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Is it possible to regard sport as a religion? Based on similar yet different definitions of religion, the answer is yes. The institution of sport is more than humans interacting in a playful manner; rather it is a civic religion, a social institution. According to French sociologist Emile Durkheim “religion is the tie that binds a collectivity together—it transforms the objects and activities of everyday life into the sacred. Planned gatherings paradoxically generate spontaneous expressions of group enthusiasm, even hysteria that bind the individual with the assembly” (cited in Mazur & McCarthy 2001,124). Applying this theory to football, fan participation becomes a religious experience as denominations or team supporters unite in chants and cheers, expressing their group enthusiasm. Using Durkheim’s definition, sport is, indeed, a religion. Sporting events unite athletes and spectators in a unique community in which sacred rituals and morals are reinforced. During sporting events congregational members are encouraged to express emotions through chants and songs. Clifford Geertz states that religion’s role is to shape the social order, to guide and shape behaviors (1973, 119). Again using football, athletes and fans learn favorable social behavior through rules and regulations. The structure of football demands dedication, with players executing their individual roles within the collective. A football team’s success depends on individuals working together to achieve a common goal. If each member acted independently chaos would arise. Sport congregations apply the social behavior of teamwork to everyday situations.
The concept of sport as a religion is not new. In fact, the Olympics were originally portrayed as a religious event, a sacred festival of games and sport. Flags, drums, dances, songs/chants, and feasts all accompanied ancient religious/sport rituals. During these religious events, “the drummers beat their drums like those possessed and this it was believed signified the presence of the spirits who were the determinants in the results of the contest” (Obare 2003,1).These same ancient rituals are present in modern sporting events, especially football tailgating. At weekend football services, college bands are entrusted to ignite the congregation and raise spirits through the beating of drums and blowing of horns. Charles Prebish (1993) likens the ritual of tail-gating to that of eighteenth-century evangelical tent revivals, in which followers temporarily congregated and formed “pop-up” communities. Every college football weekend fans congregate in mobile homes and recreational vehicles and form these quasi minicommunities. The congregation reminisces over past glories and looks forward to future triumphs. Each new generation learns traditions of breaking bread as well as kinship/fellowship from the previous generation.
Researcher Ruphine Obare (2003, 1) defines religion as “human beings relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, spiritual, divine… worship is probably the most basic element of religion.” Obare regards sport as a natural religion because it reflects rituals, symbols, and a desire for perfection. Concurring with Obare, Coakley believes “sports are natural religions. All things human are proper to them—in sports, we meet our humanity. Assuming one begins with limited hopes, there is more to admire in sports—and in our humanity, and in our nation than to despise” (2001, 314).
Sport as Alternative Civil Religion
There are two main reasons the religion of sport is significant to American culture. The first is simply offering an alternative civil religion, while the second consists of palpable implications within American society. Bellah classifies civil religion as a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals: “certain common elements of religious orientation that the great majority of Americans share. These… provide a religious dimension for the whole fabric of American life, including the political sphere” (Bellah et al. 1987, 3). Despite making distinction between civil religion and denominational religions, Bellah’s civil religion is closely linked to Protestantism throughout the nineteenth century. Some researchers argue that certain aspects of sport actually reflect the Protestant ethic of building strong moral worth through sacrifice and pain, one of the basic foundations of sport religion.
To Geertz, religion (even a civil religion) provides meaning to an objective reality, which produces generational worldview or culture. Religious beliefs and practices, Geertz said, “represent a way of life ideally adapted to the actual state of affairs” (1966, 3).This theory is applicable to sport. For example, business ideology as portrayed through rhetoric involving individuals working together as a “team” to achieve a “common goal” exemplifies this theory.
Although Bellah’s civil religion refers to America’s devotion to itself, his ideology can be applied to America’s love of sports. The functions of this civil religion include instilling proper respect for authority, stressing moral values, and the hard-work ethic.
Milton Yinger (1963) suggests that these quasi religions are formed to compensate for traditional churches’ inability to achieve unity among groups with different values.
