Wednesday, June 2, 2010

How is Sport Religious?

Maddison Parker 41742385

Looking at case studies from the sporting arena to outline the role of religion in sport, and the role of sport as a religious practice.

Putnam (1999) stated, that the association of sport and religion,
“can be found in nearly every part of the sports world, from the energized boxing rings of Las Vegas and Atlantic City to the sprawling stock car tracks of the South, from the boisterous stadiums of football to the lush, green fairways of professional golf” (p. 103).

When you think about ‘sport’ what are your automatic thoughts? You may view sport in a negative way: as a violent, patriarchal culture which supports ‘star status’ behaviour and binge drinking. Maybe the word ‘sport’ may mean: community, mateship, teamwork and leadership. Or simply ‘sport’ may just mean: physical exercise, strategy or just something to do on the weekends. For the majority, the word ‘religion’ is not one of the first things that come to mind when thinking about sports. This essay is going to look the aspects of sport in the light of religion, religious experience and spirituality. Sport is difficult to describe simple since it is multi faceted, just like religion. Religion is constantly being defined and described by individuals, scholars and theologians, including Ninian Smart (1998) who designed a seven section theory which describes the possible aspects within religion which makes it religion. This theory, which was based on religion, can be applied to ‘sport’ with ease. This essay will outline the similarities between sport and religion based on Smarts seven dimensions and a few examples looking at the social and institutional dimension, the experiential and emotional dimension and the doctrinal and philosophical dimension more specifically. Although sports and religion have not always been seen to have such a fluid relationship, and often there are still controversies between religion and sport.

Traditional religion and sport have had an interesting and interconnected relationship, specifically Christianity and sport can be discussed in this light; Christianity and sport actually have a history that has flourished over the years. According to Higgs (1995), the relationship between Christianity and sports started out as a negative one. On Christmas Day, 1621, Governor William Bradford of Plymouth disapproved of sports and believed that all copies of the Book of Sports be burned; this is just one example that expresses the disapproval that many felt towards sport being eliminated, especially on the day of the Sabbath (Higgs, 1995). Slowly but surely, Christianity became a fan of many sports and the importance of sports, and according to Watson, N. J & White, J. (2007) John Paul II tremendously appreciated the significance of sport, he described that it “contributes constructively to the harmonious and complete development of man, body and soul” (John Paul II 1995/ 1979, 60). Watson & White also state that The Vatican has understood the inner workings and importance of sport, believing that theological reflection is necessary. Christianity has changed its views of sport if you look at the faith as a whole, there are a myriad of traditional religions that not only support sports but are intrinsically involved with sport. Lee (2004) states that there are many organisations such as this, such as Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) and Athletes in Action (AIA) also in America for example, there are countless amounts of colleges that support specific denominations and play in the name of that denomination. Religion and in this case, Christianity rejected sport as a respectable practice but over time became accept it and enjoy it as an aspect of their lifestyle and even their faith. The relationship between religion and sport has become an important one; many athletes even use religion to express their athletic ability.

Many athletes publically express their faith, and sincerely believe that their faith is driving them to do well. This is a quite controversial topic, and seems to be an increasing trend. It could be believed that this is a result of the continuing and strengthening relationship between sports and religion as mentioned previously. Not all aspects of religion in sport are positive. Evans (2005) says in her article that it exclusive behaviour when whole teams express their faith to be the same, it lacks diversity and could make others feel like only that faith can enjoy that sport. Although the expression of religion by so many athletes shows that many athletes use their religion to support their athletic endeavours. Some examples of religious expression can be seen in the article and picture gallery by Blake, J. called When did God become a sports fan?. Examples include: Quarterback Tim Tebow who writes the references to Bible passages under his eyes during gridiron games, Brazilian soccer player Kaka who ripped off his jersey after winning the 2007 UEFA Champions league final to expose a shirt that said “I Belong to Jesus” and Basket ball player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf who stands in prayer during the national anthem to express his Islamic faith. Although religious expression can be exclusive it is also an expression of the connection between an athlete’s faith and sporting activities. A lot of times sports create a more inclusive environment to express community discarding specific religion; a sense of community is a commonality between both sport and religion. Religion is a term that is hard to grasp and religion does not just refer to traditional religions as described.

When defining religion, most individuals, academics and theologians have difficulty because the discussions, definitions, arguments and topics are infinite; much like defining sport. Although one scholar designed a seven part theory which describes, for the most part, the possible dimensions of religion. Ninian Smart’s seven dimensions (Smart, 1998) include: the practical and ritual dimension, experiential and emotional dimension, the narrative or mythic dimension, the doctrinal and philosophical dimension, the ethical and legal dimension, the social and institutional dimension and the material dimension (Smart 1998). These seven dimensions were written with religion in mind, the dimensions that could include all or most of the elements that are involved with religion itself. Sport and religion have both a good relationship and a bad relationship at times, although their similarities are uncanny. It is interesting how much sport can be related to these dimensions and it becomes quite clear how much religion and sport are so very similar. One of the many similarities that can be discussed is the social aspect of sport and religion.

