||Were Winners or the Losers of the Maya Ballgame Sacrified?
We know so little about the Maya ball player. There is no written record of how they played the game or anything about the players. And there is little oral tradition about them. When have the actual ball courts at every ruin (sometimes more than one) and we have depictions of ball players on pottery and carvings. There are what I call "Guide Myths" (stories the guides tell tourists to impress or entertain them that have no basis in fact at all). Some say the winners were sacrificed! Think about the non-logic of that idea! If the winners were killed, then the quality of playing would keep getting worse as you killed off your best players - can you imagine what a football game would be like if all you had left to watch were players who NEVER WON before!
It is generally believed that there were probably two version of the ball game. One was played as a sport, and probably had some betting involved. The other version was a religious re-enactment of the story of the Hero Twins in the Popol Vuh. In this case, there were probably only 2 players and the winner and looser were pre-determined. The looser was probably a captive, or a criminal. He would have been in terrible physical condition from going a long time without food. Perhaps he was even drugged. His purpose was to make the other player look good, probably a war hero or a young prince. People would have come to this event to cheer on the hero and deride and humiliate the captive, meanwhile preserving the ancient story of the Hero Twins.
I describe a ritual Maya ballgame in my novel, "Place of Mirrors". It was one of the more difficult scenes to research. But when I was writing and "got into the skin" of my subjects, I really could imagine a scenario where the game was "performed" to serve a political purpose. Sort of like our heavy weight wrestling matches where the audience knows that it's all staged but gets worked up over it just the same. Only, in the Maya game, for the poor soul who is destined to be the loser, it's all too real.
I just read a new book about Maya gods & rituals by Maryann Miller - available on Amazon, called Gods of Ancient Mexico and the Maya. It has a good section on the ballgame. Other than that, most books, such as Michael Coe's "The Maya" have something about the ball game - but most admit that they really don't know too much. Read Dennis Tedlock's translation of the Popoh Vuh (the Maya creation Story) to understand the mythology of the Hero Twins who were the first ballplayers. No study of the ballgame would be complete without knowing about them. At the very least, I'm certain that every Maya ballplayer knew the story and idolized the Hero Twins as our athletes idolize our legendary sports stars.