Peter Berger suggests that a socially constructed world (a religion) “directs, sanctions, controls, and punishes individual conduct” (1967, 11). Rules and regulations within sports resemble this very same theology/ ideology. Sport teaches a “respect for limits and laws and rules—and the lust to develop the art of doing things perfectly” (Prebish 1993, 163). In other words, sport builds a fundamentally strong character base that is applicable to everyday life. The search for perfection becomes a self-transcendental journey. Berger refers to this journey as a religious phenomenon, one that is socially self-transcendent. In addition, Berger believes that religion “is a humanly constructed universe of meaning, and this construction is undertaken by linguistic means” (1967, 175). The nature of sport generates and constructs communities in which a unique language (or sports lingo) is used to both define and explain its society as well as the outside world. Expressions originating within sports such as “hitting below the belt,” “taking one for the team,” “spoilsport,” and “team player” translate to everyday life and help define certain actions and behaviors. Common use of football terminologies such as “offside,” “fumble,” or “time out” demonstrates the practical application of this religious theory. Members interweave these expressions and apply them to everyday life. Football creates a unique terminology that combines sign language with oral communication. Sport impacts our understanding of fair play and integrity, thus helping to shape the social order. Through rules and regulations, sport reinforces a reliance on a higher authority and a type of submission to a controlled social order. Again, using football as an example, the referee has ultimate say in determining fair play or settling disputes, thus reiterating this civil religion’s goal of instilling proper respect for authority.
Sport resembles religion in the sense that both are organized institutions with disciplines and liturgies, stressing moral values of heart and soul. Sport as a social institution, like religion, uses codes to guide moral conduct, which ultimately results in a deeper respect for authority. The religion of sport transcends the individual, thus molding and impacting personalities. Individuals or members identify themselves with certain characteristics or traits belonging to their beloved sport/team. This identification is especially true when devotion begins as a child. “By being born into the clan or raised a fan of a particular team, the individual is constituted by identification with the totemic symbol of the group” (Mazur & McCarthy 2001,127). For example, Chicago Cub fans have endured years of disappointment resulting in a sense of hopefulness, a belief that this could be the year, which sets them apart from other team supporters (with the exception of Boston Red Sox fans before October 2004). In other words, one could argue that Cub fans are bred to endure pain and disappointment, making them more forgiving and more optimistic. Teaching endurance from generation to generation complies with Geertz’s traditional aspect of what constitutes a religion.
Religion and Sport Reflect Society
Religion functions as a reflection of society, defining rules and explaining norms. Geertz argued that anywhere norms or models of society and/or models for behaving in society exist there is religion. If Geertz is right and religious motives are “liabilities to perform particular classes of act or have particular classes of feelings” (1973, 97), then emotional sporting rituals such as chanting and festive tailgating classify sport as religion. According to Geertz, religious motives stimulate moods, which trigger certain behaviors. Sacred symbols then ignite moods ranging from “exultation to melancholy, from self-confidence to self-pity” (1973, 97). Depending on loyalty or devotion to a particular team or sport, symbols like the Stanley Cup, the Lombardi Trophy, or a World Series ring can either exhilarate or depress individuals. In addition, the playing of sporting anthems rekindles deep emotional ties, further uniting the individual with the sport community. This rekindling of emotions is especially true in regard to collegiate football anthems. Whether it’s the sound of “The Victory March” or the “Texas Fight” song, either the Notre Dame Stadium or Darrell K. Royal Stadium ignites in unified exuberance with fans rejoicing while partaking in the festivities.
One consciously chooses a set of beliefs and attitudes that affect one’s behavior, or one’s spirituality. Eric Mazur and Kate McCarthy (2001) believe that a spiritual person seeks these beliefs, values, and practices to enhance their life and provide a sense of responsibility and orientation. According to researchers James Frey and D. Stanley Eitzen (1991) religion has several roles including emphasizing asceticism, repetition, and developing character. Institutional sports, especially American football, American baseball, and hockey possess these very qualities. Through self-denial and self-discipline, athletes learn to endure pain and to place the team above all. Common male expressions like “buck up” or “no pain, no gain” demonstrate the infiltration of this sport ideology into everyday life. Athletes seeking perfection through repetition set an example of good character for the rest of the congregation (or fans). According to Putney, and Frey and Eitzen, these same positive values of self-discipline, sportsmanship, a hard work ethic, and goal attainment through competition help qualify sport as religion.
As found in traditional religions, sport relies on symbols, language, and rituals to both maintain order and help explain events of everyday life. According to Coakley, “the rituals of sport engage more people in a shared experience than any other institution or cultural activity today” (2001,1). As early as the late 1800s Americans relied on sporting rituals to help promote moral values. In 1887, based on sports rituals, Luther Gulick transformed the YMCA’s goal of saving souls to building character. As a YMCA philosopher and director of physical training, Gulick believed that sport taught moral values of body, mind, and spirit, and through sport, people could tone and perfect their human character. Today’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ mission of using athletics to “impact the world for Jesus Christ” through values of integrity, service, teamwork, and excellence is based on this same principle. Routines and disciplines found in sport strengthen personal character. A stronger moral foundation/character better prepares an individual to combat everyday trials. When combating an aggressive opponent, football conditions defensive players to dig in, to remain tough and hold the line. In everyday situations, this conditioning translates to determination and perseverance both in the work force and within personal relationships.
