm, Stu. 

Stu sprinted toward the ball to give his team the advantage. When he was ten feet away, he longjumped chest first into the ball. Unfortunately, he impacted it just as the three other sprinters slammed into the opposite side of the ball. The ball compressed, then flung poor Stu backwards about 15 feet through the air. Stu landed awkwardly just as a mob of his teammates clomped down the field and trampled him, leaving him in considerable pain. It was the closest thing I've seen to a Chuck Jones cartoon in real life. 

Within a few minutes of brutal play, a pretty girl named Velma Potash had her clavicle broken and had to be taken to the hospital. 

I left at that point. I learned later that the game was finally won by the other team. They eventually figured out to have the 6'11" backup center on the college basketball team, Doug Ekeroth, tap the ball to himself as he jogged down the field while his most bruising comrades formed a 360 degree wall of blockers around him to keep anybody from my dorm from suckerpunching him while he concentrated on tapping the ball.

Earth Ball did not become a regular event on the Rice calendar.

That was the last I'd heard of Earth Ball. Searching Youtube, I find one video of some East Asians playing it. It looks like the big innovation is to play it volleyball style, with a rope separating the two teams so they can't brutalize each other. Looks like it's become a fun game for middle-aged people, but how do you store the ball?

(Ekeroth, by the way, was that basketball player who was always suspected by Coach Mike Schuler of sneaking off to the library to study. The thought that Ekeroth might be just using them to get an education in engineering drove the basketball coaches crazy.)

45 comments:

Anonymous said...

Earth Ball seems to be a perfect metaphor for the Hippie era- high hopes for peace 'n' love 'n' cooperation turn out to be brutally damaging to everyone involved. In subsequent decades, those who keep the dream alive, so to speak, do so by pulling out its teeth or erecting some kind of barrier to prevent the damage. Just as Earth Ball players added a net to prevent physical altercations, the mid-90s decision to throw unprecedented numbers of dangerous black men in prison allowed urban white liberals to have their post-'60s do-it-yourself morality and expansive welfare state, while cordoning off the toxic byproduct these things produced.

Brian D'Amato said...

We played it at Yale in the fall of 1980. The next year the tradition was cancelled forever because of trampling injuries.

FWG said...

Thanks for the comic relief, Steve. It's a sport so obscure it doesn't seem to have a wikipedia page. By the way, is the ball inflatable? That would make storage easier.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, very enjoyable article.

Earthball was invented by Stewart Brand, I see from a bit of Googling. He's a smart fellow, so I presume he was aware of the similarities with medieval folk football, where whole villages competed to push a ball across a goal in a spirit of fair play somewhere along the spectrum between a party and a riot.

Competitive sport manages and channels natural aggression. Hippie sport declares itself free of aggression, which has the result not of eliminating it but leaving it unmanaged.

Steve Johnson said...

That post was hilarious and also perfectly captures the progressive spirit.

Invent new rules that on the surface are about peace and love and freedom and equality but that actually encourage brutality. Even the harsh penalties for people playing the game according to the stated intent are there: look at how the freshmen naively played Earthball compared to how sophomores did.

Anarcho-tyranny, The Game: EARTHBALL!

Anonymous said...

iSteve Mid-20th-Century Architecture Alert:

It's out of this world! Bob Hope's space age Palm Springs home goes on the market for $50m

Steve Sailer said...

The Bob Hope place is by John Lautner, my architect friend's first boss. In the Iron Man movies, the Iron Mansion in Malibu is intentionally Lautnerish. In the trailer for Iron Man 3, the house gets blown up.

Anonymous said...

The fact that competitive men turned this hippie sport into a bloodbath gives me hope for humanity.

Anonymous said...

Well non-athletic men who nevertheless desire youthful physicality still have hacky sac, frisbee, and skateboarding for their non-competitive non-sports.

albert magnus said...

I played this (or something like this) in elementary school. I haven't thought about it, but I remember thinking that I'd rather be throwing the football around.

Anonymous said...

Eh just goes to show that for all the praise of the middle class on this site sportsmanship is a decidedly upper class trait.

Eric Rasmusen said...

I was there at Yale too, playing Bladderball--- the ball had no map on it. Freshmen year, I remember they served screwdrivers in the dining hall to prep us. The teams consisted of the entire student body, and the objectives were twofold: the personal objective to touch the ball at least once, and the corporate objective to get the ball over the fence and into a main street to tie up New Haven traffic. It was a manly sport.

stari_momak said...

Ironically, earthball is probably closure to the origin of all the varieties of 'football' than anything else out there, except maybe for this.

As for 1960s sports, surely the ultimate is .. Ultimate.

Anonymous said...

"Within a few minutes of brutal play, a pretty girl named Velma Potash had her clavicle broken and had to be taken to the hospital."

She recovered and later had a long-lasting supporting role on "Scooby Doo"

Anonymous said...

Steve - that Bob Hope house might deserve its own thread.

Within the category of whatever it is - Kitsch or Visionary - it's pretty dadgum audacious.

