Sports and Religion in America (2024)

Between Tebowing and Sacred Ground

In 2011, Tim Tebow made his first start as the quarterback for the Denver Broncos in a game against the Miami Dolphins. While a premier college player, football analysts speculated that Tebow’s skills would not translate to the professional game. Yet, the determined Tebow temporarily rebuffed his critics and led his team to a dramatic overtime victory. As his fellow Broncos took to the field to celebrate, Tebow remained off to the side, silently kneeling. As the telecast zeroed in on this contrast of exuberance and piety, one Denver fan watching from a New York City bar was inspired. He and his friends mimicked the pose, snapped some pictures, and posted them to social media. And with that, the quarterback’s postgame gesture went viral on the Internet. Almost immediately, the verb “Tebowing” became shorthand for the curious, embodied blend of evangelical Protestantism and sports stardom.1

From his earliest days in the spotlight, Tebow has unashamedly displayed his evangelical faith on the football field—scrawling Bible verses on his eye black, pointing Godward after a good play, and praising his “Lord and savior, Jesus Christ” at press conferences (Figure 1).

So at one level, Tebow’s story brings us to the nexus of religion and sports, to a place where a formal faith intersects with athletic prowess. Moreover, the genealogy of Tebowing arguably leads us back to the “muscular Christian” movement. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, progressive reformers developed a theology that extolled the perceived spiritual and physical benefits of sports. Other religious groups created similar sporting theologies, from male Mormon baseball players in the West, to female Catholic basketball players in the East. Furthermore, as sports grew in popularity it also became part of America’s civil religious discourse, feeding discussions and debates over the sacred qualities of national identity.2

But the story of religion and sports in America is more than touchdown prayers and postgame pontifications. Consider, for example, the “Sacred Ground” exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Upon entering, visitors pass through a stately, stone arch—a threshold that separates the baseball world from the profane outside world (Figure 2).

Next, one encounters a ticket booth that had serviced Yankee Stadium for fifty years, with a sign above it reading: “Ballparks are baseball’s sacred ground . . . Ballparks provide the stage for the game, a frame for memories of games past, and the promise of future games enjoyed with family and friends.” From here, the exhibit opens into six themed sections: “Fans,” “Ballpark Business,” “Evolution of the Ballpark,” “The Stadium World,” “Reverence,” and “Ballpark Entertainment.” Each portion enshrines famous and infamous baseball bats, bumper stickers, score cards, rings, trophies, and bleacher seats. Moreover, interactive exhibits allow visitors to see, hear, and even smell these ballparks.3

“Sacred Ground” intentionally assaults the senses of visitors, bringing their eyes, ears, noses, and hands into immediate contact with baseball’s storied past. As Gary Laderman observes, this exhibit “is just one of many examples that demonstrate how the world of sports is infused with religious frames of reference and meaning.” He qualifies this statement by noting that people continue to be Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, or seekers when they enter the exhibit. But in this place, they connect with the raw material that identifies them as fans of the game.

Religion, in this context, is not a matter of ancient theologies or “belief in God.” Instead, religion happens when the facts of the game become mythic. Bodies in motion create empirical data. And from here, physical activities, ordinary objects, and slices of time become inscribed with deep meaning. Sometimes, all of this filters through formal religious groups or civil religious discourse. Other times, it simply emerges from the secular spectacle of sports.4 Irrespective, the story of religion and sports is also the story of people making physical movements into sacred movements.5

Colonial Contests and the Birth of an American Sports Culture

When Europeans entered North America, there were approximately five hundred independent Indian cultures, each with its own unique spiritual worldview. There was, in other words, no single “Indian religion.” Moreover, the very idea of religion, as Europeans defined and imposed it, made no sense to native inhabitants. Instead, Indians tended to weave transcendent meaning into every dimension of their lives—from hunting and pottery, to economics and governance.6 Games, of course, also carried an air of sacredness. And in most cases, European missionaries understood these Indian bodies in motion to be an affront to Christianity, and a barrier to conversion.

The French Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf, for example, lived among Huron in Ontario during the mid-17th century. A careful observer of their customs and habits, Brébeuf took particular notice of a stick-and-ball game that he called “lacrosse”. The sticks reminded him of the “crosier” carried by bishops in religious processions. But the invocation of this European religious symbol did not signal Brébeuf’s approval. Instead, he thundered against the “miserable sorcerer” who would prescribe the game as a cure for individual or communal illness. The missionary also lamented that young men gave their shaman such great authority, and that crowds of onlookers attended the events, perched on the sidelines gambling, cheering, and hexing opponents. For Brébeuf, lacrosse was nothing more than a collective “wallowing in all sorts of filth.” It proved to him that demonic forces were at work among the Huron, and that only Christianity could save them.7

Not surprisingly, Indians had a very different understanding of the game. Lacrosse likely originated in the early 15th century with the Huron and Iroquois tribes in the Saint Lawrence River region. As it spread, the game’s rules, rituals, and mythologies adapted to local customs, and folded into tribal identities. One Cherokee myth tells of a prehuman contest between the birds and animals. In this account, a field mouse and squirrel are picked over for the animal team, as they were deemed too small. So they request to join the bird team. Taking pity, the birds fix wings to the rodents, who become valuable contributors. In addition to offering an origin story for the bat and flying squirrel, this myth highlights tribal values of compassion, cooperation, and grit. Tribes have also used lacrosse in myths about social order. One legend tells of a lacrosse player so impatient to win that he used his hand, rather than the stick, to pick up the ball. The defiled ball, itself a sacred object, soared upward into the sky and became the moon. When the moon wanes, this myth is recounted as an allegory for following the rules in lacrosse and life.8

