I’ve had a low level of adrenaline in my blood all day. In my red jersey, I stretch out on the subway car. My heartbeat is quickening now. I jog from the subway stop toward the field, imagining my body at full speed, running plays in my mind. My breath is very real to me. My limbs are absolutely present. It’s game day. The entire season has led to today.
The weather is perfect. A light breeze blows in off the East River. Across the river, the Empire State Building shines magnificently pink in the deepening sunset. In the center of the pristine soccer field, the officials are erecting the goal: a single rectangle of PVC pipe, without a net, narrower and taller than a soccer goal. The overhead lights click on and hum to life as both teams warm up near their respective benches.
Five minutes before kickoff, one of the three referees blows his whistle and a member of each team approaches for the down-up. In other sports, a simple coin toss determines field direction and which team receives the ball. In this sport, the first player to touch the ground with his shoulders from a standing position and return to a standing position wins the “toss.” My teammate, Winston, a modern dancer, loses the down-up by a fraction of a second. This is but one of the many oddities of Circle Rules Football, a sport that was created as a work of art.
The basics of Circle Rules Football
1) There is only one goal frame in the center of the field. One team scores a point by shooting the ball through the goal in one direction. The other team scores by shooting the ball through the same goal frame in the opposite direction.
2) The ball is a large exercise ball, also known as a yoga ball. It’s one of those huge, bouncy, ribbed things that you see in gyms. Players are allowed to touch the ball with any part of the body: hand, head, elbow, chest, knee, foot. Players are not allowed to trap the ball, meaning players cannot catch the ball with two hands or trap the ball against their bodies. Dribbling, as in basketball, is not required, but due to its enormous size, the ball is unwieldy to handle. Also, you can kick it way up into the sky.
3) Each team fields seven players. Around the single goal is a circular boundary called the key. Only one player from each team, the goalie, can enter the key. The goalies, matched by weight, have offensive and defensive purposes. When the ball is on the defensive side, the goalie tries to keep the ball from going through the goal. When the ball is on the offensive side, the goalie tries to move the opposing goalie out of position. The goalie battle, central to Circle Rules Football, is a rough chess match, full of wrestling, blocking, and strategy.
Although I occasionally play offense or wing, my usual position is defense. Having won the down-up and opting to kick off, our opponents will kick toward me. My job is to advance the ball around to our offensive side, where our strikers can stick it through. I feel electricity in my fingers, my feet, my eyes. The referee blows the opening whistle.
One week prior to kickoff, I had the opportunity to sit down with Greg Manley, who designed this sport as his senior thesis in the Experimental Theater W ing of the Tisch School of Performing Arts at New York University. Manley, who grew up in Oakland, is a puppeteer for the touring production of War Horse, where he rotates between manipulating the gigantic wooden horses and the smaller geese and bird puppets. I wanted to know why he considers Circle Rules Football a form of art and how he went about creating it.
“I tried to approach making a new sport the way a playwright would approach writing a new play. And direct it aesthetically the way a coach or a manager would orchestrate a game. The more I started thinking about it, the more similarities started popping up. The big eureka moment was realizing that sports are theater. It’s just a different type of theater. The main difference isn’t practical; it’s cultural.”
To illustrate his point, Manley began listing similarities. Halftime is intermission. Mascots are clowns. The audience is the crowd. The coach is the director. The actors are players. The script of a theatrical play is the rulebook of a sport.
“And here’s a big one: It’s all make-believe! You might think that the outcome of the NBA Finals is earth-shattering, but really, it’s just two hours of make-believe. The player thinks, ‘I have to put this ball through this metal ring because people told me to,’ and you are caring about it because we’re all telling this story together. It’s all storytelling.”
Of course, there’s one gaping hole in his theory. Theater is scripted, and the climax and conclusion are pre-determined; whereas in sports, it’s not possible to know who is going to win and who is going to lose. Manley has an answer.
