Just how religious is “sport”?
Whether one assumes that religion’s influence on society is declining, or is as strong as it has ever been, none can doubt that “throughout history, religion has had significant influence on the way sports have been organised, diffused, ameliorated or suppressed” (Peiser, 2000:321). Due to natural preconceptions “it would normally be assumed there is little, if any, relationship between sport and religion” in the modern world (Slusher, 1976:380), however, Shirl Hoffman plainly states: “wherever sport is played at high levels, one invariably finds traces of religion. […Likewise, in] the organised church, sport is likely to lurk in the shadows” (1992b:vii).
I aim to show that sport in the modern West can reflect religious motives and/or take place in a religious context, but that this is highly subjective, and by no means allows sport to be considered as religion.
After briefly considering the religious origins of sport (specifically the ancient Olympic Games [Olympics]), I focus upon two key themes: ways in which sport can be seen to function as a religion; and ways in which it utilises ritual. Another area worth mentioning is the contemporary and historical promotion and utilisation of sport by Christianity, however this shall only be considered in passing. Due to the nature of the question addressed, it is likely that within this context, “religion” will become almost synonymous with “Christianity”, and that the focus shall mostly be directed towards the relationship between men, religion and sport.
Sport and religion have a long and well-documented history. Scholars have considered the ball games of the Mayans and Aztecs as “religious sports” (Guttmann, 1992:145), acknowledged the “obvious” ritual connections of sumo wrestling (Sansone, 1988:23) and concluded that “for more than 3000 years, ancient sports and sport cults […] were integral to Greek, Roman and near Eastern religions” (Peiser, 2000:321).
Whilst the first Olympics were “by no means the beginning of Greek athletics,” they are seen as the point where Western civilisations began “to produce some degree of organisation in a game” (Harris, 1972:15), and are thus an appropriate case study for the religious origins of sport. There is ample evidence that the Olympics were held “in honour of the gods,” particularly Zeus (Sansone, 1988:23; Novak, 1992:35): “those who took part did so in order to serve the god and the prizes which they won came from a god” (Harris, 1964:36); the timing of the games “was carefully determined in accordance with strict observance of ritual propriety” (Sansone, 1988:23; cf. Guttmann, 1992:147); women were (almost entirely) excluded because of the games’ sacred nature (ibid); and, “according to most accounts, the fifth and last day [of the games] was devoted entirely to religious ceremony” (ibid).
Although some would conclude from this that “the religious character of the [Olympics] was never in doubt” (ibid), this position is not the consensus. In the West, the occurrence of sporting events on Sundays or “religious” holidays is largely due to the time commitments of the populace – might it not be the case that “in earlier societies […] the connection between the two was [also] only superficial” (Sansone, 1988:24 cf. Harris, 1972:17)? A.H. Harris describes how the Greeks assumed that “what gave pleasure to themselves – music, drama or sport – would equally be gratifying to the gods”, and how the large crowds gathering for religious festivals would guarantee spectators for the games (ibid:16). He also highlights how the steps of Apollo’s temple at Didyma “provided admirable accommodation for [sports] spectators” (ibid:19). These observations suggest pragmatism on behalf of the ancient Greeks, seeking to combine two major social occasions. And even if religious status is granted to the ancient Olympics, some contend that “track and field events such as running and throwing are virtually direct descendants of our ancestors’ chase of prey” (Cashmore, 1996:48-9), which suggests that athletics cannot be considered to have “religious” origins. However, it is significant that “Christians were uncompromising in their attitude towards [what they perceived as] pagan contests and spectacles”, resulting in the outlawing of the Olympics at the end of the fourth century CE – clearly they were seen in religious terms. These brief observations indicate that there is great variety of opinion amongst scholars regarding the religious origins and significance of the Olympics. When turning to sport’s contemporary manifestations, it would be wise to learn from this variety.
Discussions on the religious motives and context of sport are largely dependent upon what are accepted as suitable definitions for “religion” and “sport”. These are not questions which can be adequately assessed in this short post, but it should suffice to say that whilst some definitions would define nothing more than strict Roman Catholicism as “religion”, others – such as Paul Tillich’s “the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern…” (Hoffman, 1992c:3) – allow almost anything of “significance” to be considered “religion”. However, there are many similarities in both the functional, and the ritual aspects of sport and religion which can be expanded upon.