Lacrosse was one of an assortment of games played by Indians throughout North America. From relay races to kickball, athletic contests were a ritualized means of pleasing the gods, securing fertility, conjuring rain, prolonging life, expelling demons, and curing illnesses. Meanwhile, European Catholics and Protestants alike colonized the meanings of these games—categorizing these Indian bodies in motion as evidence of “superstition,” a signal that they required the “civilizing” power of Western Christianity.9

New England Puritans certainly participated in producing this discourse. They also debated the place of play within their own communities. Among first-generation Puritans, children were generally permitted to swim in summer, skate in winter, and play bat-and-ball games. By the second generation, sports became a means for maintaining military readiness among young men. Military training days were communal festivals, highlighted by foot races, wrestling matches, and shooting contests. The fit bodies of young men reinforced aspirations for a strong, healthy, and secure community. Still, an array of laws prohibited the playful pursuits of colonists, to include bans on horseracing, bowling, brawling, and co*ck fighting—games associated with vice and “immoral” behavior. While the laws had minimal influence in curtailing these pastimes, they did produce a narrative that lived on into the 19th century: people of high class and high morals “put away childish things.”10

And yet, sports like horseracing in early America had become deeply embedded in the national culture. In 1823, the nation’s two top thoroughbreds met in New York City for a highly anticipated showdown. Media accounts made the race not simply about a rivalry between horses, but also a rivalry between regions. The hometown favorite’s name was Eclipse. Until this time, the North had minimal interest in the turf. But Eclipse’s sterling performances drew widespread attention through the Northeast, as he came to symbolize the aims of the industrializing city. The South, meanwhile, had a reputation for breeding and racing the top horses. Sir Henry was their standard-bearer. Young and unpredictable, Sir Henry also claimed the finest lineage and training. Animated by their regional pride, roughly twenty thousand southerners traveled north to help build a crowd of sixty thousand at the contest. Divided into three, four-mile heats, the horses traded victories before Eclipse took the final race and the crown.11

“[The] North was exultant,” wrote turf historian Hamilton Busbey in 1870, “while Southern hearts felt sore, and Southern pride was humbled.” Busbey went on to comment more generally about horseracing. The sport was, in his view, “the noblest in the world” when overseen by “men of position and integrity.” When left to the lesser elements of society, though, horseracing was “the most corrupt institution that had ever blackened the age of civilization.”12

So while the bodies of racing horses ran afoul of evangelical sensibilities, sports enthusiasts used this spectacle to address their own pressing concerns. Horseracing did the work of defining North and South in a curious prelude to the Civil War. It also acted as a focusing lens for separating the reputable from disreputable sectors of society—those perceived to strengthen character, and those who devalued it. By the end of the 19th century, the evangelical establishment would begin co-opting and reshaping the enthusiasm and interest attached to athletics. Other religious groups would follow suit. Along the way, athletic bodies in motion fueled conversations about faith, morality, and meaning.

Muscular Christianity and Beyond

“Muscular Christianity, that’s what I call it,” proclaimed Congregational minister John Scudder, “and it’s the only real Christianity.” In 1902, Scudder started a boxing class for the young men of his Jersey City church. “A man that ain’t afraid to fight, ain’t afraid to stick up for what’s right.” A graduate of Yale where he captained the football team, Scudder insisted, “If I had not devoted myself to sport, I would not be alive to-day. Religion and health go hand in hand.”13

Scudder was one of many “body as temple” theologians of this era, who sought to glorify the body and make health a scriptural mandate. The seeds of this “muscular Christian” movement began sprouting in the United States shortly before the Civil War, planted by city-dwelling liberal Protestants such as Unitarian minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson.14

An avid sportsman as well as a vocal social reformer, Higginson’s 1858 article “Saints, and Their Bodies” started off by disclaiming the lingering Puritan prohibitions on physical activity. He proposed instead a new theology that conjoined the toned spirit with a toned body. Men and women alike, Higginson averred, should know that physical exertion elevates individual and social happiness. He prescribed boxing, rowing, swimming, and walking as a means for creating a “well-regulated frame.” The result, Higginson concluded, would not only be stronger individuals, but also a more powerful American nation.15

While Higginson’s article circulated widely after its initial publication, his words failed to immediately mobilize the evangelical masses. Most still followed the ponderings of people like Theodore Cuyler. Pastor of New York’s Market Street Dutch Reformed Church, Cuyler conceded that recreation was clearly necessary for the balanced Christian life. But he advocated calm, quiet, and contemplative activities such as reading. Cuyler worried that excessive physical activity ultimately “debauches” the body and “makes me forget God and eternity.” These “unChristian amusem*nts,” he worried, can only be “dangerous, and in the least damnable.”16

After the Civil War, urban evangelicals started to reconsider their position on sports. In 1884, Endicott Peabody founded Groton School in Massachusetts. Athletics was a core curricular element of the Episcopalian preparatory school, as Peabody had absorbed the muscular Christian ethos during his schooling in Great Britain. While more preparatory academies followed Groton’s lead, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) brought muscular Christianity to the white middle-class.17