Many sports invoke a sense of community and some sort of relationship between the sport and the fans or the sports people or anyone else who is involved within the sport itself. This idea can be reflected to the social and institutional dimension (Smart, 1998), as explained by Smart, this dimension involves organisations such as the Church or the Mosque, as well as other institutions involved, the dimension is based on how the religion works and facilitates individual’s lives. This dimension can be applied to sport. This dimension could be describing different teams, their stadiums, their specific clubs and societies and how people are affected by the existence of such things, how the sport works and facilitates people’s lives. An example that expresses this within a sport was used by Parry (2007), it is a letter that was written by the board of directors to the fans of Barcelona Football Club (FCB), a very popular and successful Catalonian football team. The letter’s purpose was to address the fans who love the institution of FCB, the team, the home stadiums and every aspect of the club. The letter stressed the role of members in the club and spoke of the ‘love’ of the club by the fans. The letter spoke of loyalty as an assumption, and the ‘spirit’ of being a part of the football club and being connected to the club on a national and international level. This letter was directed to the whole of FCB, assuming that an individual that supports the club has enduring love for the club and a strong relationship with every aspect of the club. This is an example of how the existence of a club can create an amazing relationship with the fans. The letter expresses a close social relationship between a football club and its devoted fans, fans that assumingly watch most of the games that FCB plays and that cheer and have passionate feelings towards the club and have a sense of connectedness towards the club. The article also quite obviously outlines a feeling of spiritedness perhaps describing feelings of the fans spirituality toward the club. These ideas are also seen in modern day religion, devotion towards a faith, a feeling of connectedness to a group of people that support and believe in similar ideas, and expressing spirituality within it.

According to Parry (2007), spirituality came about with flying colours in the 20th century. Spirituality was initially associated with formal religion, but with the rise of postmodernism many people developed their own views of religion, more often described as spirituality. Spirituality in sport is different from each individual to the next, from the feeling of total exhaustion pushing the body to its limits, to cheering in a crowd of supporters or even waking up early each morning to run down an empty road as a form of meditation. As described by Sheldrake, P. (2007) the contemporary meaning for ‘spirituality’ is often vague and very intrinsic; it can be related to as a part of a traditional faith or completely detached from traditions. In short and extremely simplified ‘spirituality’ can be described as the reference to deep values and meanings in which individuals decide to base their life, it implies that there is a vision of the human spirit and what is needed to achieve an individual’s full potential of their mind body and soul. This idea can be described by the experiential and emotional dimension, Smart (1998) describes this dimension as experiences that involve visions and enlightenment and any other more mundane feeling. This can be seen in many aspects of sport as seen in the previous example of the fans of FCB. Another example is the spiritual experience of running, many people run for exercise but others also run to tunnel their inner visions and spirit. Kay & Armstrong (2007) speak about the spiritual experience of running. Warren and Armstrong describes running as a form of inspirational spiritual growth, a form of ritual, a time to meditate and look inward at one’s self, even a form of pilgrimage. Although this is just one example of the numerous possible examples that sport can express a sense of ‘spiritedness’ towards a sport. Some sources of spiritedness come from the past history of individual sports.

The doctrinal and philosophical dimension is described by Smart (1998) as the recognized teachings that support the narrative aspects of a faith. The original aspects and actions taken out that lead to the existence of a faith. This dimension can be reflected on sport. For example, the sport of Lacrosse is an Ancient game designed by Native Americans, and aside from being part of their spirituality, lacrosse was designed for recreation, for settling diplomatic disputes and as physical training for hunting or war as described by Pietramala, Grauer & Scott, (2002). This is just one example of why sports began and an example of sport as a part of the doctrinal and philosophical dimension. The other three dimensions can also be explained as examples of sport.

The practical and ritual dimension can be describing sports peoples training sessions, eating habits and OCD like rituals before each sporting event. Not to mention fans watching every game and cheering certain chants, the list goes on. The ethical and legal doctrine could be describing the laws of each game, the rules and the appropriate ways to act within a sport as a fan or a sports person. The material dimension could represent: uniforms, brands, merchandise, sports equipment, captain armbands, fan magazines, posters, toys and anything else that can be physically held that relates to sport. Every single dimension of Smart’s seven dimensions of religion (1998) can be explained in the world of sports as proved with a few examples in this essay.

Sport and religion have an interesting relationship, on an everyday basis the two may not even be thought of to have anything to do with each other. Although there is a history between sport and religion, religion rejected sport because it undermined the faith, in this case Christianity. Even in this modern day there are controversies between sport and religion, such as public religious expression at publicly broadcasted sporting events which promotes inclusive behaviour and does not express diversity. Although, when looking at religion and sport as common eternities, the similarities are enormous. This essay outlines a few commonalities between religion and sport by using Ninian Smarts seven dimension of religion (1998), which is a theory which is known to describe most aspects within a faith. This theory based on religion was reflected on sport using examples. Three dimensions in particular were described more intrinsically: the social and institutional dimension, the experiential and emotional dimension and the doctrinal and philosophical dimension. After seeing the serious commonalities between sport and religion it can be seen that sport is religious, and religion does have a role in sport as sport has a role in religion.


Evans, J. (2005) Showing their spirit: Athletes and religion. The Seattle Times. Retrieved on 25/05/10 at

Higgs, R. J. (1995) God in the Stadium: Sports and religion in America. The university press of Kentucky, Kentucky.

Kay, W. A & Armstrong, K. (2007) Running - The sacred art: preparing to practice. First Printing, Villanova.

Lee, J. W. (2004) An overview of the reciprocating relationship between sport and religion. V.1 i.2. Smart Online Journal. Retrieved on 23/05/10 at

Parry, J. Et al eds. (2007) Sport and spirituality: An introduction. Routledge, New York.

Pietramala D. G., Grauer N. A. & Scott B. 2nd ed (2002) Lacrosse: Technique and tradition. The Johns Hopkind University Press, Maryland

Putnam (1999) cited in Lee, J, W. (2004) Prayer in American scholastic sport. Retrieved on 26/09/10 at

Sheldrake, P. (2007) A brief history of spirituality. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford

Smart, N. (1998) The world’s religions: Old traditions and modern transformations. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Watson, N. & White, J. cited in Parry, J. Et al eds. (2007) Sport and spirituality: An introduction. Routledge, New York.

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