By Ben Weavers and Lisa M. Miller, PhD.
Contributors to the Sports+Fitness Network
Where are you on holy days? Sports and religion share a unique global relationship of loyalties. Some people even think that sport loyalties replaced religious faithfulness. Throughout global history, religion and sports played a part in different rituals and beliefs. Internationally, religion intertwines with sports through various different belief systems and philosophies.
The Mesoamerican Ballgame may have been one of the first team sports in human history (Scott, 2001). This sport held considerable religious influence with the losers being sacrificed in order to appease the gods. The first Olympic games were also heavily saturated with religion. Athletes at the ancient Olympics believed their training honored the gods, and victory verified their favor from a deity. As wrestling, boxing, and horse racing added to the Olympic roster, athletes supplemented sports with devotional sacrifices, hymns, and ceremonies (Lisee, 2012). Zeus and the other Greek gods were not the only religious influence on the Olympic games. Christian emperor Theodosius I once suspended the Olympic games in order to put an end to paganism and unethical strategies in society. Other church leaders thought that time would be better spent focusing on the spirit rather than the body. Over time, these thoughts reversed to where sports and athletics established character and healthy behavior. With the unique relationship that religion shared with sports over the course of history, the philosophical question lingers today: Is sport a form of religion, and if so, what does this mean for global culture shifts?
Psychologists question whether sport offers the same coping effects on spectators as religion does for churchgoers (Barber, 2012). Some scholars believe that highly committed fans use sports as coping skills where fans find focus and meaning in their daily life through loyalties to beloved sport stars and teams (Barber, 2012; Harris, 1981; Wann, Melznic, Russell, & Pease, 2001). Sports spectatorship serves as a stress reliever of escaping daily life, just as religious experiences help the faithful escape individualistic thinking for the common good. Although sports being a religion in it’s own right is debatable, the similarities to religion are irrefutable. Even though the two share a relationship, sport leaders must take caution when incorporating or addressing religion. People hold pluralistic religious beliefs (Eck, 2002). In the United States, a 73 percentage consider themselves Christian, 20 percent of Americans are atheist, agnostic, or unaffiliated with a religion. Additionally, almost 5 percent of the United States believe in a non-Christian religion (The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2012). Due to pluralistic religious beliefs, sport leaders must prevent religious prejudice or discrimination in their leadership decisions (Willett, Goldfine, Seidler, Gillentine, & Marley, 2014).
While sport communities build loyal cohesive social connections and ritualistic slogans and chants such as “One Nation Under the Red Sox” or an enthusiastic “O-H-I-O” for The Ohio State Buckeyes, churches struggle to capture loyal followers (Beneke & Remillard, 2014). Are sport facilities replacing cathedrals by serving as coping mechanisms bringing tidings of social support, tribalism, vitality, and collective conscience? What are the contents of a sport collective conscience? What influence does this transformation have over time on modern global society? Churches close while sport stadiums thrive. Where do our passionate attachments exist in society today and into the future? Are we contemplating and monitoring the trends closely enough to know the impact on the collective conscience of future generations?
Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. Birmingham, AL: Nigel Barber Publishing.
Beneke, C. & Remillard, A. (2014). Is religion losing ground to sports? The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/is-religion-losing-ground-to-sports/2014/01/31/6faa4d64-82bd-11e3-9dd4-e7278db80d86_story.html
Eck, D. (2002). A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation. San Francisco, CA: Harper Publishing.
Lisee, C. (2012). Religion has played role at Olympics since days of ancient Greece. Retrived from http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2012/07/26/religion-has-played-role-at-olympics-since-days-of-ancient-greece/
Scott, J. F. (2001). “Dressed to Kill: Stone Regalia of the Mesoamerican Ballgame”. In The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame, edited by E. Michael Whittington . London, England: Thames and Hudson.
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. (2012). Nones on the rise. Retrieved from http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/aspx
Wann, D. L., Melznick, M. J., Russell, G. W., & Pease, D. G. (2001). Sport fans: The psychology and social impact of spectators. New York: Routledge.
Willett, J. B., Goldfine, B., Seidler, T., Gillentine, A., & Marley, S. (2014). Prayer 101: Deciphering the Law — What Every Coach and Administrator Should Know. JOPERD: The Journal Of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 85(9), 15-19.