“People always say, ‘Sports are improvised. The outcome isn’t always the same.’ But that’s true for a play as well. You don’t think about the game as the script, meaning who wins and loses, but you think of the rules as the script. Those are fixed. The difference is the interpretation of the script. So an Old Vic’s Hamlet is going to be much different than the Wooster Group’s Hamlet. And a Celtics versus Lakers is going to be different than Knicks versus Bulls, but it’s the same script. It’s the same rulebook.”
Trying to advance the huge Circle Rules ball is neither easy nor intuitive. It takes real creativity to move it. It’s lightweight, but because of its enormous surface area, it has none of the sharp movement of a basketball or soccer ball or hockey puck. It is a clumsy, hilarious object in most hands. But, as in all sports, there are some players with a seemingly preternatural ability.
Daniel Wright is our best scorer by far. Like Babe Ruth or Jonny Unitas of yore, Daniel drags a cigarette on the sidelines and then trots out and performs physical feats that leave the players on both teams agape. Because the huge Circle Rules ball cannot be easily cut from side to side, one way to beat a defender is to softly lob it to yourself on the other side of the defender. By gauging the momentum of your defender’s body, you can put the ball in a position that you can get to first as the defender turns. It looks so funny to see someone get beat this way, but it happens all the time. When you get beat in this manner, it’s as humiliating as it is frustrating.
As Daniel drives the ball, the Brooklyn Bridge at his back, he performs this soft lobbing juke (essentially passing to himself) three times in succession. It is a thing of strange beauty. He leaps backward into the air and lets loose a high arcing shot. Our goalie boxes their goalie forward toward the top of the key and the ball drops behind both goalies, floating through the goal for a point.
Manley describes the origins of the concept. “My first two notions in creating this sport, when brainstorming and trying out all sorts of things, have both survived in Circle Rules. That’s using the large-sized ball and playing on a circular field with a goal in the center. Both were things I’d never seen before. I had thought about them casually. There was one of these big exercise balls in my friend’s house when I was growing up, but it was always surrounded by delicate glassware, and all I wanted to do was kick it really hard. There was so much potential for that ball, but it was always so ill-used in gyms. You know, you just … sit on it. Or do sit-ups on it.
“The circular field with the central goal came from drama exercises. Where everyone stands in a circle and you spread your awareness to the edge of your peripheral vision and you try to become sensitive to the entire group at once. So there’s a very strong focus in the center, but you’re also looking at everything around you at the same time. And that happens again and again in drama and seems fundamentally useful for creating a group dynamic, but I hadn’t seen any sports with a circle and a central focus. Sports are so caught up in the red versus blue and the left side versus the right side: we’re going to fight each other across the middle, we’re going to push each other to the other end. And I thought something really interesting could happen fundamentally and psychologically to athletes if we made a game gravitational.”
Gravitational is a perfect word to describe the game play of Circle Rules Football. When the ball is far from the goal, the game is spacious and much slower like the gradual advances of a soccer game. As the ball approaches the goal in the center, the action becomes much more crowded, physical, and frantic like a basketball game. The players, unable to enter the key, rotate in a circle around the goal. If a shot narrowly misses the goal, the switch between offense and defense is instantaneous. It’s common that a missed shot will result in the opposing team immediately punching the ball through for a point.
One exciting element of playing a sport in its infancy is that the strategy has not yet congealed into a doctrine. Our coach, Brad Pennington, is constantly developing and revising game plans. Sometimes he’ll use one of our taller players as a “center,” to just rotate around the key. At times, he’ll instruct one of our defenders to wander back on offense or sometimes will tell our forwards to fill in when we run the equivalent of a full-court press. We incorporate strategies from a wide range of sports.
Manley used to teach a sports development workshop for kids, in which they would design their own sports. “I drew two monsters facing each other. One was strategy and the other was rules. And they’re constantly fighting to keep each other at bay. Strategy will constantly look for ways around the rules to take advantage of them. The rules will constantly grow and become more clever so that strategy doesn’t have a chance. The beautiful balance is when those two monsters are not on top of each other and there’s some room in the middle and there’s a tension between them.”