Through sport, children learn basic skills such as cooperation, self-esteem, altruism, loyalty, self-control, and obedience. Researchers Margaret Gatz, Michael Messner, and Sandra Rokeach argue that values and skills learned through sport help children develop socially and emotionally, and further serve to prepare an individual for the rest of life. Sport teaches acceptance of authority and initiates youth in routines. In this manner, sport becomes a transmitter, translating societal goals or meanings from one generation to the next. Sport becomes a “symbolic liaison” that Berger refers to as an “ancient lineage [that is] grounded in the very antiquity of kinship institutions” (1967,132). Sport, like religion, binds communities together. Sport educates society in responsibility and self-control through its “demands for fairness and chivalry which must be respected even in the face of the strongest aggression” (Guttmann 1978, 130).
According to Edwards and Coakley, sport shares numerous essential features of religion including formal statement of beliefs, testimonies that bring fullness and satisfaction to life, saints (or idolized people), ruling patriarchs (coaches), hierarchal/high council (NCAA or referees), reliance on scribes (records and journalists), seekers of the kingdom (fans), shrines and/or cathedrals, and symbols of the faith (trophies/souvenirs). Like traditional religions, sport provides structure and an opportunity for religious expression. This religious expression provides a chance to step outside of one’s daily routine and become part of the collective, especially through chants. Durkheim refers to this impetuous passionate release as “corrobbori” (as cited in Mazur & McCarthy 2001,125). Sport is catharsis in that it “allows the release of emotions in a range of behavior including pre-game levity, frenzied cheering during the game, and post-game carousing” (Guttmann 1978,134).
In this community, “post modern religious expression is once removed, vicariously experienced by those who observe the ‘religious’ ritual. Spectating, therefore, replaces participating” (Mazur & McCarthy 2001,129). Fans, however, individually symbolize their faith through pennants, emblems, flags, hats, and whatever best characterizes the glory of their team (Prebish 1993, 67). During the sporting event (or service) members restate their belief by submitting to the hierarchal codes and rules. The sport congregation participates with both rookies (novices) and veterans (ordained clergy) as “pilgrims travel hundred of miles to witness a game [and invoke] traditional hallowed chants. Instead of salvation and redemption, the goal is now collective victory” (Rudin 1972, 384). Sports pages become sacred scrolls, read in daily devotions along with viewing ESPN.
Applying researcher Catherine Abanese’s four components of religion adds validity to the claim that sport is, indeed, a religion (as cited in Prebish 1993). Abanese’s first component, creed, is defined as the shared viewpoints of a group. To some extent athletes, coaches, and supporters/fans define sport through their belief or viewpoint of its existence and/or meaning. Abanese bases her second component, code, on rules and regulations, which guide or govern this belief. Strictly enforced guidelines and rules define sport. Whether you are an athlete or a spectator, either ignoring or blatantly disrespecting rules will result in your expulsion or denial from participating in the game (or service). For example, hockey penalizes breaking the rule of high sticking with time in the penalty box, denying the “sinner” the glory of joining in the service. Third, Abanese gauges religion by cultus—or its ceremonies/rituals and tradition. Whether it is the singing of the national anthem, the traditional seventh-inning rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at Wrigley Field, or the official tossing of a coin at the beginning of a football game, ceremonies and traditions are mainstays in modern sport. Last, Abanese defines religion through community. Again, sport its this criterion through its creation of unique communities that exist solely through sports and sporting events. Through hope and anticipation in their quest for victory/perfection, fans and athletes become emotionally united. According to Prebish (1993, 65), sport is a festive communion creating solidarity between players and fans.
Sport creates a second type of family or community, a support system, in which meaning and morals are shared and learned. Researcher Michael Novak believes football is such a community. “The liturgy of a football game is, indeed, a communal and statewide worship service, with a unitary cosmic scheme” (1988, 235). Mazur and McCarthy liken the passions of football to religious ritual. “Football doesn’t have just a incidental kinship of faith. On the contrary, football is fundamentally connected to religion” (Mazur & McCarthy 2001, 124). As in football, the community of baseball poses religious qualities, which include the American principles of merit and fair play. “The national game promotes respect for proper authority, self-confidence, fair-mindedness, quick judgment and self-control” (Guttmann 1978, 96). In addition, sport possesses a messianic-millenarian ideology. Berger defines messianic-millenarian theodicy by “relativizing the suffering or injustice of the present in terms of their being overcome in a glorious future” (1967, 69). In this sense, players and fans look for redemption in the upcoming season. Again, Chicago Cub fans’ infamous expression “Wait till next year” exemplifies this type of “hopeful” redemption ideology. Sport religion maintains a type of optimistic ideology in which hope springs eternal. The ending of each sport season wipes the slate clean and provides a chance to start anew, rekindling hope for a better season, a better tomorrow.
