Has American Sport Become A Religion?
by Kevin Probst
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During the colonial period in America’s history the Puritan influence brought condemnation to those who participated in “lascivious” behaviors such as dancing, gambling, card playing (the devil’s “picture books”) and other leisure activities. Participating in sport on the Sabbath could earn one a public whipping in the town square. Life in puritan New England was a shadow of John Calvin’s autocratic system of governing in the French speaking Swiss city of Geneva, where “devilish pastimes” such as hawking and hunting were strictly forbidden and the standard of “purity of conduct” was not to be sullied by participating in frivolous fairs and raucous ribaldry.
How things have changed over the centuries. Sport has found a central place in our culture. One thinker said American sport is “too close to the religious to call it anything else.” Several years ago my son and I attended the Georgia/Georgia Tech game in Athens, Georgia. We made our way to the stadium in bumper to bumper traffic. The entire city was draped in red and black. The smell of southern barbeque wafted through the parking lot as thousands gathered to celebrate their favorite team. We climbed the ramps that led into the 7th largest NCAA stadium and joined 92,000 others who all shared a commonality: an undying loyalty to the team wearing red and black represented by a snow white, wrinkled, old looking bull dog named UGA.
It was more than just a few hours of Saturday afternoon fun. It was an obsession. It seemed as if those thousands there were more than just loyal, they seemed worshipful. I commented to my son, “This is almost like a cult. There is almost an attitude of worship here." What was happening in Athens that Saturday was happening all across America in a multitude of cities.
Having coached high school football, basketball and baseball through most of my adult life, I recognize the value of sport in the development of the character. Sport had great value in our family as it kept my sons busy and out of trouble. Athletes learn much about loyalty, team work, perseverance, unity and the benefit of investing hours of hard work. But as a Christian and guardian over the souls of youth I question where to draw the line with sport. Can it become too all-consuming? At what point does sport begin to diminish in its value as it becomes our idol? How does it affect a ten year old son who observes a father who is far more loyalty to Sanford Stadium than his church or has far more love for the Bulldogs than for the Savior?
We call ourselves fans. The word ‘fan’ is short for ‘fanatic’ which was introduced into the English language in the mid 16th century. It means “marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion”. It is derived from the Latin word, ‘fanaticus’ which means “insanely but divinely inspired.” You might say that a fan is someone who has a near supernatural devotion to a certain team or player.
Is sport a religion? It certainly felt like a religion to me that day in Athens. Please notice the similarities between sport and religion:
Denominations. Religion, especially protestant religion is divided up into denominations. Each denomination has a certain code of behavior expected of its members. Denominational disciple requires members be removed if they participate in gross violations. That code is written out in a manual available to all.
Sport is divided up into teams. There is a certain code of behavior expected of team members and also fans. Team members who violate the code will be removed from the team and fans are expected to avoid the “fair weather” title by demonstrating intense loyalty whether the team wins or loses.
Rituals. We demonstrate our religion by participating in certain rituals. The Jewish boy enters manhood at Bar Mitzvah and by age 13 he is responsible for his actions. Christians submit to baptism to demonstrate their devotion to Christ and they partake in communion to remind themselves of his sacrifice.
There are certain rituals celebrated in sport. The winners of the NCAA tournament cut down the nets. The hockey player who completes the hat trick is showered with the hats of fans thrown onto the ice. Football players who score a touchdown or baseball players who hit a homerun often raise their finger skyward in appreciation of their God given talent.
Community. Christians are proud to be Presbyterians, Baptists or Methodists. Many will gather every weekend to celebrate their common bonds. They are bound together by their beliefs and creeds. The church parking lot is full of cars with fish symbol magnets and tags that indicate what might happen to the driver were the rapture to occur.
Sports fans come together to celebrate their commonalities. They congregate together in the Hawk’s Nest, the Dog Pound or the Bear’s Den. They tailgate together before the game and they pin stickers and tags on their automobiles to express their loyalties.
Attributes. We believe God to be a supernatural being, transcendent beyond mere humanity. He is all wise, all powerful and present everywhere all at once.
Certain athletes take on an almost supernatural aura. Their power and speed seems suprahuman . They appear to be omnipresent on the field of play, always showing up in the right place at the right time.
Relics. Christians treasure the cross. Jews treasure the star of David. The church steeple is symbolic of America's devotion to God.
Sports fans also have their symbols. They wave their terrible towels, they flash their super bowl rings and they plant kisses on their trophies.
Journey. The Muslims call it The Haji. Every Muslim is expected to make at least one pilgrimage to Mecca in their lifetime. Many Christians have a bucket list wish to visit the Holy Land.
Sports fans trek to the Hall of Fame. Baseball teams embark on a 162 game journey in hopes of reaching the Promised Land. Last years losers can find redemption by winning. College basketball teams plod along the Road to the Final Four.
Restoration. Religions all teach some sort of restoration. The sinner can become righteous, the lost can be found. The central theme of the message of Christianity is restoration. Jim Baker, Ted Haggard and Jimmy Swaggart shocked their followers by falling from grace only to seek restoration.
Sports fans struggle with the idea that their sports idols are not divine. Pete Rose never made it to the Promised Land (Baseball Hall of Fame) because of his gambling sin. Many believe O.J. Simpson was never convicted of murder because a jury could not perceive of their sports god committing such an atrocity. Barry Bonds cheated, Warren Moon slapped his wife and a multitude of fans are praying for the restoration of the god of golf, Tiger Woods.
The similarities are intriguing but at the most crucial point they break down. Sport doesn't have a true Redeemer. It provides a temporary escape from the unpleasant things that torment us in our lives but the true Savior offers a real and permanent deliverance from the tortures of sin. Many fans are oblivious to the fact that their devotion and enthusiasm for sport is a cheap substitute for a more meaningful commitment and loyalty to a true Savior.
The Christian knows real redemption. He understands that human achievement can win him no grace. The real Savior, the Divine God promises to show us the way to life everlasting. The victory experienced by the Christian is permanent and cannot be snatched away by any opponent. The Christian worships God because of who he is, not because of what he has done.
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God help us today! I believe that it's o.k. to put your children in sports. But if you see that they are putting more into the sport than reading and spending time with God, you should pull them out. Even the world won't let you play sports if you can't keep your grades up, so why do we encourage them to get their grades up but their spiritual grade remains at 0 all in the name of "they need to stay busy." My son didn't play past the 7th grade. I didn't like the fact of missing so much church for practices and games. I believe society today has placed so much on sports that it really has become a religion. People are more dedicated, including some church folks, to every practice and game than they are to devotions with God. Yes, American Sport has become a religion. May the Lord help those who have made sports a religion to get back their perspectives, esp. those in the Christian faith