I’ve heard Manley talk about wanting to bring artistic creativity to sports and physical education and asked him how he went about teaching kids to compose a sport. Firstly, he defines the word “aesthetic.” Usually, this is a perception of beauty, but in games he uses “aesthetic” to mean a perception of fun. Then he begins brainstorming with the kids on how to build a structure to facilitate that aesthetic. He does so in three phases.
The first phase of sports design is adaptation. This is simply taking a sport or game that already exists and changing or adding a rule. Gradually, the game becomes unrecognizable. The next phase is amalgamation. In this phase, kids combine two sports or games that already exist. How could you integrate the elements of soccer and tennis to make a fun sport? The last phase is aesthetics and how kids can design a sport from a purely aesthetic approach.
This is how Manley created Circle Rules Football. “ I wanted to see a game on a circular field with a central goal. I wanted to see a sport with a large ball that is so unwieldy that you can’t keep it to yourself for too long.”
Thinking about how a new sport could be designed has made me curious about the origins of the major sports. When I watch football or baseball, it feels as though these games sprang out of nowhere. But they didn’t. These games were invented by people. Catchers in baseball used to stand five to ten feet behind home plate. In American football, passing the ball forward wasn’t legal until 1906. When Dr. James Naismith invented basketball at a YMCA Training School in 1891, there were only thirteen rules, and dribbling the ball wasn’t allowed. A couple of years ago, his handwritten rules sold at Sotheby’s for $2 million.
I’ve just committed a foul. I was being a little too vigorous trying to strip the ball from the biggest guy on the opposing team and knocked him forward, almost off his feet. This huge dude turns around and gets in my face. “Try that again, fucker. Try that again and see what happens.” As I trot off the field for my thirty-second penalty, I’m chuckling. That guy is about a foot taller than me and probably outweighs me by 100 pounds. “Aw, come on ref!” I shout. “It was just a little love tap! I was just being friendly!”
As is common at Circle Rules Football matches, crowds of bewildered passersby gather, mystified and fascinated, trying to figure out the rules to this bizarre spectacle. It’s a sight to behold two teams playing their guts out, taking the game so seriously. A man in a Knicks jersey jogs up to me and asks what this game is called. When I tell him, he says, “It looks fun!”
“It is,” I tell him. “It is very, very fun.”
One thing I haven’t heard about from Manley is what he thinks about competition. Competition is the fuel and the driving force of an entertaining sport. If his theory that sports are theater is accurate, he must be able to account for competition as a driving force in theater.
“The first notion I had about creating a sport was on a family trip to Ecuador to play soccer. There were about twenty of us from all over the world, and I watched my dad, who’s always been competitive, turn into a ten-year-old boy. He was throwing temper tantrums, fouling people and pretending he didn’t touch them. He was yelling at people, and these are all people who don’t share his level of competition. And I thought, ‘What an incredible character!’
“With acting, to have a strong character, you need to have a strong objective. What do you want? You’re always asking the actor, ‘What do you want in this scene?’ You’re always trying to get something. Acting is the passionate pursuit of an objective. So you get these superhuman characters: Terrell Owens, Lebron James, Kevin Garnett, these people who are symbols! Mike Tyson! He was on Broadway because of the character that sports made him into!”
But I wanted to know where competition existed internally in art. Certainly it exists between works of art. One painting competes for attention against another. One movie competes against other movies. Yet that’s like saying that the NBA is competing against the NFL, against FIFA and NHL . Where’s the internal competition? Where is the competition within a play?
“Within a play,” explains Manley, “the competition is between the protagonist and the antagonist. It’s a beautiful competition. Actors who play villains say ‘I can’t think of my character as a bad person.’ When you’re playing them, you can’t think of them as the Bad Guy. You think of them as having a genuine desire and doing whatever they can to fulfill it. Sometimes that desire is so strong that they’ll commit all sorts of crimes. You see a sincerity in their willingness to stop at nothing to passionately pursue their objective.”
