May 7, 2001
Sports as Religion
-- Martin E. Marty
Sooner or later, talk about "public religion" in America must focus on its popular manifestations. None is more public or more popular than the world of sports.
In a new book, From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion, Joseph L. Price has gathered a cluster of writers, none of them anti-play or anti-sports, to compare what goes on in the world of athletics with what goes on in the worlds of other religions. (I have an interest here: many of the writers were students who taught me this subject for decades at the University of Chicago.)
Years ago Arthur Cohen, publisher at Holt, Rinehart and Winston, offered me a contract to write a book on "sports as religion." I turned him down for good reasons. First, I did not know enough about sports. Second, I was afraid the effort would be perceived as "cute." And third, I did not know enough about religion in the forms one needs to appraise this subject. As I read this book with standard definitions of religion and approaches such as the phenomenological in mind, I tried in vain to find one element in sports as here described that is not easily described as religious.
Check out Joseph L. Price and company: they find plenty of "ultimate concern." There are also myths and symbols, for example, baseballs as fetishes. Add to that rites and ceremonies: see them describe the liturgical year engendered by the sports calendar.
Metaphysical backdrops and explanations? Hundreds of attempts to pose sports events against the backdrop of a "sacred cosmos" get quoted here. Behavioral correlates that are part of all religions? Find them in abundance. Religions create communities. It is no mystery why fans are "fans" -- see the etymology of "fanatics."
Living religions tend to breed prophets who call all of the above into question. Price, in his first essay, traces the history of the way faith communities used to mistrust and even oppose the spirit and forms of large-scale sports. Eventually most of them -- to use a sports term -- threw in the towel.
Baptists in the South who used to oppose any Sunday recreation cut their sermons short so they won't miss the kickoff. Priests and ministers have to adapt catechismal schedules that deal with the minor rites of the old and quiescent religions, bowing in fealty to soccer moms and dads as they set preemptive schedules. Homilists lace their sermons with sports illustrations, knowing as they do that they will be more likely to reach hearts by doing so. They know that where the treasure is, there is the heart also.
Picture a Joel, an Amos: "These be thy Gods, O America?"