Evolution Of Sports: How Sports Have Changed

evolution sports footballSports are a curious thing. Ask a football fan nowadays about the possibility of changing one of the game’s fundamental rules, such as making throw-ins into kick-ins, and you’ll undoubtedly receive a torrent of arguments against the very thought of the idea. Even so, most sports have undergone changes to how they work over the years, which have seen them become almost unrecognisable when compared to what they looked like originally. Football itself used to allow the ball to be passed back to the goalkeeper, only for that rule to be abolished in the early 1990s.

In some cases, sports have changed so much than an entirely different game has been created out of them. You can even look at one sport, such as rugby, and see numerous different sports that have been developed out of it, either directly or indirectly. The likes of the National Football League in America has some ties to rugby, whilst football itself was much more closely aligned to rugby during its early days than it is today. In other words, sport is an ever-evolving concept, with different versions of games leading to other sports being created as offshoots of them.

Sports That Have Evolved

It is entirely far to say that there are some sports out there that it is difficult to pin down the original of. Look for information about the creation of baseball, for example, and you’ll see that there are a whole group of sports that claim to be linked to its origins. How many such claims are true is obviously a matter of some debate, but here we’ll look to explain the sport as it is played in the modern era and also have a look at the sport or sports that existed before it and that can, however spuriously, be associated with its creation.

American Football

red zone american football playerSometimes referred to as gridiron football, the sport known in the United Kingdom as American football has extremely close links to the English sport of rugby. During the 19th century, games were played in parts of the United States of America that more closely resembled the sports of rugby union and football. As with football in England, there were different rules for the sport depending on where it was that you were playing it, often leading to a sense of confusion and a desire to try to standardise it where possible.

The first recorded instance of gridiron football being played was at University College at the University of Toronto in 1861, with other university teams playing it as the 1860s developed. In some place, the rules were more akin to those used by the Football Association of England, whilst McGill University in Montreal developed a game that used the rules of rugby union as their basis. In the wake of a game between Harvard and McGill, Harvard liked the other university’s rules and so played with them against other US colleges over the next couple of years or so.

There was, though, a desire to allow the game to distinguish itself from rugby, so new rules were adopted that allowed it to do as much. Walter Camp is generally considered to be the person who developed many of the games new rules, including the line of scrimmage and the down system. In 1906, the forward pass was introduced, very much separating it from rugby, in which passing the ball forward was banned. The Canadian version of the sport remained more closely aligned with rugby, but American football moved further and further away from it with every passing year and additional rule.

Aussie Rules Football

aussie rules football gameAnother sport that can find its origins in the world of rugby Australian rules football, often referred to simply as Aussie rules. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that football was played in the Australian colonies during the early part of the 19th century, though it was seen as an ‘amusement’ rather than taken serious like cricket. In 1858, a latter from Tom Wills was published in the Melbourne-based ‘Bell’s Life in Victoria and Sporting Chronicle’. The captain of a cricket team in Victoria, Wills had played a version of rugby whilst at school in England.

In the months that followed, there were numerous ‘kickabouts’ at the likes of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, though they didn’t have a code that all players agreed upon. As a result, some players followed the rules that they’d learned playing rugby in England, whilst others followed different rules entirely. A match took place, under what were considered to be experimental rules, between Melbourne Grammar School and Scotch College, lasting for more than three afternoons and seeing just one goal scored by each side.

Whilst some have claimed that Wills will have seen aborigines playing a game known as Marn Grook, the evidence for that is purely circumstantial. Wills’ own biographer, Greg de Moore, believed that he was influenced entirely by his time at Rugby. Wills was then part of the team of people that met and drafted the ‘Rules of the Melbourne Football Club in 1859. Those rules are generally considered to be the basis for Aussie rules football, tying them directly to the game of rugby. The game removed some of the more violent rules of rugby, largely to protect the working men that played it.

Rugby League

rugby league matchIs it a cheat to suggest that rugby league developed out of rugby, considering how closely the two sports are linked? Maybe, but there’s little question that the sports are different enough to suggest that it’s fair. Rugby league was born in 1895 when the Northern Rugby Football Union made a move to break away from the previously established Rugby Football Union. It did as much in order to establish its own, completely separate competition, with the competitions evolving to become a different sport entirely from rugby.

