Religion and sport: New angles on an important area of research

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Dagmar Dahl
Nord University
Jeremy Crump
Translation from Norwegian


Rebecca T. Alpert
Religion and Sports: An Introduction and Case Studies
209 pages, paperback, ill.
New York, NY: Columbia University Press 2015
ISBN 978-0-231-16571-6

This book is written by the American Rebecca Alpert, professor of religion at Temple University. It seeks to illuminate various facets of the relationship between religion and sport with the help of case studies which explain aspects and dilemmas of the interaction of sport and religion. The book is intended as a textbook for courses in religion and sport and so includes student exercises for closer consideration. The aim is to apply theoretical knowledge to practical situations. The importance of studying the relationship between sport and religion is emphasised in Alpert’s introduction:

Studying the interconnections between sports and religion gives us an opportunity to understand how these key aspects of society influence our political and cultural lives and provide ways to understand human experience and its meaning and purpose. (p 3).

Alpert hopes to give emphasis to a global perspective and she points – quite rightly – to overemphasis on the American perspective in much of the academic literature about sport and religion. It has to be said that she is only partially successful in this regard. She begins with a classic American example – the experience of a baseball match, for example.

In an introductory survey, Alpert presents approaches and problem areas in the field. This is hardly new for readers with a previous interest in the subject, but it is a useful overview of several possible approaches for those who are getting to know it for the first time. Research can look at sport as a religion or ask whether sport and religion are compatible. It can examine what happens when religious belief and practice come into conflict with sport and whether religion has a duty to make its views known about ethical issues in contemporary sport.

The rest of the book is divided into four sections with a total of fifteen case studies. Each of them concludes with ‘activities’, which are exercises for analysis and discussion.

Part one, ‘Why do people think sports are a religion?’ refers the reader by way of introduction to a broad definition of what is meant by religion. Alpert refers to similarities between sport and religion by connecting Rousseau’s conception that symbols, rituals and beliefs are important elements of a religion with Bellah’s concept of civil religion. For those of us who have been working in this field for the last 10–20 years this is a rehearsal of well-worn themes. Alpert points out that both religion and sport include rituals, ‘narrative and mythic expression’, both are ‘experimental and emotional’, ‘social and institutional’, ‘ethical and legal’ and ‘doctrinal and philosophical’ and both encompass materiality in their use of distinctive equipment, clothing and so on which in sport as in religion can be regarded as almost holy.

Alpert refers in this section to the work of her American colleagues who may be regarded as classics in the field of religion and sport. These include the well-known The Joy of Sports by Michael Novak, who sadly died recently, and Charles Prebish’s Religion and Sports, as well as work by Joseph Price, Robert Higgs, Allen Guttmann and others. The European research field – not unusually – is not mentioned.

The case studies presented in this section are

Case 1. Friday Night Lights: High School Football as Religion in Odessa, Texas
Case 2. Oscar Pistorius and What It Means to Be Human

Part two has the title ‘Does religion have a place in sports, or sports in religion?’

Here Alpert refers first to examples from sporting traditions in antiquity which were often linked to contemporary religious practices. Interestingly she doesn’t only cite the Olympic Games but also some lesser known examples from Asia, central America and elsewhere. She then turns to Christianity and refers to developments within Protestantism. Her roots in Anglo-American sport show through clearly again in the section about modern sport where she writes about Muscular Christianity and the YMCA. She provides an introduction – if a short one – to the engagement of Islam and Judaism with sport.

The following case studies are presented in this section:

Case 3. Zen and Archery in Japan
Case 4. O God of Players: Prayer and Women’s Basketball at a Catholic College.
Case 5. Juju: Witchcraft and African Football
Case 6. Jewish Umpires and Baseball Chapel

Part 3 seeks to throw light on problems under the heading ‘What happens when religion and sports come into conflict?’. Sport can have the same social function as religion. Both create meaning and offer transcendental experiences. In antiquity sport was often associated with religion, and in more recent times the world religions have used sport as a medium for mission and transmitting their values. But this convergence also leads to certain conflicts. The focus of the section is on value conflicts, that is, instances where religious values and norms don’t correspond to the values of sport.  Notably, the first example cited in the introduction to this section is that of Buddhism and Buddhist values such as balance, harmony and wholeness which contradict the competitive mind set of sport. It is a pity that this is not followed up with a case study of its own.

Case 7. American Jews and the Boycott of the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Case 8. The Belleville Grays and Playing Sports on the Sabbath
Case 9. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and the National Anthem Ritual in the NBA
Case 10. Judo and the Hijab at the Olympics

The fourth and final section, ‘Religion and Ethical Dilemmas in Sport’ seeks to throw light on a possible role for religious values in addressing the various ethical challenges which confront modern sport, especially elite sport. In the introduction to the chapter, the author calls attention to special discrimination on the grounds of sex, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, nationality, disability and of course religious affiliation. In addition – something which I think is very well taken up in this context – she mentions unethical treatment of animals. This is illustrated with a case from bullfighting, but it would be just as relevant to discuss current practices in horse racing etc. In addition – almost as a matter of course – she refers to the trend in doping (the use of illegal and unhealthy means and methods of winning) and a growing tendency towards egocentricity. The latter reaches its furthest extreme in the use of violence and the acceptance of causing injury to others, whether they are athletes or fans.

Case 11. Caroline Pla and CYO Football: Should Girls Be Allowed to Compete with Boys?
Case 12. Should the Roman Catholic Church Condemn Bullfighting in Spain?
Case 13. The Florida State University Seminoles, Osceola and Renegade: Mascots or Symbols?
Case 14. Jack Taylor’s 138 Points: Is “Running UP the Score” Christian?
Case 15. Conclusion: What Would Phil Jackson Do?

The book is essentially best suited to specialist courses on the theme at, for example, BA level, which are not often found in Scandinavian universities and colleges. Nevertheless, it offers a number of interesting case studies and accounts which argue for the inclusion of the theme of religion and sport in the discourse of sports science as well as in the discourses of theology and the social sciences. The book attempts to give examples from different countries, but it is undeniably written with an American audience in mind. Many names and incidents demand background knowledge which an American sport or theology student will have as a matter of course, but less so a Scandinavian reader. An example is the Zen-inspired basketball trainer Phil Jackson, who is very well known in the US. Furthermore, the case studies are just that – individual examples which do not provide the basis for generalisation.

Personally, I was excited to see that many of the things I had been thinking about, interpretations and discoveries I had made in my PhD thesis and my book on sport and religion from 2008-9, crop up here again independently of my thesis. Examples are the similarities and differences between sport and religion and the debate about ethical influences which religions can contribute to the challenges of sport.

Researchers and lecturers who are interested in the subject of sport and religion will enjoy reading this book and may possibly find in it examples which they can use in lectures and seminars.

Copyright © Dagmar Dahl 2017

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