Thursday, November 24, 2005

Fine Disregard of the Rules


William Webb Ellis (born on this day in 1806) was nearly anonymous during his own lifetime. A native Mancunian and prep student at Rugby School who went on to gain an Oxford cricket Blue, Ellis became a clergyman, served as rector of St. Clement Danes in London's Strand, and ended his career in the south of France, passing away on January 24, 1872 in Menton.

Four years after his death, however, one of his fellow Rugby alums sent an account of his exploits as a 16-year old soccer player to the Rugby School magazine, an incident which the author claimed had been taken from an eyewitness account. It seems that in 1823, Ellis was playing in an intramural soccer game and, "with fine disregard for the rules of football" (in the words of the commemorative plaque which now resides at Rugby), Ellis picked up the ball, ran with it in his arms, and grounded it at the opposing side's area.

While Ellis was said to have been censured by the other players and by the school for his reckless act, apparently the idea of running with the ball began to seduce the hostile crowd, leading ultimately to the establishment of the Rugby School rules of 1846 which legalized running with the ball as the practice of "rugby." By the time Rugby School began to research the origins of the game in 1895, it had a hard time finding anyone alive who remembered Ellis.

The story is doubtful; in fact, author Thomas Hughes later credibly claimed he was the inventor of the game as captain of the Bigside club in 1842. Even as the story is told, young William Webb Ellis, chastised for a spontaneous act, could no more be the inventor of rugby than a Neanderthal tribal hunter who shared his kills with each according to his need could be considered to be the inventor of Communism.

Like the Abner Doubleday legend in baseball, however, Ellis' legend is persistent, and perhaps for good reason. If sports are "about" anything, then it is clear that football is "about" military conquest of territory, baseball is "about" leaving and returning to one's home (see my previous post, "A Casual Summer Romance") -- and rugby is "about" progeny. With players "giving birth" to the ball and propelling it through successive "bequests" to backs who carry the collective name forward, why shouldn't a hormonal, middle-class adolescent stumble upon the essential gesture of the game, the acquisitive grip from which the interrelated concepts of property, procreation and legacy emanate?

My good friend and business partner, a father of three young children, believes the story is quite credible on its face, all factual evidence aside. When kids get cranky, energy and hormones take over. The rules of the elder, more established game may say that you can't take the ball into your possession -- but if you've got a case of mean reds, taking possession is exactly what you're going to do. And if you are a coach, working with young boys at a boarding school, maybe you're going to look the other way or even encourage a little bit of on-field activism, because by allowing the boys to expend the energy within an environment of controlled chaos you might be getting your charges to sleep more soundly after the day is done.

This, I believe, should be considered to be a good secondary theory as to the meaning of rugby -- it's an outlaw game, played to mime excess and to exorcise frustration borne of conformity and submission to authority. It's probably no accident that even today, rugby players are fond of saying that rugby is played "in three halves" -- two on the pitch and one in the pub. Hell-raising is a key component of its appeal.

In 1997, Rugby School unveiled a sculpture of Ellis, paid for with donations from around the world.

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