I’m twelve, standing in the huddle of my new soccer team before the final game of a placement tournament. As we’re about to do our cheer before hustling onto the field, ponytails perfectly curled and ribboned, socks and shinguards aligned without error, one of the girls, our team captain, proposes that we pray. The circle holds hands, closes their eyes and nods to the ground. I stand, wide eyed, not sure whether to look up or down.
I had never prayed before a sports event. I had just moved to a conservative town, and many of my teammates went to private Catholic schools where religion was woven into every seam of daily life, including sports. We lost that playoff game, which to me proved that God didn’t care much about U13 soccer. But as we walked off the field, our captain held my hand and exhaled, “God works in mysterious ways.”
A decade later, I’ve witnessed dozens of religious interactions with sport. Many people directly connect the two, saying that athletics bring us closer to God. Others sever such ties, claiming that the spiritual experience one has in athletics is wholly separate, even anti, religion. I’m still with twelve year old me, I’m not sure how much God cares about ski racing, but I can’t help but notice the significance of religion in American sports culture.
Scholars Jeffery Scholes and Raphael Sassower noticed the same trend. In a country that celebrates Hail Marys, partakes in pre game rituals and worships athletes like saints, there has to be a histori-cultural relation between the entities of sport and religion. Scholes and Sassower wrote the book Religion and Sports in American Culture, looking for that connection, and what they found has inspired my own considerations of that cultural relationship for my independent study.
As an athlete, I treat my sport like religion. My training plan is my doctrine, my coach my magistrate. My team and surrounding community is my congregation, who cooperate, but also compete, with several other sects. We use the same language as a religious church, but, as Scholes and Sassower stress, the meaning of those terms differs greatly in both realms. Consider the following mutually important themes in sports and religious culture.
According to Scholes and Sassower, belief is what we hold to be true without empirical evidence. One thing that spurs belief, in both religion and sport, is the concept of a miracle. Of course, sports miracles like the one above do not suspend the laws of physics like those in scripture, but they do provide an unlikely basis for faith in a team, or nation. Belief in a player demands at least that statistics prove that the athlete is capable of achieving what they believe. However, faith and belief are spoken about in American sport much like they are in religion (mainly Christianity), “It hasn’t happened yet, but if you believe, it will” (ah, yes, that old chestnut).
Even if it doesn’t happen, faith in a team sometimes resembles that in a deity. Faith, in the religious context, is supposed to be something reciprocative, something unyielding. I know more than one fan who, after the third season of not making playoffs still dawns their jersey with pride, smiling, “You gotta have faith” (I’m looking at you, Browns fans). Belief in sport is binding. It is a cultural glue of sorts. Cheering for the same team will make two people friends for a game, for a season, or for two weeks in February or August. The idea of belief, that something is written in the stars for our teams, that it will happen, is thematically similar to life from the pew, especially when believers are active.
Part of that belief, that unyielding faith, connects closely with a second religiously related sports trope: sacrifice. In Eastern traditions, sacrifice is a way for religious followers to interact with their deities. These rituals must be conducted exactly as scripture or religious leaders describe, otherwise the contribution will be worthless. Scholes and Sassower recognize this as the fandom ritual, in which fans feel that they are somehow contributing to their team’s success by following their game time ritual.
Of course, sacrifice has meaning in American athletic culture, as it demands a certain amount of dedication in order to succeed. Such an understanding of sacrifice mirrors what is expected of laypeople in congregations, the expectation that “giving up something of value results in gaining something else of value” (46). It is culturally acceptable to abandon personal goals, feelings and desires in order to attain an athletic goal, and that acceptance may come from the traditional religious back drop of our culture.
We operate under the assumption that “it is the nature of the goal” say, winning an Olympic gold medal, “that is so valuable, the sacrifice is worth it in the end” (47). What’s more, as Scholes and Sassower point out, it seems more acceptable in American culture to make such personal sacrifices in the name of sport rather than religion, perhaps because the stakes of social sacrifice for athletics seem much less dire than for religious salvation.