With its origins in London in 1844, the first American YMCA was established in New York City in 1852. Intended as a haven for young men and an alternative to saloons and brothels, physical recreation was not originally part of the YMCA’s mission. By the end of the century, however, nearly all of the YMCAs had gymnasiums. Luther Gulick emerged as a leading spokesperson for the Y, writing extensively about the values of physical exercise and competition. He devised the YMCA’s iconic logo, an inverted triangle symbolizing the interconnectedness of spirit, mind, and body. In 1891, Gulick encouraged James Naismith to invent the game that would eventually become basketball. Ordained a Presbyterian minister, Naismith spent his life spreading the game with a missionary zeal, convinced that it was a suitable physical expression of Christianity.18

Among those influenced by Naismith’s game was Senda Berenson. She introduced basketball to the women of Smith College one year after Naismith had invented it. Male physical educators such as Gulick advocated women playing “recreational sports” like swimming, golf, and archery. But the prevailing opinion was that competition would make women too manly and could threaten their reproductive capabilities. Accordingly, Berenson negotiated a place for women in competitive sports. Concerned about the potential roughness of basketball, she devised rules aimed at mitigating possible injuries. The court divided into three regions, with players restricted to each zone. Women could only dribble the ball three times, and hold it for three seconds. Stealing the ball was also prohibited.19

As the game spread at women’s colleges, Berenson formalized the rules and her rationale in Basketball for Women (1901). While assuring that the game would avoid “undue physical exertion,” she maintained that women needed basketball in order to function in the new world. The work of women in the current era, she observed, “is constantly widening.” As a result, young women required both “a strong physique” as well as “moral courage.” She envisioned basketball as a means for nurturing these traits, while also stressing selflessness. Berenson proclaimed that the game revolved around individual decisions and acts done “for the good of the team—the cause.”20

As basketballs passed between men and women, Berenson did the work of rethinking the function and meaning of the female body. Significantly, Berenson—the “Mother of Women’s Basketball”—was a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania. During her career as a physical educator, she made an expressed point of bringing the game to her coreligionists. The Young Women’s Hebrew Association also helped to popularize the game. While often struggling for gym space, uniforms, and simple recognition, young Jewish women eagerly joined teams and played games against a host of non-Jewish opponents. In these gymnasiums, this minority population used their bodily movements to participate in an American game, and to produce a muscular female Jewish identity.21

Jewish men likewise used the accompanying YMHA (Young Men’s Hebrew Association) for similar purposes. Alongside basketball, though, boxing held a prized place in Jewish communities. From 1901 to 1938, twenty-seven boxing world champions were Jewish. Benny Leonard was among the most well-known, having held the lightweight championship from 1917 to 1925. Novelist Budd Schulberg recalled watching the boxer in his prime, climbing into the ring with the Star of David on his trunks, giving a sense of pride to the beleaguered Jews of the city. For his Jewish admirers, Leonard not only knocked out opponents, he also pummeled anti-Semitism.22

What boxing did for American Jews, Notre Dame football did for Catholics. In 1918, Knute Rockne became the team’s head coach, eventually leading the Golden Domers to victories against the finest Protestant and secular universities in America. Meanwhile, team chaplain Father John Francis O’Hara introduced Catholic rituals and objects into the game. Convinced that sports “stimulates faith,” O’Hara sprinkled holy water on the field, and offered communion to players before games. He also handed Joan of Arc medals to the athletes, assuring that it would fill them “with the spirit of crusaders.”23 In a time when the presidential campaign of Al Smith evoked protracted debates about the supposed divided loyalties of Catholics, the athletic and religious deeds of Notre Dame football came to represent a living portrait of Catholic America.

While sports helped some outsider groups integrate into the mainstream, African Americans stood firmly in the margins of the nation’s sports culture. At times, however, this minority group had a sympathetic audience from fellow outsiders. In May of 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers, having just signed Jackie Robinson, played an away game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. On first base for the Pirates was Hank Greenberg, an aging veteran who played most of his career for the Detroit Tigers. One of the greatest power hitters in baseball, “Hammerin’ Hank” was also Jewish and accustomed to hearing anti-Semitic slurs from opponents and fans. But on that day, anti-black racism showered the field. In one at bat, Robinson laid down a bunt, rushed toward first base, and collided with Greenberg. Later in the game, Greenberg checked in on Robinson to make sure that he wasn’t injured. Greenberg then offered some words of encouragement, assuring Robinson that it would get better. A grateful Robinson later told reporters, “Class tells. It sticks all over Mr. Greenberg.”24

Greenberg and Robinson faced similar challenges in their respective rise in the ranks of professional baseball. Also, their relationship was emblematic of that between blacks and Jews, especially after World War II. During the late 1920s, Jews became involved in the business of black baseball, acting as promoters, booking agents, and silent partners. To be sure, some promoters incorporated comedy acts into the game, which perpetuated unflattering stereotypes of African Americans. However, Jewish journalists, politicians, and fans were instrumental in agitating for baseball’s integration. Drawing upon their faith and an American promise of freedom, these Jewish voices argued that this great pastime could no longer reflect the nation’s racial divide.25