Shirl Hoffman describes how “sport, specifically American football, may represent the worship of American society in a way that mimics the social function of religions as outlined by Durkheim” (1992c:7), and this theory can be applied to almost any sport in a Western context. Sports, like most religions, place great emphasis on the worth of one’s fellows (ibid:6; Slusher, 1976:386), and the development of “character, habits of hard work, perseverance [and] competitive spirit” through participation (Hoffman, 1992c:7). Both also embody negative aspects of human life – for instance “aging, dying, failure under pressure, cowardice, betrayal [and] guilt” (Novak, 1992:40). And there are parallels “in the area of justice. In religion God is just; while in sport the credo is “may the best man win”” (Slusher, 1976:380). This societal “worship” can be seen in the focus on “heroic” sports figures – “fallible gods” (Watson & White, 2007:66), who provide models “to try to live up to: patterns of excellence so high that human beings live up to them only rarely…” (Novak, 1992:41). Ellis Cashmore believes, that whilst “it might seem insulting to religious adherents”, people do follow the dictates of these heroic figures in much the same way as they follow religious leaders – a fact recognised by the advertising industry (1996:94-5).
Another religious characteristic of sport is that it is “a great developer of social solidarity” (ibid:93). Jordi Xifra describes how Barcelona FC “bestows social energy” upon its fans, enabling them to create necessary bonds, “meeting the need for community belonging,” and providing them with “emotional unity” (2008). An unconscious longing for these characteristics is likely to be behind the angry reaction of English soccer fans to news last year that a match was to be broadcast solely on the internet and not in public houses. This desire for social solidarity is exemplified by “born-again” runners “attempting to convert the non-believers into practitioners of their new-found sport/faith under the theory that if it feels this good to me, everybody else should be doing it too” (Higdon, 1992:77).
A final point is that functional similarities can even be found in Marxist critiques of religion – “both religion and sport work as an opiate that temporarily dulls pain and gives a false sense of well-being; [… they siphon] off potential that might otherwise be put to political use” (Cashmore, 1996:85). The problem with this assertion, and those previously discussed, is that they only show sport fulfilling some of the functions ascribed to religion. What about the relationship to the sacred/supernatural (Hoffman, 1992c:8), which many would consider essential to religion? Or indeed the assertion that “whatever emotions may be elicited by a sporting event, that event does not seek to explain anything” (Chandler, 1992:58)? And even if it was shown that sport fulfilled all of the functions of religion, this would not mean that sport and religion are synonymous. “The parallels that have been drawn between sport and religion can equally well be drawn between opera and religion, theatre and religion” and more (ibid:56). However, it is worth noting that whilst the editors of Christianity Today rarely omit the caveat “not to get carried away” with sport, “the same concerns are not expressed about” other diversions (Hoffman, 1992d:133).
Before turning to ritual, it is necessary to have at least a minimal understanding of what rituals are. Durkheim defines rituals as ““rules of conduct which prescribe how a man should comport himself in the presence of… sacred objects” or their representations” (Birrell, 1981:357). Another possible definition is “a relatively rigid pattern of acts specific to a situation which construct a framework of meaning over and beyond the specific situational meanings” (Goodger, 1986:220). Within the context of these similar definitions it is easy to enumerate instances of ritual in sport. Rituals may be ancient, such as “bowing before and after [judo] practise or contest[s]” (ibid:223), or modern, such as the lighting of the Olympic torch, which “has no precedent in the ancient games” (Sansone, 1988:25). Every “play” in American football can be interpreted as a “conquest of territory”, with the football characterised as “the ritual object” (Price, 1992:14 cf. Baker, 1992:185), and enormous ritual significance can be attached to the numbers assigned to particular athletes (Womack, 1992:198-9).