For whatever reason, as audience members and American citizens, we like struggle stories. We expect that in order for our saintly athletes to make it to their precipice, they must first sacrifice a great deal of personal welfare in order to make it. This ideal may very well come from the religious motif of suffering (Old Testament: Job, Buddhism), that perfection must in someway be earned. When Tim Tebow, a “believer and football player who has won some unbelievable games,” played well, he said he was being rewarded, when he did poorly, tested. When I have a bad race, all of the people around me tell me how much better I will be for my negative experience, as if it were a test.
Another example of religiously charged ideal in sports is the epic journey. Scholes and Sassower write how “the ritualistic quality of a pilgrimage requires the traveler to pass through different stages, endure trials, and change in the process in order to arrive at the destination” (79). The pilgrimage is a combination of belief and sacrifice, with physical and theoretical destinations as goals. For athletes and fans, competing or attending competition at certain venues (Fenway, Wimbledon, Augusta National, Holmenkollen) is like a spiritual pilgrimage in itself. Every four years, hundreds of athletes begin a new personal pilgrimage as “the Olympic pilgrim must shift attention to the next site after the games are over” (89). Today, religious pilgrimages have to do with visiting certain holy sites, usually to pay tribute to the scripture stories that include them. Visiting the Lake Placid rink to feel the gravity of the Miracle on Ice depicts an athletic pilgrimage.
Journey, sacrifice, belief, miracle, religion, #Venus&Serena:
Scholes and Sassower distinguish between the athlete and fan pilgrimages by stating that those of the athletes are more actively psychological in character, and happen more often. For example, they paint the endurance athlete as one who encounters journeys with each competition: “the race is the pilgrimage–a onetime test of commitment, willingness to sacrifice, stamina, and determination” (87). What’s interesting is how our culture reacts when, inevitably, that pilgrimage goes wrong.
The idea of redemption is Scholes and Sassower’s final consideration of the connections between religion and American athletic culture, and perhaps speaks the most to the patriarchal and systematic traditions within both. In religion, the idea of redemption is vitalized in the celebration of Yom Kippur (when the sins of the last year are forgiven) or in the emergence of born again Christianity. “Redemption is one of the terms that we use to describe the process of righting wrong and restoring balance” (Scholes and Sassower 131). In religion, one can right their own wrong by restoring belief and pledging a certain amount of dedication to the rituals and sacrifice noted above. In athletics, however, redemption is much more extraverted, and relies on the community surrounding the athlete.
For good athletes who do not win championships, redemption only comes by winning one. This example relies on the athlete, but the cultural redemption more worth discussing is that of idolized athletes who have a fall of character, and, in turn a question and need for restoration of their American sainthood. Consider Michael Vick, Tiger Woods or Lebron James, all of whom were all but worshiped by the American public until their decisions caused and uproar or character criticism. In the case of Woods, in particular, “the public naively thought it knew something of his character and his behavior off of the course through television advertisements that presented him as such” (136). When we create an athletic saint, we not only worship their athletic ability, expect them to have suffered and sacrificed for said ability and hope that that ability continues to flourish, we also expect that the saint have the values and character promoted in our religious culture. Being good at sports does not necessitate that someone is a good person, but the American public seems to connect the two.
Athletics are set up like religious institutions, in which congregations of people follow routines and leaders to create community under common belief. These communities desire a saint, and the fall of that saint severs the cultural connection of sports to religion, except in the case of redemption. Some sports stars to reach that redemption, Lebron seems to be doing just fine, but the fall itself (yes, I am using a biblical term) will cause believers to alter their faith.
So, what’s the deal? Is religion just an extended metaphor in sports? Or are the two actually connected? Scholes and Sassower conclude that the two entities “need each other, inform each other, and challenge each other-hopefully for the mutual benefit to all” (150). The Olympics, the first institutionalized form of sport, began as rituals for the Greek gods which may have created an eternal link between athletics and religion. However, in America (whose dominant religion is thoroughly western) linguistic and institutional similarities between the two appear to be the result of cultural symbiosis. The terms may be the same, but their objects are quite different, and although the similarities between the two are interesting, they are not constitutive of an innate connection.
Scholes, Jeffery and Sassower, Raphael. Religion and Sports in American Culture. Taylor & Francis. New York. 2014. Print.