The Religion of American Sports

Amid the tumult surrounding Super Bowl XXX, Americans will congregate to party, pray, swear, chant, eat, drink and bond.

They will wear symbolic clothes, attend public rites, recall heroic deeds, consult oracles, hand down traditions and spend -- or risk -- millions of dollars. It's easy to see why many researchers now consider Super Sunday a pseudo-religious holiday.

"The Super Bowl combines all the elements that America has always valued the most. It's a ritual that glorifies physical excellence, determination, religious fervor and a military style," said Robert Higgs, author of "God in the Stadium," which has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. "All of this is focused on a quest for the dollar and success. ... It somehow seems symbolic and sad that it all takes place on a sacred day."

This media circus -- part patriotic rally, part bacchanalian tent revival -- perfectly blends our complex and contradictory beliefs about sports, said Higgs, professor emeritus at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tenn. While he bemoans many ways in which sports, religion and entertainment have become confused, the former college athlete also remains a fan. His book shows that the "church" of sports includes many altars. Higgs believes that some are good, but many are bad.

* The ancient Greeks virtually worshiped athletes as minor gods who worked to achieve physical perfection. This approach has never been very popular in America, said Higgs. However, it clearly influenced Nazi views of sports. Today, the strutting, egotistical attitudes of many athletes suggest that they also view themselves as virtual supermen.

"Obviously, the worship of human perfection is a long, long way from Christianity," said Higgs.

* Some people simply see sports as a chance to go wild. The bottom line: "Just win, baby," or "Winning is the only thing." After all, athletes will be athletes and it pays for educators and entrepreneurs to look the other way on issues of sex, drugs, money and violence. Some even preach that this promotes a positive "catharsis," in which society's demons are exorcised.

"It's safe to say that there's a pagan edge to many of our sports, especially when you get into a `win at any cost' way of looking at things," said Higgs.

* As a boy, Higgs and his buddies were scolded for playing baseball on Sunday. Today, religious leaders are far more likely to lead Sunday-morning cheers for teams or invite superstars into the pulpit. Higgs worries that this muscular Christianity overpowers biblical images of Jesus as a humble, gentle shepherd who embraces winners and losers. There is much more to faith than health, wealth, power and, ultimately, success.

"The shift of professional sports toward religious ritual and the metamorphosis of evangelism and ... sports toward televised entertainment have altered the faces of both religion and sport," writes Higgs. "This is puzzling, since neither sports nor religion originated in the commercial impulse."

* However, some athletes have managed to deliver a more nuanced message, saying that God doesn't care who wins, but calls believers to do their best -- especially in church and in family life. After NFL games, some players kneel with members of the other team to pray and to remember that it's just a game. Other athletes openly confess that they are tempted to worship success.

For example, Dallas Cowboy legend Tom Landry's sermons have evolved during his years of work with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Late in his career, he often described how he found himself on his knees, confessing that "football had been my religion" for decades. Or, as UCLA basketball legend John Wooden once said: "Yes, sports can build character. But they also can tear down character."

"This is encouraging and that there's probably more stories out there like this that go unreported," said Higgs. "It's obvious that something in sports has gone awry. It's all become a kind of mixed blessing, hasn't it? ... Sports are not automatically sinful. What I'm trying to get people to see is that they can be warped into a kind of heresy."