The Rugby Football Union had been codified in 1871, but at the 1800s crept on there was a distinct problem with professionalism in the sport and payments made by northern clubs to their players for ‘broken time’. They had also seen the Football League be created in 1888 in order to allow for professionalism, leading to 22 clubs meeting at the George Hotel in Huddersfield in order to decide to split from the rugby union. Sanctioned were issued against clubs and players, but by 1904 there were more clubs affiliated with the Northern Rugby Football Union than the RFU.

The rules of the Northern Union were the same as the Rugby Football Union during the early stages, but by 1907 the differences were significant enough to think of them as separate sports. The major changes included how many players were on a team (13 in league, 15 in union), being able to play the ball after a tackle and the removal of the line-out. There was also a change to the way that the games were scored. None of these changes were as significant as the difference between rugby union and other sports, but they were still enough to warrant a mention for league on this page.

Association Football

football 1920 summer olympics
football 1920 summer olympics

The final sport that is worth mentioning with ties to rugby is that of association football. Versions of football had existed long before the game was created that we know and love today, with many of those early games looking more more similar to rugby as far as a modern audience would be concerned. Schools and colleges up and down the country had their own rules, which would usually be agreed upon before a game got underway. The carrying of the ball was one of the biggest rules that was chopped and changed between games, for example.

Indeed, there is an apocryphal story about Webb Ellis picking up the ball and running with it during a game at Rugby school, giving birth to the sport of rugby. In actual fact, many versions of football allowed for the carrying of the ball long before that, so it would probably be more accurate to suggest that football was born out of rugby rather than the other way around. In October of 1863, the Football Association was formed at the Freemason’s Tavern in London with the specific aim of codifying the laws of the game that would go on to become association football.

Initially, there were still plenty of links with rugby. At the fourth meeting, for example, attention was drawn to the Cambridge Rules, which had been published in newspapers and featured references to rules on running with the ball and ‘hacking’. Both of those rules were hangovers from the rugby days, meaning that a proposal was made at the fifth meeting to remove from the Football Association rules. It was at that point that various clubs that wanted to concentrate on rugby began to pull away from football and the new sport was born.


baseball illustrationIt is fair to say that the origins of baseball remain unclear, even today. In fact, one of the few sports of the time that doesn’t claim to have had any influence over it is rugby. The likelihood is that another old English game, rounders, had a large influence on baseball’s origins, as well as other bat, ball and running games that were played in the early years of Great Britain and Ireland. What we do know is that a game was being played in England in the middle of the 18th century that involved hitting a ball and running around a series of bases.

This game was taken by the English colonialists to America, where it was developed and changed until it became the modern day sport we call baseball. The fact that the English game of rounders bears such a large number of similarities to baseball means that is impossible to rule out the idea that that is where the base-ball game of the 18th century initially came from. In rounders, the object of the game is to hit a ball well and run a circuit of four bases before making it ‘home’, which is obviously very similar to baseball.

Though the modern game of rounders is considered to be a game for young girls to play, in the 19th century it was common for men to play it. In the Victorian era, for example, regimental teams played for the army championship, showing that it was taken seriously as a sport. A direct link between the two sports can be found in the fact that the rules for rounders were published in ‘The Boy’s Own Nook’ in 1828, which was published in Boston, Massachusetts a year later. In 1834, those same rules were printed verbatim in Robin Carver’s ‘The Book of Sports’, only the game was no longer called rounders but instead entitled ‘Base or Goal-ball’.

Ice Hockey

ice hockey gameThe contact sport of ice hockey, which is usually played in the winter months, was developed in Canada during the latter part of the 19th century. The first game was actually played indoors in 1875, with many of the characteristics of it being retained to this day. It is believed by most to have developed out of the stick and ball games that were played in the United Kingdom in the 18th and 19th centuries, with the likes of hurling, bandy and shinty all boasting claims to have been influential on the eventual creation of ice hockey.

Games like bandy, shinny and ice polo were brought to North America from England by soldiers stationed in Canada in the 1850s and 1860s. Whilst there were similar games already being played there, these were most by immigrants who had probably discovered the game in Europe before heading there. In England, field hockey, which is usually just referred to as hockey, had been around for at least one hundred years by the time that bandy became popularised. The first mention of it in print was found in 1772, for example.

Though the rules of hockey and ice hockey are very different, there is no arguing that they are similar enough games to suggest that there is a link. In Europe, stick and ball games date back to the pre-Christian times, showing just how much one sport can be developed out of several others. Such games were commonly played in Scotland and will have travelled to the Low Countries at one point or another. A 1797 engraving showed a person playing a game with a stick and a bung whilst wearing skates on the frozen River Thames, almost certainly in 1796.