image title

Sacred sport

Are sports taking the place of religion in the U.S.?
Scholars point to several factors leading to the decline of religion in America.
November 16, 2016

ASU grad student on the relationship between sports and religion

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.

image title

ASU professor measures impact of Leonard Cohen

November 16, 2016

Leonard Cohen was never supposed to be a huge star. He was a failed poet and novelist before he tried his hand at songrwiting. He didn’t have the best voice, and for years he couldn’t sing or play the guitar.

But when he died last week at the age of 82, the critics, the entertainment world and fans mourned his loss.

The Canadian folk singer-songwriter never produced a Top 40 single or album on his own, or was considered a mainstream success. His fame came mostly through other musical artists who covered his songs, including Judy Collins, James Taylor, Joan Baez, Jennifer Warnes and k.d. lang.

His most significant work, 1984’s “Hallelujah,” was a fluke and originally rejected by his music label. It was eventually issued on a small indie label and landed with a thud. It took almost a decade for the song to find its audience, but when it did, the tune exploded. To date, “Hallelujah” has been covered by more than 300 artists in various languages and featured in film (“Shrek”) and television soundtracks (“The West Wing”) as well as televised talent contests, helping him to ride a wave of rediscovery. (It also was performed this past weekend by Kate McKinnon on "Saturday Night Live.")

Cohen’s status as the ultimate cult artist made him a symbol of resilience and productivity, which is how he earned a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.

ASU Now spoke with Peter Lehman, a professor in film and media studies in the English department and the director of the Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture, to discuss Cohen’s odd but deeply impactful career and what he hopes his legacy will not become.

Question: How would you describe Leonard Cohen’s music and recording career?

Answer: Leonard Cohen is frequently thought of as a cult figure in part because he was never primarily a Top 40 singles artist. Many people knew his recording of “Bird on a Wire,” but most of his other songs became known in cover versions. The public often only knows who sings songs, not who wrote them. Secondly, he was frequently referred to as a “poet.” Although intended as a compliment, I think this is always a mistake in popular music, a disservice to musicians and poets. Cohen, of course had been both a poet and novelist prior to becoming a musician, and this may have even further muddied the water.

Q: Cohen tried his hand at almost everything — poetry, novels, music — but his impact on film and television seems like his biggest legacy.

A: The extensive use of Cohen's music in film and television throughout his career has played a major role in giving him high visibility, often with exactly the right audiences. And, as so often happens with movies, this exposure, even more than hit singles at the time of release, brings the music to the attention of new generations of young people who become fans. In 1971, Robert Altman used four Cohen songs in his critically acclaimed and commercially successful revisionist Western, “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” Altman became an almost heroic figure to a generation of film critics and students for his independent, innovative filmmaking, and “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” retains its classic status to this day for critics, film fans, and film students, continuing to bring attention to Cohen.

In recent years, Cohen's music has been featured in innovative, challenging television series: “Nevermind” was used over the credits of Season 2 of “True Detective” (2014), and “You Want It Darker” was used to startling effect in an episode of Season 3 of “Peaky Blinders” (2016) prior to its CD release. These shows are edgy and push musical boundaries.

Q: Did you ever see him perform in concert, and if so, what was that experience like?

A: I saw Cohen live on his rightly famous World Tour in Phoenix on April 5, 2009, at the Dodge Theatre (now Comerica Theatre). It was one of the greatest concerts of my life, in a league with Roy Orbison, Merle Haggard, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. He was 74 years old but at the peak of his powers and with the energy of someone half that age. It was a musically nuanced and sophisticated performance. 

I mention in my book, “Roy Orbison: The Invention of an Alternative Rock Masculinity,” that Cohen was a big admirer. On his 1998 tour, during rehearsals Cohen told the musicians, “Make it like Roy Orbison would do it,” and the musicians joked about “Orbisizing” the songs. Cohen even had a photo of Roy Orbison pasted into their chart folders. Cohen was in the audience at the filming of the now-famous “Roy Orbison: Black & White Night” concert in 1987 and Jennifer Warnes, a close collaborator at the time, sang as one of the female backup singers. Obviously, Roy Orbison wrote and sang songs much, much different than Cohen, who knew and cared deeply about a wide range of music.

Q: Cohen’s best-known song, “Hallelujah” is more than 30 years old and still has magic attached to it. Why does the song continue to matter?

A: The best way I can answer this question is by giving you an anecdote. I’ve seen k.d. lang in concert several times. The first two times the one song that brought down the house and where she received a standing ovation was her cover version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” At one point she replaced that with Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and that became the song that brought down the house down and garnered a standing ovation. I’ve experienced the extraordinary power of that song when other artists have covered it.

It has an amazing power and beauty and has an intangible quality. When someone sings it, they can make it their own. For me, the magic of the song is how it inspires other artists to do their very best work, and it is unquestionably a phenomenon.

Q: How should Cohen be remembered or not remembered?

A: There has been a movement to elevate rock and country music stars into poets by their estates, the academic and literary world and even the Nobel Prize Committee. What is happening here has a parallel with what happened in English and language departments when film initially entered the curriculum in the late '60s and '70s. There was an effort to legitimize the study of film by overemphasizing its connection to the written word via adaptations of classic novels and by elevating screenplays with “literary” quality that could be read. With music, the emphasis has been on poetry, not novels or plays. Academics are trained in and used to analyzing words. It has been an ongoing process to learn how to analyze the complex sights and sounds of film construction without reducing style to a form of window dressing. Scholars of rock and roll and country music have not yet caught up with film studies in that regard. Johnny Cash is a significant American musician. Despite a recent “New York Times” article dubbing him the "poet in black" and his estate claiming him as a significant American literary figure, his new book of poetry will undoubtedly be minor at best in comparison. 

I have tremendous respect for literature and poetry, I read literature every day of my life … but when it comes to these art forms such as movies and popular music, we put too much emphasis on words when we extract them from their context and, with songs, expect the lyrics to bear the weight of the meaning as it were. Leonard Cohen was an outstanding lyricist, but by calling him a “poet,” it distorts his skill as a singer/songwriter/concert performer. He will be deeply missed as a musician.