More on sport as religion.

October 1, 2006 | By | 8 Replies More

Back in early August, Jason wrote a post that declared sports the United States’ national religion. At the time, I took Jason’s observation as (slightly embittered) hyperbole about our cultural landscape’s infatuation with passtimes that achieve absolutely nothing productive. A bit of an excessive rant, thought I, a mere illustration of frustration with a popular (non)activity, and nothing more.

Then I began to attend a Big Ten school.

Jason, I owe you an apology for my unspoken cynicism. Sport has indeed become a nigh-religious cornerstone of everyday life for many people. Nothing exemplifies this quite like the town of a Big Ten school, where football and its rituals and parephrenalia butter the bread of every local man, woman, and child.

Don’t make any mistake- I love the academic half of my school. But sport makes up the school’s more dominant half, making campus and its surronding area nearly theocratic. The Football Faith touches everything.

I come bearing evidence. First, observe this photo of Fall 2006’s Convocation ceremony. Take one part religious revival, one part pep rally, two parts herd behavior, and you have a three-hour-long orientation that looks something like this:

This ceremony, in theory at least, aims to motivate incoming students to make the most of their academic year. Logically, the University president spoke on such a topic. But quickly following all academic well-wishing came energetic presentations by basketball and football coaches. What did they have to offer the class of 2010? Did they tell us to study, to make responsible decisions, to devote our lives to making our dreams reality?

Silly question, I know. They didn’t mention the “college” half of college athletics at all. They just reminded us that We would really show Them this year. You see, a team doesn’t win a game– “We” do. And like any religion, the Football Faith has its standard superstitions. A list of unspoken Football Faith Commandments would say, “Thou shalt not wear anything buy thine’s school colors on game day,” and, “Remember the game day, and it keep it holy; it is a sabbath to The Team, you shall not do any work.”

But nothing slayed me quite like what I saw upon leaving Convocation and walking by the Holy Stadium. Behold Our tribute to The Team, immortalized in stained glass:

This article explains that the Stadium’s ostentatious stained glass murals came courtesy of a $2 million donation from The Motorists Insurance Group of Columbus. The real kicker, so to speak, lies in the fact that this sizeable sum came from the Group’s charitable arm. Does this not feel familiar?

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Category: American Culture, Consumerism, Culture

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Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    In Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett defines religions as “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.”  Pursuant to this definition (which is admittedly narrower than many other definitions in that it requires an agent), sports is not a religion, even though many fans adore star athletes.

    Nonetheless, sport spectators have much in common with people who attend churches. In fact, I would love to see a study that explored this correlation—I would assume that it would be quite high.

    Sports spectators and church goers are famous for seeking cheap social fixes. They want to feel part of a community without putting in individual effort from the ground level. They also are more than willing to pay the high prices of admittance to these events–and I’m not talking about the high financial prices (the tithing and the cost of the tickets). I’m talking about the willingness to vouch for the truth of absurd statements. In church, it would be statements like “Mary was a virgin.” At the stadium it would be “This game is really important.”

    But Mary couldn’t have been a virgin and watching sports events is not important in any meaningful way. Sports events are amusements. They are time and money drains that keep us from living our real lives. They are soap operas with lots of guys with muscles. Parking our butts in the expensive seats at stadiums keeps us from attending to the insurmountably important needs of our families and our communities. Watching lots and lots of sports keeps us from even examining why we continue to waste so much time watching lots and lots of sports.

    Again, I’m talking about watching sports, not playing sports. Playing sports is entirely different than watching sports. Sports can be (but are not necessarily) terrific activities for keeping in shape and developing a sense of cooperation.

    Watching sports, on the other hand, has developed into an activity that certainly shares much in common with religions. The baseball Cardinals have been on the verge of elimination for the past couple weeks. I’ve been told of this earthquakingly important event by no less than five strangers as I flew in and out of St. Louis on business recently. It’s a conversation starter for many people. They typically ask: do you think the Cardinals will pull it off tonight? I tell them that I don’t know anything about the Cardinals, although I used to follow them many years ago. I tell them that watching sports was eating up far too much of my time, so I gave it up, thereby freeing up the equivalent of a dozen weeks of vacation each year. This is completely true, as I’ve explained here.