Baseball, for this population, was more than “just a game.” It was instead a civil religious ritual, an expression of America’s core values. The story of the game’s integration, then, became a way in which the moral map of American civil religion revised its boundaries. A few decades prior, muscular Christians did the work of transforming the nation’s civil religious landscape by including sports. For them, bodily fitness was a necessary condition for both personal piety and national strength. The concerns and scope of this movement, though, circled around the ideas and ideals of its white Protestant founders. Accordingly, the playing fields of muscular Christians served to produce and enforce their understandings of race, class, gender, and nationalism. But the 20th century witnessed a growth in religious, ethnic, and racial diversity. And with this development came a broader and more complicated American ethos that prized the muscular endeavors of sports. So Catholics, Jews, African Americans, and women would use sports to muscle into the mainstream, to translate their bodily movements in civil religious terms. The place where civil religion and sports meet, though, would be marked by conflict and competition, as these new voices challenged the status quo and struggled to stretch the values of America beyond their existing limits.

Civil Religion at Play

In the early 20th century, philosopher Morris Cohen wrote extensively about the meaning and purpose of American democracy. Then in 1919, he penned a short, quirky essay entitled “Baseball as a National Religion.” With a decidedly whimsical tone, Cohen at the same time delivered keen observations about the power of “America’s pastime.” In the opening, the article pointed to a class divide when it came to baseball. For the people of his world—like, William James, for example—baseball was a silly diversion and a childish obsession. But for the working-class “baseball devotee,” their team had come to define not only them as individuals, but also as members of a broader community. At games against rivals, Cohen observed fans on both sides investing their entire being into the game; yet, when it ended, the crowds left without harboring any ill-will for their opponents. For Cohen, then, the “true Church Universal” of baseball held a tremendous potential of establishing a sense of “brotherhood” for a growing, and diverse American populace.26

To repeat, Cohen’s tongue was firmly planted in his cheek. Yet, he also described the widespread attachment to the game in terms of democracy and national unity. Baseball, in other words, had become a civil religious ritual, an athletic performance of the “American way of life.” The fusion of patriotism and baseball had started shortly before Cohen wrote his infamous article. To honor the troops fighting in the Great War, the “Star Spangled Banner” was played during the seventh inning of the 1918 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs. “First the song was taken up by a few, then others joined, and when the final notes came, a great volume of melody rolled across the field,” reported the New York Times. “It was at the very end that the onlookers exploded into thunderous applause and rent the air with a cheer that marked the highest point of the day’s enthusiasm.”27

By World War II, the anthem became a standard feature at sporting events. This sight of singing crowds helped to manufacture a sense of unity in a land of growing diversity. Still, any civil religious discourse does the work of defining not only “Us,” but also “Them.” And throughout most of the 20th century, the civil religious discourse surrounding the place of African Americans was an ongoing and heated debate.

On July 4, 1910, Jack Johnson met Jim Jeffries in a Reno, Nevada, prizefighting ring. Johnson had become the first black man to win boxing’s heavyweight title by defeating Tommy Burns in 1908. Jefferies, meanwhile, had retired in 1905 with an aura of manly mystique that had made him a living legend. While he initially resisted the calls to return to the ring to vanquish Johnson, Jeffries’s dwindling finances as well as the collective will of his supporters drew him back. As the “Fight of the Century” drew near, white fans in particular imagined it as both a battle for racial supremacy and for the fate of the nation. On the eve of the fight, the Daily Picayune in New Orleans printed a cartoon of a fit, slim, and athletic Uncle Sam sparring in a boxing ring, with an eagle overseeing his training (Figure 3).

While the buildup to the fight was intense, the actual match was profoundly anticlimactic. Johnson dominated Jeffries, who fell unceremoniously after fifteen rounds. In reaction, the Daily Picayune featured another image of Uncle Sam, his humble visage bruised, bandaged, and beaten.28

This cartoon speaks to a civil religious assumption in the South that whiteness and Americanness were intricately linked. Johnson’s black body represented a pointed transgression of this expectation. On the other hand, admirers of Johnson viewed his presence in the ring quite differently. For someone like Booker T. Washington, for example, Johnson was a “godsend” when he first won the title. The boxer was, for Washington, a model for what blacks could achieve through hard work. America’s civil religious discourse, then, divided along racial lines, with a boxing ring serving as a common site for this debate.29

As the era of Jack Johnson passed, white heavyweights reigned until Joe Louis won the title in 1937. “No one else in the United States has ever had such an effect on Negro emotions,” Langston Hughes exclaimed, “or on mine.”30 While certainly a civil religious icon for African Americans, Louis also drew a broader, whiter gathering of admirers during his career. In 1936, Louis faced off against the German pugilist Max Schmeling. Louis was the rising star, while the German was near the end of his career. Still, Schmeling devised a fight plan that resulted in a twelve-round victory. Preparations for a rematch started shortly after, and two years later, the pair met again in New York City. Louis won with a convincing first round knockout, earning the adulation of Americans who saw this as a proxy victory over Nazi Germany. This narrative became all the more real when Louis enlisted during World War II. Recruiting posters of the champion featured Private Joe Louis in an Army uniform, quoted as saying: “We’re going to do our part . . . and we’ll win because we’re on God’s side.”31

