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A missed basket. An untimely injury. A bad call by the referee. A rare mistake by a gifted athlete. I wish I didn’t care so much. I get riled up and frustrated, most of the time, though occasionally there’s the glory of victory or a moment that transcends. Part of me thinks it is silly for me to invest so much time and energy into a team, an athlete, a sport, a season, when I have no control over any of it. But I still do it.

I’m in good company. Paul Janssen wrote about it a few weeks ago, and I’ve written about it here on more than one occasion. Randall Balmer, noted historian of American evangelicalism, recently published a book about the religion of sport entitled Passion Plays: How Religion Shaped Sports in North America. Balmer ties the history of religion to the emergence of modern team sports and argues that, especially among white males, the devotion to sports has “eclipsed allegiance to traditional expressions of religion” (9) and that today’s sport, in general, has more devotees than religion, especially in the United States. Balmer specifically explores the evolution of the four major sports in North America – baseball, football, hockey, and basketball. Balmer notes that this migration from religion to sport still emphasizes the connection between the body and spirit, but that sport does this differently than religion. He cites the craving for order, rules as well as sacred space, ritual, and authoritative texts to underscore the ties between religion and sport. But also that sport gives us the nearest example of meritocracy. Perhaps sport, in spite of its uneven access, is the closest we can get to the ideal of democracy than any other American institution. Unless you are talented at whatever sport or game you choose, you will not succeed and most will be denied the opportunity to compete, especially at the highest levels. Balmer wrestles with the idea that today’s sport is appealing disproportionately to white men, who see sport as “an alternative, orderly universe very much in contrast to their perceptions of an unfair, chaotic world all around them. For them, sports supplies a kind of refuge, one not unlike the one that their faith once provided” (11).

Balmer claims sport provides moral clarity and leadership, an arena once dominated by religious leaders. The growth of the Religious Right in the late 1970s and 80s defended racial segregation and aligned with far-right aspects of the Republican Party, which, according to Balmer, “muted evangelicalism’s once-robust prophetic voice, especially on issues of racial equality” (123). Yet athletes have been outspoken in their advocacy for social justice, particularly visible in the Black Lives Matter movement.

I tend to agree with Balmer’s analysis of this unique relationship between religion and sport, and a particular preoccupation with team sports for many white American men. But I wonder about the ways that soccer, the growing diversity of sport, the growth of women in sport, and the proliferation of youth sport may undercut or perhaps even strengthen Balmer’s argument. Is the growing diversity of sport, populated by nonwhite male and female athletes, something that will increase devotion among populations outside of white male audiences? Can sport serve to unite the diverse groups of Americans? Or will the devotion to sport lessen as sport increasingly reflects a wide variety of athletes from a wide variety of backgrounds that have a sizeable following and influence in a culture consumed with approval and consumption?

Randall Balmer, Passion Plays: How Religion Shaped Sports in North America, (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2022).

Photo by Pascal Swier on Unsplash

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.


  • RZ says:

    Your first paragraph is comically true. Why do we allow our moods to be so manipulated by something so irrational? Geographical team loyalty?
    I appreciate the intellectual dive into an obsession that is religion-like . Thank you, Rebecca. I have not read the book yet so I cannot track some of the premises or logical pathways:
    ” preoccupation with team sports for many white Ameeican men.” My non-white friends are just as passionate, perhaps more, as they witness heroes who look like themselves.

    ” sport provides moral clarity and leadership.” Hmmm. It can, ideally. The exception or the rule? Exploitation? Idolatry? Delusional dreams? Economics may be the real driver here. Is it fair to say the higher up we go, the less sportsmanship we see?

    ” closest we can get to the ideal of democracy.”
    Hmmm. Teamwork maybe. Meritocracy or democracy? And what if your team does not “win” frequently enough.

    Finally though, a virtuous coach can provide the structure, the discipline, the values, the sense of confidence and belonging, and the opportunity for many wandering young people tempted by a host of less healthy distractions. Sport occupies an essential space. It is often the church in disguise. And second place is not for losers.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    So would running — any level of involvement, from personal fitness to marathon training— be akin to a deconstruction of sorts, away from sports-as-religion?

  • James C Dekker says:

    Funny, though, that just as U. of Michigan wins the “national championship” and Calvin University cranks up its football program–and spending gobs of $$$$$ doing so–Michigan high schools (and those in other states) have been cutting their football programs after finally awakening to the stats of long-term brain damage caused by intense involvement in football. And, of course, the liabilities entailed in the aftermath of lawsuits by players so damaged and grieving parents and family members. Football religion offers its own forms of death, but mighty reduced or totally absent hope of resurrection.

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