Sacred sport

ASU grad student on the relationship between sports and religion

silhouette of crowd at football game


As the debate continues to wage over the relationship between race and sports today, ASU graduate student Terry Shoemaker is asking students to consider another, just as socially significant relationship — that between sports and religion.

“Contemporary trends place religion as declining in the United States, as well as in most developed countries,” said Shoemaker, instructor of the recently introduced online course REL 394: Religion and Sports.

“Some scholars have argued that as religion declines, sport offers a space for replacing what is lost with vanishing religious commitments such as ritual, community, mystery, superstition, etc.”

As an entry point to the discussion, Shoemaker created a Fantasy Football league for his students to play, of which he is also a participant. After drafting teams, students research five of their starters’ religious affiliations and how that has or has not affected the athletes’ lives and careers.

The unique approach is fun and innovative, but it’s also a way of building community and encouraging interaction among students in an online course, he said.

The course ultimately asks students to consider three facets of the relationship between sports and religion in the U.S.: religion in sports, sports in religion and sports as religion. Read on to get Shoemaker’s perspective on each.

Terry Shoemaker headshot

Terry Shoemaker, instructor of the new online course REL 394: Religion and Sports.

Question: What are some of the causes for the decline in religious participation and affiliation in the United States?

Answer: This question is highly debated, and I think most scholars would point to multiple contributing factors. I’ll give just a couple: One factor is multiculturalism. The thinking here is that once religious persons encounter meaningful relationships with people of other faith traditions, they embrace more of a relativistic perspective toward religion. Another possible factor is increased mobilization. Some scholars suggest that because many people have the option to relocate — and often relocate multiple times — they resist committing to a religious community.

Other factors also play a role, like the increased importance of science, expanded emphases on economics and work, and globalizing factors. And many negative, public scandals related to religious organizations also influence disaffiliation.

Q: What is it about sport that enables it to fill that gap?

A: Sport is an increasingly important cultural component within the United States. More exactly, team sports are increasingly not only profitable, but of great social significance. Some scholars suggest that as religious affiliation declines, people still need a place to invest their commitments. Sports can offer communal gathering spaces, symbols, saints and superstitions, like many religious traditions.

I think that some of the more interesting arguments within this debate involve either the regulation of violence or the structuring of the calendar. One of the roles of religion historically has been to create guidelines around violence. Many religions did not completely eliminate violence, but rather managed violence (sacrifices, penalties, atonements, etc.). In this regard, football becomes a contemporary example of how violence is permitted — and celebrated — in society, but only when a code of ethics is followed. Another role of religion historically has been to provide a structuring of time (liturgy, holy days, fasts, weekly celebrations, rituals, commemorations, etc.). Likewise, sports create a yearly schedule that many follow. Think of baseball in this regard (spring training, opening day, All-Star break, playoffs, the World Series). For many, these are the events — often tied to seasons — that structure the lives of many people.

Q: Is this phenomenon a sign of a trend toward a less moral society?

A: Whether this is a positive or negative trend is probably a personal opinion. I would imagine that many religious persons think that a decrease in traditional religion is always a negative trend. But this is another example of the intersection of religion and sport. Often religious communities suspect sports as being the culprit for their declining attendance. … This is a way that sports and religion compete if you imagine them in a marketplace of sorts. ...

Yet in a certain sense, if sports are fulfilling similar or the same needs and roles as religion, then what is the difference? Many make the argument that without religion, society will become less moral. But research has demonstrated that moral development occurs in multiple areas of one’s life, not just religious training.

Q: What happens when the two collide, as when an athlete expresses religious views publicly?

A: Athletes expressing religious beliefs has become commonplace within the United States … if one proclaims a Christian faith. It is almost expected that many athletes will “give God the glory” or “thank God” in a post-game interview or after receiving an award. In fact, an athlete expressing Christian religious views can actually lead to an expanded fan base and subsequent increase in the selling of sporting goods (jerseys, hats, etc.). Certain athletes are even given contracts to speak to religious communities.

But in another direction, athletes proclaiming a different commitment other than Christianity can actually result in a public backlash or even a game penalty. In 2014, the Kansas City Chiefs’ Husain Abdullah was penalized when he bowed in the end zone after scoring a touchdown. The NFL later apologized, but Abdullah’s religious demonstration was unrecognizable to the referees. Other examples include female athletes who wear a hijab and are criticized or penalized for not complying with the uniform rules.

Q: How far back in history does the relationship between religion and sports go?

A: Many point to the ancient Olympics, where the games were thought to be in honor of the gods. And if one looks at Native American societies, sports often played a sacred role. So an oversimplified answer is that the relationship between religion and sports goes way back.

But the relationship wasn’t always a positive one. A fun example that I use in my course is the Declaration of Sports issued in 1618 by King James I in England. This book proposed that Sunday was a prime time for the citizens of England to indulge in sporting activities. King James had an ulterior motive for such a suggestion, though. He had a conflict with the Puritans, who thought that Sunday was reserved for communal gathering and reflection. James intended to disrupt this notion and sway people away from the Puritanical commitments.

Q: Your REL 394 course explores religion in sports, sports in religion and sports as religion. Can you give an example of each?

A: The obvious example of religion in sports, and what immediately springs to mind when I tell people that I teach a religion and sports course, is Tim Tebow. Tebow’s outspoken religiosity in a public sporting space is what many people think of when they think of religion in sports. But there are other examples of athletes who vocalize and/or demonstrate their faith during a sporting event — such as baseball players crossing themselves before batting, soccer players pointing to the sky after a goal, or football players gathering to pray for an injured player.

As far as sports in religion, many religious communities are adopting sports as a means to either proselytizeto convert or attempt to convert someone from one religion, belief or opinion to another or as a character development technique. Softball, volleyball and soccer leagues for all ages are provided by many large religious communities as a way of recruiting potential members, but also as a means of developing team skills, which are understood as religious. These can all be highly effective, primarily because religious communities recognize the value of sports within American society.

Sports as religion: I discussed this some previously. But there are some convincing arguments that sports are religious in the sense that they fulfill many roles similar to religion. I actually like to use the phrase “sports are sacred” in our society. And many people recognize sacredness as possibly being outside the realm of religious institutions.

Q: Do you have a favorite sport/team?

A: This one is a tough question. First, I’m from Kentucky, a state with no professional sports teams. Instead of professional teams, collegiate football and basketball are more important than professional sports to many Kentuckians. But I’m also a first-generation college student, so my parents had no commitments to any colleges or sports. Thus, I was given a clean slate to create my sporting commitments.

As a child I loved baseball, and my favorite team was the New York Mets (I’m not even sure why). My favorite player was Darryl Strawberry. In fact, I taught myself to bat left-handed, just like Strawberry, making me a switch hitter. As I matured and got taller, basketball became the sport that I played the most. Now I watch tons of sports, but mostly professional football. I’ve lived in the Phoenix area for two years now and I’m trying to become a Cardinals fan. It just hasn’t taken hold yet.

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