While representing America in athletic and military contests, Lewis pressed into the good graces of white America. But the boxer’s words and deeds met certain expectations among this population, expectations that future boxers would delight in dismissing. Muhammad Ali first gained prominence after achieving victory at the ultimate global example of sports, religion, and nationalism—the Olympics. As Cassius Clay, he won a gold medal in the 1960 Rome games, defeating Polish boxer Zbigniew Pietrzykowski. Clay was neither ignorant to the Cold War underpinnings of the fight, nor to the racial prejudices that existed in his homeland. After the contest, he remarked to a Soviet reporter, “To me, the U.S.A. is still the best country in the world, including yours.”32

By 1964, Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston to become the heavyweight champion. Shortly after, he announced that he had joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. In the following year as he geared up for a fight against Floyd Patterson, Ali also experienced a public image transformation from Olympic hero to boxing villain. Patterson, a recent Catholic convert, announced that he intended to “win back” the title “for America.” Ali retorted that he too was an American. He then proceeded to trounce Patterson in the ring, drawing out the match for twelve humiliating rounds. With each blow, Ali crushed the hopes of his detractors and elevated the aspirations of his fans. Among the latter was Eldridge Cleaver. “Muhammad Ali is the first ‘free’ black champion ever to confront white America,” Cleaver wrote. “In the context of boxing, he is a genuine revolutionary, the black Fidel Castro of boxing.”33

The resistance embodied by Ali and celebrated by his supporters found another outlet at the very event where the pugilist first made his mark. At the 1968 Olympics, sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos won 200-meter gold and bronze respectively. As they stepped to the victory podium, the two black athletes raised their gloved fists in a Black Power salute. Neither athlete wore shoes, signifying the impoverished state of black America. Smith wore a black scarf as a tribute to racial pride, while Carlos wore beads, “for those individuals that were lynched, or killed, that no one said a prayer for.” They intended to both raise awareness and project a prophetic rebuke of American racism. “If I win,” remarked Smith in a press conference afterward, “I am an American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say ‘a Negro.’ We are black and we are proud of being black.”34

The next day, newspapers throughout America and the world featured a photo of the protest. Outrage and condemnation soon followed. The Olympic governing body immediately ejected the sprinters from the Olympic village, and suspended them from the games. White sports journalists howled in disapproval, echoing Brent Musberger who dubbed Smith and Carlos, “black-skinned storm troopers.” He additionally predicted, “It’s destined to go down as the most unsubtle demonstration in the history of protest.”35 Even the Australian Peter Norman, the silver medalist, found himself enmeshed in the vitriol. Smith and Carlos had informed Norman of their plan before the ceremony. In a show of solidarity, Norman—reportedly acting from a place of Christian conviction—wore the badge of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, the organization that inspired the protest. For this, Norman met with stern rebukes from his country’s media.

With time, the image of these protesting sprinters would tilt toward heroism, just as Ali became an admired figure by the end of the century. In 2005, San Jose State unveiled a statue of Smith and Carlos on the victory stand, fists outstretched in protest. Norman remains conspicuously absent, though. The sculptor intentionally left this space open, so that anyone could climb up and stand next to Smith and Carlos—a vicarious experience of the moment.36 From this position, one can participate in what has become an iconic image of the 1960s, a stark reminder of how the “American way of life” divided along racial lines.

Another emblematic image from this era became a centerpiece of the struggle for female liberation. In 1967, Kathrine Switzer decided to enter the Boston Marathon. The rules for distance running at this time, however, prohibited women from competing at the 26.2 mile distance. Determined to challenge this norm, she entered the race as “K. V. Switzer,” and managed to evade the gatekeepers under the cover of her initials. As the marathon began, Switzer joined along with a crowded field of men, until race official Jock Semple realized that a female had infiltrated the race. Semple tracked down Switzer and charged at her, grabbing at her race number. Switzer’s burly boyfriend, however, intervened and knocked the race official to the ground. A cameraman caught the entire scene, and a photo soon circulated through the national media. Switzer finished the marathon, and ushered in a new generation of female distance running and athletics more generally. If a woman could complete a marathon, she could do anything. Meanwhile, Semple insisted that his actions were justified, since he was only trying to preserve the “rules.” So while Switzer would go on to symbolize the broader inclusion of women, the desperate, collapsing body of Semple became the portrait of a f*ckless attempt to contain feminism.37

In 2003, Life magazine listed the image of Switzer’s collision as one of the “100 Photographs That Changed the World.” The protest of Carlos and Smith also earned notice.38 In both instances, individuals transgressed sacred boundaries (race, gender) in sacred locations (the Olympics, the Boston Marathon) in an effort to force a broader audience to think deeply about the values that Americans hold sacred. While institutional religions might not stand central in these accounts, civil religion does. As sociologist Phillip Hammond has explained, civil religion “is a religion not of salvation but of the good society.”39 Put another way, civil religious discourse emerges when people and groups define and defend the values that they believe transcend individual interests and contribute to the common good. As sports and American civil religion interacted in the 20th century, the dramas of inclusion and exclusion have unfolded on the fields of play. This, in turn, meant that sports contributed to the making and remaking of values attached to categories of race, gender, ethnicity, and religion.