It represents so much of what Americans thought about themselves at the height of the Space Age, and where they thought the civilization was heading.

Furthermore, Hope built it at the age of 75 or 76, then got to live in it for another quarter of a century.

Finally, it's in a golf course community - in fact, it looks like a science fiction golf course clubhouse, plucked right off the set of a Rollerball or a Logan's Run.

Anonymous said...

What about hacky sack or ultimate frisbee?

Anonymous said...

So, Steve, what you're saying is that an idea created by the best & brightest new liberal with the best of intentions is quickly hijacked by the clever & strong & ruthless and turned into its exact opposite?

Huh. 'magine that.

-SWPH

Anonymous said...

Earth Ball was dead by the time I got to Rice in the 90s, but Ultimate Frisbee was taking off.

Ultimate struck me then, and still does, as quite surprisingly stupid. The name doesn't help; the fact that it stuck tells you something about the self-awareness of its players.

At least it distracted a few people from their computers for a while, and doing any kind of activity outside in Houston is an accomplishment.

Anonymous said...

http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/Politics/john-kerry-concedes-iran-moving-closing-possessing-nuclear/story?id=18655927

Watch the video. ABC confuses Iraq with Iran. Does this mean we will invade Iraq again?

Samson J. said...

Anyone out there into polo? I'd like to play polo.

Miss Conduct said...

Pretty sure this is the funniest thing Steve has written, even without the coda which elevates it to near-genius hilarity.

eh said...

Did anyone ever see anyone wearing a t-shirt reading "Staff" before the '90's?

Anonymous said...

"Within a few minutes of brutal play, a pretty girl named Velma Potash had her clavicle broken and had to be taken to the hospital."

She recovered and later had a long-lasting supporting role on "Scooby Doo"


And her brother Paul became dictator of Cambodia.


Anonymous said...

Well non-athletic men who nevertheless desire youthful physicality still have hacky sac, frisbee, and skateboarding for their non-competitive non-sports


Skateboarding is a tough and physical sport. Lots of injuries result.

Anonymous said...

White-n-blue(or Jew-n-blue) go easy on black-n-blue.

http://blogs.the-american-interest.com/wrm/2013/03/05/nyt-lets-corrupt-detroit-machine-off-the-hook/

David Davenport said...

Well non-athletic men who nevertheless desire youthful physicality still have hacky sac, frisbee, and skateboarding for their non-competitive non-sports.

Bigger-boy skateboarding is in a different category from frisbee, hacky sac, and the like.

I'm not a skateboarder, but I've seen teenagers go down steep driveways and paved walkways doing dangerous stunts such as jumping steps, railings, etc. Some skateboarding is daredevil stuff.

DaveinHackensack said...

The US Army physical fitness manual (20 years ago at least) used to include a somewhat similar game called Pushball.

JeremiahJohnbalaya said...

HILARIOUS!!

Ultimate Frisbee is actually pretty fun. Particularly if you can throw like a guy (forehand), and not like a girl (the typical frisbee toss)

Anonymous said...

Here is another example of the hippie generation coming face to face with reality:

http://www.couriermail.com.au/news/queensland/queensland-judge-calls-serial-offender-grub-clown-and-boofhead-in-sentencing-him/story-e6freoof-1226580685221

"I think you heard me refer to you before as a clown or an idiot. Well you are," Judge Harrison said. "It's people like you who wreck it for everyone.

"Time and time again we hear how people are dissatisfied about the sentences that the courts impose and how the push is on for tougher and tougher sentences.

"And it's because of grubs like you - and I use that word advisedly - grubs like you, that we're hearing that."


This judge goes on to put this serial offender out on parole immediately, free to endanger the public yet again. You can see in his wording "wreck it for everyone" that he thinks that this light sentencing was supposed to be a favor, and that he is somewhat surprised that this favor is not being appreciated. He has no apparent concern over the risk this offender poses to the rest of society who manage to obey the law.

The tragic thing is that Australia (or at least the politicians and magistrates) have yet to learn that some people are best kept behind bars. You give them a chance and they see that as a sign of weakness. The hippie generation just doesn't get it. The problem in the system isn't "grubs like you" (though in part it is - the welfare system has encouraged them to breed like rabbits), it's with judges like him.

Anonymous said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IJOuoyoMhj8

'Hitler' was there first.

Anonymous said...

OH MY, I THINK I JUST SAW A FAT ROUND KKK GUY POUNCING ON HELPLESS YOUNG PEOPLE! SOUND THE ALARM!!

Anonymous said...

So basically they reinvented the history of American football, disguised as a Hippy Earth Day activity.

"But looking at the photo, I noticed that all the freshmen were looking up in the air at the giant ball, hands raised to tap it, while all the sophomores (having more experience playing Earth Ball) were ignoring the ball and instead punching the defenseless freshmen in the gut or kneeing them in the groin."

Bloody Monday, Harvard, freshmen vs. sophmores, early 1800s.

