Are Sports America’s Religion?

By BRUCE BUURSMA (1987)

     Is Mike Ditka one of the more blunt-spoken evangelists of America’s true folk religion? Is Walter Payton a living saint of our national faith? And is the Super Bowl the ritual revival service for believers and skeptics alike?

     The answer, brothers and sisters, appears to be a resounding yes, by the reckoning of James A. Mathisen, a sociologist at Wheaton (Ill.) College. Mathisen, in a scholarly paper presented in Washington at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, argued that the Super Bowl has become “the American spectacle of folk religion . . .the festival of the folk, (celebrating] their faith, their practice and their history.”

     That view of sports as religion and professional football as its leading sectarian expression is not a new notion, but one that has achieved growing currency among American scholars and cultural critics. Sports have become the sacramental expression for the American way of life, these observers contend, and have emerged as the common religion of the land.

     That shift has been accomplished in great measure by the miracle-working power of television and technology, sustaining and spreading the words and deeds of sports figures, Mathisen added. Televised extravaganzas such as the Super Bowl and World Series take on the characteristics of “collective cultic observances,” he said.

     The theme of sport as a metaphor for faith was explored a decade ago by Catholic lay theologian Michael Novak in his book “The Joy of Sports,” and by journalist Robert Lipsyte in his book “SportsWorld: An American Dreamland.” Novak asserted that the rituals of sports provide for many Americans “an experience of at least a pagan sense of godliness. Among the godward signs in contemporary life, sports may be the single most powerful manifestation.” And Lipsyte contended that “the melting pot may be a myth, but we will all come together in the ballpark.”

     Furthermore, in her 1983 study of Brazilian soccer titled “Soccer Madness,” Janet Lever suggested that sporting spectacles “belong to the world of the sacred rather than the profane; fans who say sport provides an escape from ‘real life’ in effect sustain this religious distinction .... Like the effect of a religious celebration, sport fosters a sense of identification with the others who shared the experience.”

     And for tens of millions of Americans, that experience is paramount and unquestioned.

     “As an American, I simply am expected to be a ‘generic’ sports fan and possibly also have a favorite team or alma mater which becomes a community with which I identify and a clan whose symbols and totems bind me to it,” Mathisen observed. “Being a sports fan is comparable to being religious - it’s a taken-for-granted, American thing to do.”

     The attachment or loyalty to a particular team is similar to choosing allegiance to a religious denomination, he continued. Sports also take on the qualities and characteristics of religion in the evocation of tradition and history, Mathisen said.

     The halls of fame, for example, “preserve the sacred symbols and memorabilia which encourage us to rehearse the contributions of the saints who have moved on.” Moreover, Mathisen continued, the copiously kept records of sports function in the same manner as the “sacred writings and the historical accounts of any religious group, providing a timeless, normative guide by which later disciples’ accomplishments are judged.”

     Mathisen, however, confessed a feeling of disquiet over the increasing frequency of old-timers’ games or the “seniors” tour, in professional golf, terming them an enigma.

     “On the one hand,” he said,, “we fans have the renewed opportunity to pay homage to the past accomplishments of our heroes. On the other hand, many old-timers are just that. They not-too-voluntarily have been made ‘lower than the angels’ and have taken back mortality, which both upsets our vision of the past and blurs our sense of their successes.”

     Mathisen’s paper takes a sweeping look at the phenomenon, but fails to consider the hottest new ritual in professional sports since the tide waned on the Wave: the practice of grown men and women barking like mongrels in an act of petitionary prayer for the defensive squad of their favorite football team.