The performance of rituals in sport can produce effects which are remarkably similar to religious ritual. For players, ritual can help to focus their attention; it can signal intent; and it can provide means of “coping”, help to establish order, and “direct individual motivations and needs towards achieving group goals” (ibid:200). And many fans, through the performance of established rituals, “chants and songs, [and] the rhythm of bodies in unison” will be familiar with “the indescribable feeling of [being part of a collective…] as if they were each members of a single body” (Novak, 1992:41). The rituals employed by individuals and groups on the day of a sporting event may even be overtly religious. In America, “almost every team in professional sport holds chapel services on Sundays” (Prebish, 1992:47), and some athletes “paint crosses on their athletic footwear, shave crosses on the backs of their heads, print scripture verses on T-shirts, cross themselves before free throws, and kneel in the end zone after scoring touchdowns” (Hoffman, 1992e:130). It is unsurprising, therefore, that Prebish should conclude that “if sport can bring its advocates to an experience of the ultimate, and this (pursuit and) experience is expressed through a formal series of public and private rituals […], then it is both proper and necessary to call sport itself a religion” (1992:53).
However, there are two major problems with this equation of sport and religion based upon their ritual content. Firstly, “ritual is not always or fundamentally connected with religion” (Sansone, 1988:24). Whilst many rituals have, or have had, religious associations, there are others such as graduation ceremonials, which have no religious associations (ibid). It is true that “ritual in sport, just as [… in religion], plays a part in the unification of the participants” (Slusher, 1976:90), however this does not make legitimate the assumption that sport is a religious activity (Sansone, 1988:24). Secondly, whether religion is “pressed into service for sport” through individual action, or whether individuals feel that their sport serves their religion (Hoffman, 1992f:156), neither makes any difference to the fact that the two are not mutually dependent. Whilst there is nothing to prevent “Christian athletes from sanctifying a limited space in the stadium, […] and treating [sport] as a ritual of worship” (Hoffman, 1992d:113), there is also nothing preventing any religious person from treating almost anything as an act of worship – sport is simply one arena among many where this concurrence takes place.
This all-too-brief survey of the functional and ritualistic commonalities between religion and sport illustrates how sport in the modern West can reflect religious motives and take place in a religious context. Like the ancient Olympics, modern sporting events can become important ritual events for all participants, reinforce commonly held values of “ultimate concern” and promote social solidarity. However, I have contested that these similarities in function and rituality are just similarities – “sport per se cannot tell us where we came from, where we are going, nor how we are to behave while here” (Chandler, 1992:59). The best that can be said is that sport can function as a “secular, quasi-religious institution” (Hoffman, 1992c:8). This discussion has not intended to trivialise ritual in sport, which serves a very valuable purpose, or to discredit the worthwhile examination of the religious side of sport. It is, however, important to appreciate “the non-empirical nature of [religious] events” (Hoffman, 1992g:65), which means that attention must primarily be given to whether people expect their religion and sport to meet the same needs (Chandler, 1992:55).
- Baker, James T. 1992. “Are you blocking for me, Jesus?” in Shirl J. Hoffman (ed.), Sport and Religion. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics Books, pp. 183-190.
- Bernstein, B., Evin, J. L. & Peters, R. S. 1966. “Ritual in Education” in Philosophical Transactions 251 (772), pp. 429-36.
- Birrell, Susan, 1981. “Sport as Ritual: Interpretations from Durkheim to Goffman” in Social Forces, Vol. 60, No. 2. Special Issue (Dec. 1981), pp. 354-376.
- Cashmore, Ellis, 1996 . Making Sense of Sports (London: Routledge)
- Chandler, Joan M. 1992. “Sport is Not a Religion” in Shirl J. Hoffman (ed.), Sport and Religion. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics Books, pp. 55-61.
- Durkheim, Emile, 1915. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. New York: Free Press.
- Edwards, Harry, 1973. Sociology of Sport. Homewood, IL: Dorsey Press
- Flake, Carol, 1992. “The Spirit of Winning: Sports and the Total Man” in Shirl J. Hoffman (ed.), Sport and Religion. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics Books, pp. 161-176.
- Goodger, John, 1986. “Ritual Solidarity and Sport” in Acta Sociologica, Vol. 29, No. 3 (1986), pp. 219-224.
- Guttmann, Allen, 1992. “From Ritual to Record” in Shirl J. Hoffman (ed.), Sport and Religion. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics Books, pp. 143-151.
- Harris, H. A. 1964. Greek Athletes and Athletics. London: Hutchinson
- Harris, H. A. 1972. Sport in Greece and Rome. London: Thames and Hudson
- Hart, Marie, 1976 . Sport in the Sociocultural Process. Dubuque, Iowa: William C. Brown.