This process is still very much at work in contemporary America. At the beginning of the 1995–1996 NBA season, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (formerly Chris Jackson) of the Denver Nuggets made the decision not to stand during the National Anthem. A Muslim convert, Abdul-Rauf would later express that, for him, the flag represents “tyranny and oppression.” By March, as the media began taking notice of Abdul-Rauf’s protest, the league suspended and fined him. Controversy quickly followed, as Abdul-Rauf eventually found a compromise. He would stand and pray silently, “for those who are suffering.”40

Race played a featured role in the debate over Abdul-Rauf and his protest, but so too did the place of Islam in America. Muslim Americans would continue engaging with this issue on the playing fields, particularly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In 2005, for example, a high school football team in Dearborn, Michigan, drew national attention as they pursued playoff victories while maintaining the requirements of the Ramadan fast.41 Their story of faith and football came to symbolize a counter-narrative to claims that Muslims cannot be “real Americans.” These players, in other words, made a space for themselves by adding an Islamic twist to an American game.

“Possessed by a Deity”

In contemporary America, expressions of faith have found a comfortable location for expression through sports. Alongside Tim Tebow’s famous genuflections, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and similar groups have become mainstays in the locker rooms of high schools, colleges, and professional teams. Mormons have gained recognition through the accomplishments of male and female athletes at Brigham Young University. Basketball coach Phil Jackson and professional golfer Tiger Woods have brought Buddhism into broader focus. And in the 1990s, a Boulder, Colorado, commune known as Divine Madness developed a unique blend of Eastern spirituality, holistic healing, and extreme distance running. Led by Mark Tizer, members use distance runs as a means of heightening spiritual awareness. The group received negative attention when former female members charged Tizer with sexual impropriety and emotional abuse. At the same time, some members of Divine Madness rose to prominence in ultra-marathons—competitive races longer than a standard marathon (26.2 miles or 42.2 kilometers.42

So the pluralistic and unpredictable world of American religion has settled deeply into the pluralistic and unpredictable world of American sports. This reality has occasionally led to some unlikely interfaith dialogues. In 2014, for example, a National Football League (NFL) referee penalized Kansas City Chiefs safety Husain Abdullah for “unsportsmanlike conduct” after he scored a touchdown and appeared to dive to the ground in celebration (Figure 4).

A practicing Muslim, Abdullah’s post-touchdown gesture was actually a religious prostration. After the game, the Council on American-Islamic Relations protested; the media cried foul and revived images of Tebowing in comparison; and the NFL finally conceded that issuing the penalty was an error.43

The path to familiarity with Islam, then, passed through the territory of misperception, unfamiliarity, and outrage. In other instances, though, efforts at interfaith understanding come with ulterior motives. In 2008, the New York Police Department (NYPD) started a youth soccer league as an outreach effort to Arab Muslims. The success of this program prompted the creation of a cricket league for Muslims from South Asia. Through soccer goals and sticky wickets, the NYPD seemed to be making strides toward relationship-making with these groups. By 2011, however, revelations emerged that the leagues had also been used for intelligence gathering by attending police. “When the leagues started,” remarked one organizer, “we thought they were trying to engage our community through sports. We were wrong.”44

From the professional ranks to local leagues, then, American sports remain locked in intense conversations on piety, politics, and identity. But the story of religion and sports should not stop here, where formal faith communities make sense of athletics. Instead, we profit from carefully considering the myriad of ways that sports operate in uniquely religious ways. During the 2014 college football season, for example, the University of Mississippi’s football team defeated the Alabama Crimson Tide. It was an upset among upsets. Mississippi had a history of futility in the game, while Alabama was a reigning giant. So in the immediate aftermath of the win, security guards blithely shifted their gaze as fans stormed the field and tore down the goal posts. To be sure, this brand of mass hysteria is a time-honored tradition in college football. But the Mississippi fans quickly put a unique stamp on this ritual. The goalposts—instead of being trampled underfoot—became the featured object in a victory procession.45

As the crowd hoisted the metal poles, they departed from the stadium and marched onward to the Grove, a ten-acre grassy plot at the center of campus (Figure 5).

This collective decision was entirely intentional. In the early 1980s, then-coach Billy Brewer began taking his team through the Grove before games, hoping to develop a visceral bond between the players and the fans. Coach Brewer’s vision would quickly materialize, and in a relatively short period of time the Grove evolved into what the Sporting News called “the Holy Grail of tailgating sites.” Here, “grovers”—as they call themselves—gather by the thousands to eat, drink, socialize, and celebrate college football.46

So in the aftermath of their landmark victory, a sacred place with an established tradition met a sacred object that had just been christened. Then, in the following days, the poles were carved into pieces, with the relics distributed to worthy fans or to anyone willing to separate with a few hundred dollars. Ole Miss was fined $50,000 by their league for allowing fans to storm the field, so the administration decided to gather the funds by soliciting “donations” in exchange for pieces of the goalposts. They exceeded the fine total in four hours.47

For the Ole Miss fan, paying hundreds of dollars for an inanimate piece of metal makes complete sense. The metal, after all, is not just metal—it is a tangible representation of a moment when time stopped, and a community paused to celebrate their team. All of this speaks directly to the very meaning of “fan,” a word that derives from the Latin fanaticus, which translates to “possessed by a deity.” In the minds of fans, the spirit of an athletic contest is otherworldly. It controls devotees, compelling them to act in ways that they might otherwise not.48