    I might as well say that God is dead, based on the silence that follows. I receive the same series of expressions each time I say this. It goes something like this:

    Denial (this isn't happening to me!)

    Anger (why is this happening to me?)

    Bargaining (I promise I'll be a better person if…)

    Depression (I don't care anymore)

    Acceptance (I'm ready for whatever comes)

    Yes, this is a bit of an exaggeration. It’s not quite the Kubler-Ross progression, but there is a progression of emotions that is quite predictable. It proceeds from disbarment, to disorientation, to “yeah, but I’m not really hooked,” to “I could drop this any time I wanted,” to “Hey, who are you to judge me?” to “You’re weird, and I wish I hadn’t brought up this topic,” to “You aren’t a dependable member of this community, are you?” Something like this. And I assure you, I don’t hit them with my most lethal question: “Name 100 important things you should be doing with your time and money rather than obsessing over the travails of millionaire athletes or (in the case of college sports, obsessing over guys that are pretending to be serious students, while getting lots of under-the-table and in-the-bedroom benefits for their athleticism)?

    Yes, both religion and sports spectating are strewn with taboos and rituals. Who would dare sit and yap during the Star Spangled Banner, even though attending a ball game has nothing to do with whether one is engaged in a lifestyle that helps or harms our country. Gosh, and you’d better keep that singing voice in good shape, because there are other serious songs to sing too: “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” as well as “God Bless America” too. True sports fans strut and crow when “their” team wins. The time they bumped into the star player at the airport is burned into their memories more deeply than the time their second child started to walk. They pour hundreds or thousands of dollars into the coffers of team owners. They talk about these games ad nauseam. Each of those games is dreadfully important, even though they can’t remember anything at all about most of the hundreds of games they’ve seen in their lives.

    Don’t forget the traditional baseball foods, another aspect of sports rituals. There is proper sports fan apparel (I can’t believe how so many obese adults put on those replica uniforms worn by those exquisite athletes). The mortal sin of sports spectating, though, is declaring that the game is only an amusement. This is undeniably true, but a true fan mustn’t ever say this. Even though going to a sports event is the moral equivalent to eating nachos while going to the circus or, for that matter, watching an old re-run of Gilligan’s Island. When you declare that it’s only a game and you mean it, you have committed the sports fan equivalent of the Sin Against the Holy Spirit.

    Attending games does give one a sense of community. This is in accord with the “handicap principle” described by Amotz Zahavi. In short, uttering oxymoronic sports pronouncements (declaring and acting as though these games are important) can serve as expensive (and therefore reliable) public display that facilitates bonding among participants. Being a true fan takes a terrific investment of time and money, the equivalent of maintaining a peacock’s tale. But fans don’t really know each other, so being a good fan give one only a cheap sense of community.

    Nonetheless, talking about sports events at the office is a chance to check out the social landscape—to see who’s with you and who’s not (because they root for a rival team) and who doesn’t care (that’s me, and I’m thrown even lower than the rival fans, because I don’t even believe the system is important. At least rival fans believe in the system).

    In sum, being either a sports fan or a church-goer gives people the sensation that they’ve accomplished something significant when they haven’t accomplished anything at all. It gives them the feeling that they are an important part of a huge community, when they are really part of a sea of anonymity even while they are at the stadium (and especially while they scarf down those salty fatty foods on their couch at home).

    Hey, if you dedicated fans are part of such a wonderful sports community, certainly, they’ll start letting you in for free, right? You know . . . all of your sports buddies you spend so much time with. 

    Or is all that togetherness all really an illusion, concocted by a terrifically talented bunch of marketing people? And wouldn't that make you a suckere for neglecting those important things in your short and dwindling life, and neglecting people who truly need you, in order to help make manipulative rich people richer?