So, in Manley’s thinking, the competition between players is equivalent to the competition that happens between characters.
“Alright! Guys! Listen up!” shouts our coach in the huddle at halftime. “I like the intensity! Justin, I want you to switch to center. Just rotate around the key and stay tall. Blocks! Winston, you’re killing it in goal! Just keep boxing him out, especially when Dan is cutting it across the middle. They can’t match up against you. Guys! You need to keep playing to space. I keep telling you this. If someone has the ball, don’t run toward him or just stand there. The best way to help out is to spread the field so we isolate Dan one-on-one. Go to where the ball is going to be. We’ve got two more quarters, and I don’t know about you, but I didn’t come out here to just have fun. O’Neil, Dan, you’re at offense to start. Justin, play as center. Winston, you’re in goal. Nate, you’re with me on D. Let’s get the W.”
“People don’t often read the rulebook of a sport before they go to see it,” says Manley. “They aren’t as revered as scripts. But a really well written rulebook—I mean, look at the FIFA [the international soccer ruling body] laws of the game, it’s thirty-five pages long. It’s elegant compared to the NFL rules, which is about 150 pages long with a bunch of diagrams on how to officiate. Ideally, you don’t want to have to tell people how to officiate. They should be able to understand it the first time they read the rulebook.”
So for Manley, elegance is a big aesthetic in measuring the worth of a game. But what does elegance in a set of rules allow for in a sport?
“Elegance allows room for strategy to change, year to year, decade to decade, with the least amount of change in the rules. Elegance also allows for creativity from the players, really wild interpretations of how to play forward or really wild interpretations of how to play in goal, but still protects the players from themselves and each other and still generates competition.”
So when he’s looking at a script, he’s looking for a similar elegance that allows the actor to have wild interpretations of what that character is supposed to be.
“Sure. I mean, how exciting is it to see a coach try something totally different that is completely within the rules. Every once in a while, on YouTube, you see some high-school coach who has pulled off an incredible trick play and baffled the defense. That is the most thrilling thing in sports. The same thing goes for theater. Shakespeare’s been done a bazillion times, but I just saw Shakespeare in the Park, a wild new interpretation of the play that was done almost as a college flick. It completely reinvigorated the play.”
It’s the best play I make all day. I strip the ball on our defensive half, use my body to pivot around an opponent, similar to the way that a basketball player would advance the ball, and bring it to our offensive side of the goal. A defender rushes me, but I can see that she is running at me too fast, and I move the huge ball to my left side as she runs by. It happens in slow motion. I kick a lofting assist toward the top of our offensive key where one of our strikers tries to one-time it in. The opposing goalie manages to put out a foot, and the blocked ball pops up outside the key. But I am following my pass and am in position to punch the ball straight through the upper corner of the goal frame for a point.
The jubilation, the elation and triumph, that rips through my physiology is unreasonable in nature. I let out a bellowing shout of victory. I do not normally shout or scream as loud as I can. The sound feels young and special as it springs from my lungs and my vocal cords. I am a holy animal. I have not done anything objectively valuable. I have simply placed a ball through a hole.
As in all sports, the outcome of this championship is both so important and doesn’t matter at all. It’s all make-believe! However, the outcome of a Circle Rules Football match is scripted. In the tradition of rugby, all of the players and spectators of both teams gather at a bar after the game to drink together. The big fucker I fouled earlier clicks glasses with me, and we both laugh. After a couple beers, the referees elect the “Hero” and the “Zero,” the person who had the most spectacular day and the person who had a shitty or embarrassing performance. They both get a beer, bought by the other players.
Then we antagonists and protagonists sing the strange Circle Rules anthem together. Because it was a championship, there are more singers than usual, and the song, not written or foreseen by Manley when he created the sport, is sung with more gusto than normal. The other people in the bar wonder at what’s happening. When the song is over, the Hero and the Zero both compete in trying to be the first to knock back their beers. The bar echoes with cheers and applause for the winner and the loser. We are actors! We are actors in a successful play.