No doubt, the “possessed” fan sometimes does behave in ways that outsiders might not understand. Witness the Pittsburgh International Airport, where visitors walking to the baggage claim pass by two statues standing side-by-side. One is of George Washington, a “founding father” of the American nation. The other is of a “founding father” of Steelers Nation: Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris. While Washington’s pose is nondescript, Harris leans forward, poised to make a catch known in Pittsburgh as the “Immaculate Reception.” In a 1972 playoff game against the Oakland Raiders, Harris miraculously—as Steelers’ fans describe it—snagged a deflected pass and charged ahead for the winning touchdown.49

Until that moment, Pittsburgh had never won a playoff game. But by the finish of the 1970s, the Steelers had earned four Super Bowl victories. Along the way, the Immaculate Reception’s mythic power gained strength. To Steelers Nation, this one catch signaled the beginning of a new era. On the fortieth anniversary of the catch, a Pittsburgh newspaper called it “the play that changed a city.” And “Children of the Immaculate Reception” grew up knowing only of their great football teams, and they transferred the myth of greatness to the city itself. “The team for me is symbolic of the city,” reflected one offspring of the catch. “I think the Steelers are successful because Pittsburgh’s successful, and Pittsburgh’s successful because the Steelers are successful. That might be totally crazy, but there’s a connection there. That’s what I believe.”50

The creative process by which people inscribe sacred meaning onto sports does not stop with football. The careful observer sees it everywhere from a distance runner describing his sport as “a place to commune with God,” to the late David Foster Wallace contemplating his favorite tennis player Roger Federer as a distinctly “religious experience.”51

But where there are sacred things in sports, there are also contests over their meaning and purpose. Sports generate billions of dollars in revenue. Companies promote high-profile games and players—advertising their sacredness in an effort to sell more products and placate investors. With money flowing in all directions, critics of college sports in particular claim that the system enriches everyone but the players. According to Taylor Branch, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has masterfully succeeded in enshrining the idea of the “student-athlete,” even though this category was invented to avoid paying worker’s compensation to injured players.52

Corporate interests have also been adept at covering the misdeeds of individual athletes. From 1999 to 2005, cyclist Lance Armstrong collected seven consecutive Tour de France titles. Plagued by rumors of performance enhancing drug use, Armstrong continually affirmed that he was “clean.” In addition to enlisting attorneys in his defense, Armstrong’s sponsor Nike produced epic commercials that mythologized his talent and honesty. These ads also portrayed the athlete as the great underdog who defeated cancer to achieve athletic greatness. All the while, Armstrong and his team had devised elaborate methods for concealing his performance-enhancing activities. When Armstrong finally confessed to his doping, the Nike advertising mechanisms turned elsewhere for new heroes, leaving the fallen cyclist to his own devices.53

Athletes ranging from Marion Jones in track and field to Barry Bonds in professional baseball have followed similar trajectories from hero, to drug cheat, to shamed outcast.54 But the fallen athletes do not diminish interest in these games. Instead, they become part of the lore, as cautionary tales of corrupted bodies in motion. They are the ones who sought perfection and fell short, not by losing, but by taking shortcuts. The rule breakers, in other words, remind the faithful of why it is important to follow the rules.

The Final Lap

In 1988, a group of Navajo leaders started Wings of America, a nonprofit group aimed at promoting running and fitness among the tribal youth. Holding camps and sponsoring teams, Wings has sought to promote a lifestyle for Navajo that steers them away from the perils of alcoholism, obesity, type-2 diabetes, and similar health concerns. The leaders of Wings also stress the significance of distance running for Navajo spirituality, recalling a history of proud and fit Navajo bodies.55

When thinking through the story of religion and sports in America, it is convenient to begin with Native Americans. Beyond the chronology, their pre-contact modes of play let us see clearly how physical activity can assume sacred meaning. But Indians have not disappeared, nor has their affinity for sports. Moreover, just as these communities have changed and adapted over time, so too have their games. For the Navajo, running has become a means for dealing with an inheritance of despair, and for recovering an ancient tradition. Among the Cherokee in North Carolina, lacrosse is still played, although infrequently. In recent decades, football is a more visible form of tribal identity. As the head coach of Cherokee High School has explained, the team doesn’t represent a school, town, or community. Rather, they “represent a nation of people.”56

So from the earliest accounts of Native Americans and anxious Puritans, to contemporary stories of sacred goalposts and Indian cross country races, Americans have found innovative and dynamic ways to make playing sacred. Bodies in motion have never simply been bodies in motion. Instead, they become the raw material of a mythic process that gives sports its profound and lasting appeal.

