Modern sports all have rich histories full of tradition. Horrible, horrible tradition.
Yes, if you delve back far enough, "tradition" quickly takes a back seat to bizarre custom and wanton brutality. All in the name of good fun, though.
#5. Football: Basically a Town-Wide Riot
American football was cobbled together from a bunch of different sports, as you can pretty much tell by watching it. It's got some rugby, some soccer, some attempted murder. Probably the oldest ancestor was mob football, which was played throughout the Middle Ages and was really closer to a spirited match of Calvinball than anything else.
This medieval football distinguished itself from the modern game by doing away with those silly and pointless conventions we know as "rules." Teams could be as large as they wanted and occasionally involved entire villages, and the only thing expressly forbidden was the killing of opposing players (although many agree this is a fine strategy if it can be done without attracting the attention of the refs).
Anything else was fair game. Unsurprisingly, matches often dissolved from "rioting" into "rioting while things are on fire." The goal of the game was to get the ball to the other team's goal line, which were often put at opposite ends of the town. As a result the field was huge and littered with troublesome obstacles like buildings and the elderly.
Needless to say, there were some accidental deaths and the game was banned no less than 30 times in England over the course of three centuries.
Who's winning? All of us.
Over time, they steadily changed the game as people decided they wanted less murder in their sports. By the 16th and 17th centuries, it was civilized enough to make its way onto university campuses, and a few centuries after that it was all about pads and rules and not stabbing people. Still, to this day after their team wins a big game, some fans like to take to the streets and reenact the old days.
#4. Baseball: Cows and Sexual Innuendo
Long before baseball was a game for steroid-infused musclesaurs, it was a pastime enjoyed by 14th century English women on wooden barn stools.
It wasn't quite baseball as it's played today but rather Stoolball, which immediately suggests people trying to smack turds out of the air with sticks. Unfortunately, it was actually called that because milkmaids used their milking stools to catch the ball. Teams would take turns pitching and batting, with the batter wielding a paddle to prevent the pitch from hitting the milk stool. Why they were doing this instead of milking the fucking cows is not clear in the official rules.
Pictured: The 2008 Kansas City Royals.
But at the core of all this was hot, nasty, 14th century sex.
Most early references to Stoolball say male spectators would watch the women play and bawdily cheer them on, and the winners would be rewarded with cakes, kisses and sexual favors (the logical progression after cake and kissing). Shakespeare even coined the phrase "playing Stoolball" as a euphemism for sex and, quite frankly, we're not clear on why it isn't still used today (for a certain type of sex anyway).
Despite this, games were most often played in churchyards much to the ire of the priests, who tried to discourage matches from taking place presumably by chasing the unruly players in a delightfully madcap fashion while the Benny Hill theme played somewhere nearby.
The game eventually evolved in different regions of England, went through rule changes and merged with other games before making its way to North America and developing into baseball. While it retains the quality of being something you avoid work to engage in, modern baseball is noticeably deficient in the "women," "cake" and "sexual favor" departments.
#3. Basketball: Rocks and Human Sacrifice
You probably already have heard the part about the guy who invented basketball with a peach basket, but the story is much older and weirder than that.
That guy was James Naismith, a coach from Canada that came to teach at a YMCA in the States, where he invented the sport as a way to keep people active during the winter months. But few people know Naismith's terrible secret: His new activity was inspired by a combination of a children's game and ancient Mesoamerican rituals. Sort of like Candy Land mixed with blood sacrifice, only more geared towards the sale of sports drinks.
The children's game was called Duck on a Rock, which involved one child placing a small rock on top of a larger one, and then protecting it from other children who threw rocks in an effort to knock it down. Yeah, they didn't have video games back then.
We realize this sounds nothing like basketball but the most effective way to get past the guard was to softly lob one's rock over their head towards the target rock. Naismith, having played the game as a child, thought this was a good way to provide players of his sport with a challenge, likely because he was struck in the face by one of the aforementioned rocks.
The other inspiration came from Mayan and Aztec ball games, which were decidedly more brutal and/or awesome. The goal of these contests was to get the ball through stone rings located on either end of a large court. The ball itself was heavy enough to cause injuries, and players were even known to have been killed by head trauma, further demonstrating Naismith's love of games that injure people.
Hurry up and take the picture, I need to break someone's nose with this.
The sport was used as a proxy for war, with an additional element of human sacrifice, as either the losing captain or entire teams would be killed after ritual games. That must have made for some tense fucking free throws in the fourth quarter.