  2. John says:

    I am glad to see someone else criticizing sports, football in particular. I have been doing so for some time now and have taken something of a beating for it. Unfortunately I did not catch Jason's posting though.

    Erich's response was interesting as well. Yes, athletics is great for the health of the practitioners (provided they do not used "performance enhancements") and it does provide a ralying point for a community, but it has its downsides too. Obsession with the game, wasting money on the gambling side, sponsored alcoholism (what many others call tailgating), and some degree of violence that seems to be associated with some games (perhaps not so much here and not so common, but I have read news stories of increased violence in the temporal vicinity of major games – also usually associated with the downtown bar scene). Then there is the trashing of a city, this may not be increadibly widespread, but in my town they have had to use skid-loaders to gather up all of the trash.

    I live in a college town with a big 10 team and would not mind it so much if it were not the case that there was so much trash afterward and if the entire half of the town I live in were not effectively shut down. From around 5 in the morning it becomes nearly impossible to leave my side of town unless one wishes to leave the city all together.

    I am sickened that people are more concerned with how the football scene is with my school rather than the quality of the education (rather remarkable in fact). When I mention to others where I go to school, I loath the question "How about last week's game?" to which I tend to answer, "I hate sports." It is not athletics that bothers me (and a few of the other people I know here in town) but the insanity that is associated with it.

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    Our "Modern American" culture hasn't driven the importance of sports up to the level of some earlier civilizations. Back before the Europeans arrived in the New World, (starting about 3,000 years before), governments even used ball sports to settle wars. If your team won, you conquered the other kingdom. Losing players were the only direct and immediate casualties. Now that's incentive!

    Also a source of personal pride in a winning team. If you were represented by a losing team in these capital struggles, you were likely to lose position, if not become a slave.

    <a title="Wiki of early sports obsession" target="_blank" href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mesoamerican_ballgame">Check wiki, to read examples about how urban culture has always been sports crazy. Back before "The Enlightenment", religion, sports, and government were all connected, and seen as intertwined facets of managing society. Here in the U.S, we maintain the related fictions of classless society, and separation of powers. But that's a different rant.

  4. Jennifer says:

    Way to shame a Buckeye! 🙂

  5. Erika Price says:

    John makes an excellent point- if sports breed a sense of community and build friendships, why do most Big Ten football games where I live end in rioting and arson?

  6. Jennifer says:

    For the same reason that war breaks out over religious beliefs?

  7. grumpypilgrim says:

    This post reminds me of an op-ed piece I read after the killings at Columbine high school in Colorado. The op-ed was responding to a previous editorial that had blamed the killings on a "lack of community" (i.e., the notion that breakdowns of families and neighborhoods were to blame). The op-ed observed that Columbine high school was a place where parents (and, thus, students) worshipped sports far more than they seemed to care about academics. They had pep rallies for the athletes, bake sales for the athletes, celebrations for the athletes, etc., while non-athlete students were ignored, shunned and even ridiculed. The two students who did the killings were among the non-athlete students, and had apparently been at the receiving end of some fairly anti-social behavior by the "in" students. The conclusion of the op-ed piece was that the killings were not caused by a "lack of community," but rather by an *excess* of "community" — i.e., that the community was so utterly obsessed with sports that non-athletes justifiably felt like outcasts.

    As I think now about that op-ed piece in the wake of Bush's disastrous response to global terrorism, I'm noticing a similarity. At Columbine, the students who did not adhere to the majority view were treated like outcasts…and two of them became suicide killers. So, too, America's own 'excess of community' on the global stage appears to be the source of our own problems with suicide killers.

  8. Erika Price says:

    Your quip kills me, Jennifer. That sounds exactly right.

    Grumpy, I've read that Columbine also had a very unfufiling support network for students- poor counselors, teachers that didn't respect all students equally, and animosity of that nature. In light of your comment, it makes sense to conclude that the non-sport, non-community "outsiders" of the area felt extremely disrespected and alienated, and having no sense of belonging or comraderie, ceased to care about their fellow citizens. I had not heard of the sport obsession in that area, though.

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