Review of the Literature

William Baker’s Playing with God looms large in the historical framing of religion and sports. As a synthetic overview of the topic, Baker’s narrative reflects the main focus of the literature, which tends to privilege the origins, development, and legacy of muscular Christianity. To his credit, Baker does describe how religious groups like Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Muslims, and Buddhists have played a role in this story. Specifically, he makes ample use of Julie Byrne’s O God of Players and Richard Ian Kimball’s Sports in Zion.57

Still, though, Baker’s account places these groups within the orbit of muscular Christianity. That is, readers see how this Progressive Era movement spawned similar efforts from other religious groups. By the book’s conclusion, Baker laments that modern sport “has lost the moral compass that for more than a century taught Americans to honor boundaries, play by the rules, and work together for the common good.” He also suggests that today’s evangelicals only see sports “as a means to an end of religious conversion.” Meanwhile, the theology of sports produced by their forbearers, Baker states, has been forgotten.58

Baker’s book is a significant accomplishment, both for its scope as well as its masterful use of the available literature. As such, it sets the terms for future studies to build upon, develop, and revise. For example, Annie Blazer’s Playing for God examines evangelical women and sports ministry. She locates places where, contrary to Baker’s assertion, these populations have indeed produced a theology of sports. Also, Rebecca Alpert’s Out of Left Field looks far into the margins of religion and sports. Alpert recovers the story of Jewish involvement in black baseball, as well as the Jewish role in the integration of the major leagues. As a result, Alpert tells a story of religion and sports that places themes like race, business, activism, and civil rights at its core in ways that reveal the uniqueness of these groups’ cultural resources.59

The topic of religion and sports has also produced a robust assortment of theoretically oriented studies. Michael Novak’s The Joy of Sports remains foundational in this conversation, even though some of its material is dated, and it was written for a general audience. Novak is a Catholic theologian known for his conservative positions on religion, culture, and public life. Yet, in this book, Novak posits that sports operate as a “natural religion,” an expression of deeply embedded human tendencies to seek transcendence and meaning through physical activity. While his theoretical structure is very much a product of its time, this insight at least forces readers to think differently about what religion is, and where it operates. Joseph L. Price’s recent work has brought Novak’s insights into a more scholarly sphere. Price is also the editor for the “Sports and Religion” series with Mercer University Press. Arguably its most theoretically sophisticated title to date is Eric Bain-Selbo’s, Game Day and God. Bain-Selbo looks closely at the religious and political dimensions of college football in the American South, giving a model for additional studies of other sports and sports cultures.60

At times, these discussions can be faulted for lapsing into arguments over whether or not sports can be considered a religion. While perhaps a valuable exercise in constructing and deconstructing the definition of religion, these debates can become tedious. A more productive line of inquiry aims to uncover the places where the traces of religious activity work through athletic events. David Chidester’s Authentic Fakes and Gary Laderman’s Sacred Matters are both valuable in this regard. Similarly, Kathryn Lofton characterization of Oprah Winfrey as a “media messiah for a secular age,” provides insights for scholars looking to make similar claims about sports.61

Future studies will do well to dive deeper into the margins of this topic, following the lead of Alpert and others. In addition to extending beyond the white evangelical majority, a fuller understanding of this topic requires examinations of sports that are decidedly out of the spotlight. Also, interdisciplinary studies will help to bridge the gap that separates historical and theoretical approaches. While movement along these lines has started to occur, the proverbial “silo mentality” does tend to keep these conversations oriented in opposite directions.

Primary Sources

A single, published sourcebook for this topic has yet to be compiled. So a collection of historical documents bringing together items such as Thomas Wentworth Higginson noteworthy 1858 article “Saints, and their Bodies” would be valuable for scholarship and teaching. That said, Shirl Hoffman’s 1992 edited volume Sport and Religion has both scholarly articles, as well as significant journalistic contributions to the conversation. From running author Hal Higdon to sportswriter Jack McCallum, readers can trace how popular media outlets have thought through the intersection of religion and sports.62

For more in-depth research, the burden of locating sources lightens when the topic has direct ties to faith and athletics. University of Kansas Libraries, for example, has a collection for James Naismith, the Presbyterian minister and inventor of basketball. Smith College Libraries houses the papers of Senda Berenson, the Jewish immigrant who adapted the game of basketball for women. Wheaton College Archives stores items dealing with the founding and development of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. And the archives of the 92nd Street Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association holds an array of materials related to that organization’s origins and growth.63

In comparison, studies examining the perspectives of ordinary fans and followers require some needle-detecting in the archival haystack. But the effort is worthwhile, since diaries and letters bring to the surface an unfiltered experience of a sporting event that published sources do not capture. For example, the University of North Carolina archives holds the diary of the Presbyterian minister David Craig. In one entry, Craig complains bitterly about the excitement surrounding the 1910 prizefight between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries.64 The archivists at UNC listed this in the collection notes, an act of diligence on their part that makes the researcher’s task more manageable.

Fortunately, digital archives at UNC and elsewhere are designed for accessibility. One prime example is LA84 Foundation archives, which hosts an impressive and free online collection of roughly 100,000 articles, books, and other documents.65 Digitized magazines and newspapers are also useful. The Sports Illustrated website has a section called “The Vault,” with an assortment of articles from their past issues. The Library of Congress’s historic newspapers collection is free, extensive, and highly accessible, covering the years spanning from 1836 to 1922.66 For a modest fee, promises broader access to newspapers across time and throughout the United States. And Google has historic books and news sources that—while sometimes incomplete—brings researchers material that might otherwise be difficult to locate at a traditional library.

Finally, ethnographic research is becoming more common in studies of religion and sports. Michael Zogry’s examination of lacrosse among the Cherokee is a paradigm example of using personal observations and interviews to think through the meanings of athletics. Similarly, Julie Byrne brings an ethnographic perspective into her creative and engaging examination of women’s basketball at Immaculata College.67

Sports and Religion in America (2024)
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