Title: The Democracy of Sports
Date: May 22, 1924
Location: Washington, D.C.
Context: Address to The National Conference on Outdoor Recreation praising the benefits of outdoor activity and nature to the human soul and body
This conference has been called to encourage Americans to make more of their opportunities and appropriate more of the advantages of America. For a long time one of the ideals of perfection has been that of a sound mind in a sound body. When most of our original educational institutions were founded, they at first served a race of pioneers. They were attended by those whose very existence depended on an active outdoor life in the open country. The most universal custom among all the people was bodily exercise. Those days long ago passed away for most of the people of this country.
There is still and must ever be a tremendous amount of manual labor but to a large extent this has become specialized and too often would be designated correctly as drudgery. The opportunity for education of the mind, however, has greatly increased until it has become well nigh universal. School and college athletics have become necessary. With the development of our industrial and commercial life, there are more and more of those who are engaged in purely clerical activities. All of this makes it more necessary than ever that we should stimulate every possible interest in out of door health giving recreation.
I am hopeful that the conference can co ordinate our national resources and opportunities in a way better to serve this purpose. It is by no means intended that there should be any suggestion of Federal domination in these activities. Necessarily they are largely local and individual, and to be helpful they must always be spontaneous. But this conference can be of great aid by making something of an inventory of our national resources and opportunities and determining how these may best be put to the most desirable use, and, further, by exchanging ideas, create new interests and open to view new fields.
Nearly every city is making large appropriations for laying out spacious parks and playgrounds. These are providing recreation fields for the playing of outdoor games by both old and young. Golf courses and tennis courts abound. Too much emphasis can not be placed on the effort to get the children out of the alleys and off the streets into spacious open places where there is good sunlight and plenty of fresh air. Such an opportunity has both a physical and mental effect. It restores the natural balance of life and nourishes the moral fiber of youth.
Another activity which is being encouraged is that of gardening. This is necessarily somewhat limited, but the opportunity for engaging in it has never been anywhere near exhausted. It makes its appeal alike to youth and age. It is extremely practical on the one hand, and lends itself to the artistic on the other.
A form of recreation not so accessible to many as games, but one which has in it a peculiar hold on that which is elemental in human nature, is hunting and fishing. These are true outdoor sports in the highest sense, and must be pursued in a way that develops energy, perseverance, skill, and courage of the individual. They call for personal direction, and can not be taken up vicariously. There is a great wealth of life and experience in this field which is never exhausted, and always fresh and new. It is accompanied by traits of character which make a universal appeal. A knowledge of these arts may well be cultivated and cherished like a knowledge of the humanities and the sciences. Around hunting and fishing is gathered a great wealth of prose and poetry, which testifies to the enduring interest which these sports have held all through the development of the race.
A certain type of outdoor activity has been much developed in recent years and calls great throngs together, which may properly be designated as exhibition games. Under this head comes first in importance baseball, which is often known as the national game. Football and polo come in the same class. These activities require such long and intensive training that participation in them is necessarily confined to a class and can not be said to be open to the general public. But for creating an interest which extends to every age and every class, for giving an opportunity for a few hours in the open air which will provide a change of scene, a new trend of thought, and the arousing of new enthusiasm for the great multitude of our people, these have no superior.
But it is unnecessary for me to do more than mention a few of the representative forms of recreation. We all know that their name is legion, and that different tastes require different activities. I am not trying to recommend one above another, but I am trying to point out the national value which would accrue if there were an organized, instructed, and persistent effort to bring these benefits to the people at large. It can not be that our country is making a great outlay for playgrounds in our schools, for athletic fields in our colleges, for baseball fields in our cities, for recreation parks in our metropolitan districts, for State and national forest reservations, unless these all represent an opportunity for a real betterment of the life of the people. These are typically American in all their aspects. They minister directly to the welfare of all our inhabitants.
Civilization is measured in no small part by these standards. The famous beauty and symmetry of the Greek race in its prime was due in no small part to their general participation in athletic games. This meant development. We can see in the gladiatorial shows of Rome, which degenerated into the butchery alike of beasts and men, the sure sign of moral decay which ended in the destruction of the empire and the breaking up of the great influence it had cast over the world. It is altogether necessary that we keep our own amusements and recreations within that field which will be prophetic, not of destruction, but of development. It is characteristic of almost the entire American life that it has a most worthy regard for clean and manly sports. It has little appetite for that which is unwholesome or brutal.
We have at hand these great resources and great opportunities. They can not be utilized to their fullest extent without careful organization and methodical purpose. Our youth need instruction in how to play as much as they do in how to work. There are those who are engaged in our industries who need an opportunity for outdoor life and recreation no less than they need opportunity of employment. Side by side with the industrial plant should be the gymnasium and the athletic field. Along with the learning of a trade by which a livelihood is to be earned should go the learning of how to participate in the activities of recreation, by which life is made not only more enjoyable, but more rounded out and complete. The country needs instruction in order that we may better secure these results.
A special consideration suggests the value of a development of national interest in recreation and sports. There is no better common denominator of a people. In the case of a people which represents many nations, cultures and races, as does our own, a unification of interests and ideals in recreations is bound to wield a telling influence for solidarity of the entire population. No more truly democratic force can be set off against the tendency to class and caste than the democracy of individual parts and prowess in sport.
Out of this conference I trust there may come a better appreciation of the necessary development of our life along these directions. They should be made to contribute to health, to broader appreciation of nature and her works, to a truer insight into the whole affair of existence. They should be the means to acquainting all of us with the wonders and delights of this world in which we live, and of this country of which we are the joint inheritors. Through them we may teach our children true sportsmanship, right living, the love of being square, the sincere purpose to make our lives genuinely useful and helpful to our fellows. All of these may be implanted through a wise use of recreational opportunities.
I want to see all Americans have a reasonable amount of leisure. Then I want to see them educated to use such leisure for their own enjoyment and betterment, and the strengthening of the quality of their citizenship. We can go a long way in that direction by getting them out of doors and really interested in nature. We can make still further progress by engaging them in games and sports. Our country is a land of cultured men and women. It is a land of agriculture, of industries, of schools, and of places of religious worship. It is a land of varied climes and scenery, of mountain and plain, of lake and river. It is the American heritage. We must make it a land of vision, a land of work, of sincere striving for the good, but we must add to all these, in order to round out the full stature of the people, an ample effort to make it a land of wholesome enjoyment and perennial gladness.