Religion in Sport

[1] Any religion worth its salt embraces all of life, not just the recesses of the heart, the sacred hour on Sunday, or the intimacies of family and friendship. A serious Christian, Jew, or Muslim who participates in sport also practices that athletic activity in the light of his or her faith. So there is no question that sport-one of the mainstays of life, especially in affluent societies-can be freighted with religious meaning. The more difficult question is: how should religious conviction be expressed in sport?

[2] One option is simply to hide it from view. This approach is taken by many religious people in other areas of life-business, politics, education, and entertainment. Religion for them operates as motivation or perhaps as the ground of ethics that can be shared with other decent people. Many people prefer religion to stay private, for some good and many bad reasons. The problem with this “hidden” approach is that all those areas of life can and will be filled with other meanings and values, some of them contrary to what religious people believe. None of these key areas in life-including sports-is simply neutral. They convey meanings and values. Why should religious meanings and values be refused their part in defining the meanings and values of sport? Why should sport be completely secular?

[3] As I argued above, it shouldn’t. True religion is comprehensive. But religion can also be abused, as it often is in sport. One abuse occurs when the divine is manipulated for the player’s own use. Religion is turned into a magical formula in which one tries to wheedle the majestic, omnipotent Creator of All into doing one’s bidding. Crossing oneself before a free throw or time at bat, or praying for victory fall into that category. While I am happy to know that that player is a Christian, I wonder whether he has a mature notion of God. Why should God prefer his victory over that of his competitor? More seriously, why should He care? (One of my moments of religious clarity was refusing to pray for victory in the pre-game huddle instituted by my college football team’s coach. Maybe I should have joined in; we usually got beat.)

[4] Another abuse is inserting religious gestures directly into the performance of the sport. The finger poked heavenward, the prayer in the end zone, or crossing oneself after an athletic triumph all seem to violate the integrity of the athlete’s primary role. I am disgusted by players acting as the audience by honoring themselves, acting as referees or cheerleaders, or by acting as entertainers who offer us song, dance, and ditty. I would also prefer that players not act as evangelists during the performance of their athletic roles. We could apply Luther’s famous saying that good cobblers make good shoes, not poor shoes with little crosses on them. Good players play well without adorning their play with little crosses.

[5] True, it is far better for the player to point heavenward than to point to himself after a particularly good performance. But it is difficult not to get the impression that the player is fusing his triumph with God’s will. If the player were consistent, he would point skyward to mark the judgment of God after he got his shot blocked or struck out. I haven’t seen that lately.

[6] What room then is left for religious expression? First, one can give a public religious interpretation of one’s participation in sport. When the sprinter in Chariots of Fire tells his pious sister that when he runs “I can feel His pleasure,” he is voicing a profound joy that athletes experience when their performance is at peak. As a fairly good tennis player, I have a sacramental (small “s”) sense of union when the mind and body are working in beautiful harmony to propel that ball accurately over the net on a beautiful court in the morning sunshine. One need not keep that great feeling private.

[7] Many fine athletes have a deep sense of gratitude to God for the talents they have been given, and it is refreshing to hear them mention that to interviewers who want them to talk of their accomplishments. Further, it is heartening to listen to expressions of gratitude to others who have helped them along the way, including their teammates. Praying before games is a common practice that is certainly fitting if it involves supplication for good play, sportsmanship, and protection from injury. (I must add that it seems curious to pray for safety in a sport that is inherently dangerous, like football or auto racing. Players intentionally place themselves in a dangerous role and at the same time pray to God to keep them safe. By the end of my football career I was adding a petition of repentance to God in my private pre-game prayer for putting myself in harm’s way.)

[8] It is also altogether appropriate for teams from both sides to gather together after a game to offer thanks for the opportunity to play and for safe passage. Such rituals are often occasions for reconciliation after the fierce competition is over. Serious Christians and Jews can also witness to the fact that their faith comes before their sport by refusing to violate their religious practices. Sandy Koufax, the great pitcher, refused to pitch on the Sabbath. Similarly, it is a sign of religious seriousness when players are able publicly to acknowledge the relative unimportance of athletic contests and their role in them before the more profound triumphs and tragedies of life. Mature persons of faith do not confuse the fate of the Washington Redskins with the salvation of their souls.

[9] I certainly do not begrudge athletes the opportunity to use their athletic celebrity to further their religious causes, as many athletes from Bob Richards to Reggie White have done. That is far nobler than selling Viagra. Finally, religion in sport can and should elevate sportsmanship-fair play, respect for the opponent, and civility toward officials. It is impressive to see players help their fallen opponents off the floor or turf now and then, not only their teammates.

Robert Benne

Robert Benne is the Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion Emeritus and Research Associate in the Religion and Philosophy Department, Roanoke College, Salem, Virginia and Professor of Christian Ethics, The Institute of Lutheran Theology.