"I learned later that the game was finally won by the other team. They eventually figured out to have the 6'11" backup center on the college basketball team, Doug Ekeroth, tap the ball to himself as he jogged down the field while his most bruising comrades formed a 360 degree wall of blockers around him to keep anybody from my dorm from suckerpunching him while he concentrated on tapping the ball."

The Flying Wedge, 1890s.

"(Ekeroth, by the way, was that basketball player who was always suspected by Coach Mike Schuler of sneaking off to the library to study. The thought that Ekeroth might be just using them to get an education in engineering drove the basketball coaches crazy.)"

And this is why the farce of American collegiate sports should be banned entirely. It cannot be reformed.

Anonymous said...

There are sports designed to be politically correct, co-ed sports, but they wisely eliminate all contact.

For instance, korfball, where each team is composed of four male and four female players:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korfball

Auntie Analogue said...


Earthball: the vinyl frontier.

Five Daarstens said...

Netball is a good co-ed sport:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Netball

Anonymous said...

Earth Ball is not as good as 43 man squamish. That's a man's game.

Reg C├Žsar said...

There is a frightening number of people in this country named Velma Potash. Must all descend from the original.

David Barker said...

The only real sports injury I ever received was from playing something like earth ball in NROTC at Berkeley in 1979.

The ball was heavier and there was no map on it.

Anonymous said...

this is why the farce of American collegiate sports should be banned entirely. It cannot be reformed


Two thumbs up. In other countries sports are sports and college is college. The career path which sees a youngster end up playing with Manchester United never includes the oxymoron of "college sports".

I'd say the same applies to high school sports. American high schools do a poor enough job of imparting "the 3 R's" - why are they wasting huge amounts of time and money on sports programs?

In my own low income Hispandered NJ town, the typical high school student is an academic disaster. But the high school football coach gets paid $250,000 a year!

pat said...

I have several times recommended that we invent some new sports. It never occurred to me that that might easier said than done.

Baseball, Football and Basketball were all invented by white men for white athletes around 1870. Black excellence in those sports was unexpected.

But these sports may not withstand modern chemistry. It is clear that there are a wide variety of steroids, androgens and other substances that effect the outcome in the "big three". The real competition has moved from the playing field to the clinic. When only juicers can win, everyone is a cheat.

What is the life expectancy of a sport? Civilization has been around for a few thousand years. If the ice fails to return, civilization will probably continue for a few thousand more. Do we think American style football will still be popular in the year 5000? What will Captain Kirk play at school?

Alas I have no idea just what our next generation sport will be, but I'm certain it won't be Earth Ball.

Before we all adopt some communal no-competition game inspired by a sixties love-in, I think we'll see cage fighting to the death on TV (Pay for View of course).

Albertosaurus

Anonymous said...

Well non-athletic men who nevertheless desire youthful physicality still have hacky sac.

Hacky sack was a favourite among Computer Science graduate students (about the most unathletic sample set), which lead to it being called "hacker sack" at the local campus.

SGOTI said...

I second the guy who mentioned what we called, creatively enough, "push ball" in Army ROTC and in the Army. I got more banged up with that than playing football of Division 1 college and club rugby. You could absolutely clearly see who would turn out to be a meat eater to those who opted for JAG/Finance/Reserve commissions four years later- and we played it the second week of ROTC if I correctly remember.

Just great, great fun and teamwork though. They pulled them all from Army PT kits sometime early in the 1990's. One time they had a post sports day, push ball being an event. Infantry and armor/cavalry just steamrolled everybody, with mixed sex HQ units particularly and tellingly taking a beating.

annk said...

No new sports? Texas A&M has a top ten Quidditch team.

AnotherDad said...

The lunacy in this sport--theory vs. reality--is an excellent metaphor for contemporary multiculti leftism.

~~
Adult men and women can't really compete equally in anything.

However, there are some reasonable co-ed sports. The key is really avoid direct contact\competition.

Coed softball with the guys batting opposite hand is in my experience a pretty good time. Did some of that in my early days at Microsoft.

And of course, beach volleyball. The best coed sport ever invented.

sfer said...

Pushball is from the 1800s:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pushball



Stewart Brand invented a variant where people switch sides to prevent the "earth" going over the edge.:


Slaughter

Stewart Brand created one of the first such games in the late 1960s, ironically called "Slaughter", which involved two groups of people trying to push a large ball over the other side's line in a sort of inverted tug-of-war, but with some on the winning side encouraged to switch to the losing side whenever it seemed like the ball was moving too far in one direction; this would supposedly teach cooperation over competition, and ensure a game in which there was heavy physical exertion but no winners or losers. The large ball was painted like the planet Earth. Brand's motivation as described in the first New Games Book had a more obvious connection to the opposition to the Vietnam War, as a game like Slaughter would allow people to get in touch with their warlike impulses and get them out of their system while turning the tables on the nationalistic implications of conventional team sports by encouraging people to switch sides to make sure neither side could push the Earth over the edge. He also felt the peace movement was unhealthily out of touch with intense physical activity and needed some sports of their own.