What Does It Mean?
So, what does this all mean? This form of civil religion has far-reaching implications. According to Barna Re-search, 66 percent of Americans polled contend that traditional religion is losing its influence in society. Supporting this theory, research also indicates a decrease in traditional church attendance. In fact, researchers Kirk Hadaway, Penny Long Marler, and Mark Chaves believe the “church attendance rate is one-half what everyone thinks it is” (1993, 750). And according to a study by the University of Michigan, the percentage rate of Americans who attend a weekly church service is forty-four. In some instances, devotion to sport has replaced or overpowered devotion to traditional religion. For example, the Dallas Cowboy legendary coach Tom Landry confessed late in his career, “football had been my religion for decades” (Mattingly 1996). Whether this devotion is made consciously or unconsciously depends on the individual. Bellah argues that people “are coming to depend less on established social sources of denominationalism and more on binding ties between the moral outlook and way of life to which persons actually hold” (Bellah et al. 1987, 326). As early as 1961, researcher Bernard Lazerwitz investigated the impact of societal forces on variations in church attendance. Recent community trends of holding children’s sporting events such as soccer on Sunday leads one to believe that sport is having an impact on church attendance. Unlike strict past guidelines, which discouraged the scheduling of youth sporting events on Sundays, modern trends appear to place sporting events above traditional religious events. Just a short time ago, professional players like Sandy Koufax honored blue laws by refusing to pitch on the Sabbath, an ideology that today’s societal standard would consider ridiculous. Blue laws are state or local ordinances that prohibit certain activities, like sports or drinking, on Sunday. Economics played a key role in overturning blue laws regarding professional sports. For instance, in 1933, after much heated debate, Philadelphia overturned its blue law regarding professional baseball to help promote the local economy. Social rather than economic desires guide today’s Sunday scheduling of youth sporting events.
As mentioned earlier, sport’s influence among society includes several aspects of traditional religion. To offset growing social desires to partake in sporting events, churches have altered the timing of religious events. Numerous traditional denominations have altered Sunday services to accommodate sport congregations’ need to witness the kickoff. In addition to impacting religious schedules, sport has infiltrated religious architecture. For instance, a stained-glass window at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York is devoted to sports. According to the then-reigning bishop, “A well played game is as pleasing to God as a beautiful service of worship” (Farrelly 1997). Another main area of sport permeation is religious sermons. Perhaps the best example of this is Father Edward Rupp’s prayer before an all-star hockey game:
Heavenly Father, Divine Goalie, we come before You this evening to seek Your blessing. We are, thanks to You, All-Stars. We pray tonight for Your guidance. Keep us free from actions that would put us in the Sin Bin of Hell. Inspire us to avoid the pitfalls of our profession. Help us to stay within the blue line of Your commandments and the red line of Your grace. Protect us from being injured by the puck of pride. May we be ever delivered from the high stick of dishonesty. May the wings of your angels play at the right and left of our teammates. May You always be the Divine Center of our team, and when our summons comes for eternal retirement to the heavenly grandstand, may we find you ready to give us the everlasting bonus of a permanent seat in your coliseum. Finally, grant us the courage to skate without tripping, to run without icing, and to score the goal that really counts—the one that makes us a winner, a champion, an All-Star in the hectic Hockey Game of Life. Amen!! (Sammons 2002, 2)
Sport is not a religion in the traditional theological sense, but rather civilly. As stated earlier, sport is a social institution that not only educates, but also provides structure and moral support for its members. This research indicates, therefore, that sport does, indeed, possess qualities and characteristics that coincide with religious ideology. Whether one is participating as an athlete or as a fan/spectator, sport has the ability to transcend an individual to a supernatural level of existence. As Charles Prebish notes (1993, 210): “What it all boils down to is this: if sports can bring its advocates to an experience of the ultimate, and this experience is expressed through a formal series of public and private rituals requiring a symbolic language and space deemed sacred by its worshipers then it is both proper and necessary to call sport itself a religion.”
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