- Higdon, Hal 1992. “Is Running a Religious Experience?” in Shirl J. Hoffman (ed.), Sport and Religion. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics Books, pp. 77-81.
- Hoffman, Shirl J. (ed.) 1992a. Sport and Religion. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics Books.
- Hoffman, Shirl J. 1992b. “Preface” in Shirl J. Hoffman (ed.), Sport and Religion. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics Books, pp. vii-ix.
- Hoffman, Shirl J. 1992c. “Sport as Religion” in Shirl J. Hoffman (ed.), Sport and Religion. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics Books, pp. 1-12.
- Hoffman, Shirl J. 1992d. “Evangelicalism and the Revitalisation of Religious Ritual in Sport” in Shirl J. Hoffman (ed.), Sport and Religion. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics Books, pp. 111-125.
- Hoffman, Shirl J. 1992e. “Religion in Sport” in Shirl J. Hoffman (ed.), Sport and Religion. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics Books, pp. 127-141.
- Hoffman, Shirl J. 1992f. “Recovering a Sense of Sacred in Sport” in Shirl J. Hoffman (ed.), Sport and Religion. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics Books, pp. 153-159.
- Hoffman, Shirl J. 1992g. “Sport as Religious Experience” in Shirl J. Hoffman (ed.), Sport and Religion. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics Books, pp. 63-75.
- Novak, Michael, 1992. “The Natural Religion” in Shirl J. Hoffman (ed.), Sport and Religion. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics Books, pp. 35-42.
- Peiser, Benny, 2000. “Religion” in Richard Cox, Grant Jarvie & Wray Vamplew (eds.), Encyclopedia of British Sport. (Oxford: ABC-CLIO), pp. 321-323.
- Price, Joseph L. 1992. “The Super Bowl as Religious Festival” in Shirl J. Hoffman (ed.), Sport and Religion. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics Books, pp. 13-15.
- Sansone, David, 1988. Greek Athletics and the Genesis of Sport. Berkeley & Los Angeles: The University of California Press
- Slusher, Howard, 1976 . “Sport and the Religious” in Marie Hart (ed.), Sport in the Sociocultural Process. Dubuque, Iowa: William C. Brown, pp. 380-94.
- Watson, Nick J. 2007. “Muscular Christianity in the Modern Age: ‘Winning for Christ’ or ‘playing for glory’?” in Jim Parry, Simon Robinson, Nick. J. Watson and Mark Nesti (eds.),Sport and Spirituality: An Introduction. London: Routledge, pp. 80-94
- Watson, Nick J., & White, John, 2007. “’Winning at all costs’ in modern sport: Reflections on pride and humility in the writings of C.S. Lewis” in Jim Parry, Simon Robinson, Nick. J. Watson and Mark Nesti (eds.), Sport and Spirituality: An Introduction. London: Routledge, pp. 61-79
- Womack, Mari, 1992. “Why athletes need ritual: A study of magic among professional athletes” in Shirl J. Hoffman (ed.), Sport and Religion. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics Books, pp. 191-202.
- Xifra, Jordi, 2008. “Soccer, civil religion, and public relations: Devotional-promotional communication and Barcelona Football Club” in Public Relations Review, Vol. 34, Issue 2 (June 2008), pp. 192-198.
 See Flake (1992); Hoffman (1992d; 1992e; 1992f); Peiser (2000); Prebish (1992); Watson & White (2007); Watson (2007)
 See Flake (1992) for a stimulating discussion on the peculiarly male nature of this discourse.
 For brevity, it shall be assumed that the reader has a basic understanding of the meaning of “sport”.
 Pagination absent in online journal
 See http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/football/internationals/8286886.stm, http://www.football.virginmedia.com/page/Football/Headlines/0,,12555~1817900,00.html and http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/blog/2009/oct/06/england-ukraine-qualifier-kentaro-internet for details and comments.
 Emphasis added.
 Citing Durkeim (1915:56).
 Citing Bernstein, Evin, & Peters (1966:429).
 Citing Edwards (1973:90)
 See Prebish (1992:49)