Digital Creative Post: Photo Essay on Popular North American Sports and Religion
Fandom of organized professional sports can give many individuals the same experience of community, contentment, impermanence, non-violence, non-attachment and mindfulness as a “classified” religion. Football, hockey, and baseball are only a few of the sports viewed by diehard fans as an alternate or secondary form of religion. While a commitment to a sports team offers many rewards similar to religion, a dangerous cult-like mentality can also emerge when emotions run high.
AMERICAN FOOTBALL AS A RELIGION
Individuals do not need to attend a church every Sunday to connect with a higher power — they can do that through the Sunday game of American football. Many plays occur during football which seem almost impossible to make, but they are made; some say a higher power is allowing and or helping these plays to occur. For example, the Hail Mary pass, named after the Catholic prayer, is a very long forward pass in American football, made in desperation with only a small chance of success. When the Quarterback throws a Hail Mary, he is turning the ball over to God when all else has failed.
American football can be viewed as a religion because it brings people together, and can create a meaningful belief system for which its followers feel the same spiritual connection as a “classic” religion. In football, there is constant practice and rituals, with direct schedule followed that is similar to organized religion Fans of American football— regardless if they follow the sport ‘religiously’ or casually — have weekly Sunday games that can be compared to attending church.
In any religion, there are special days that the entire following pays attention too due to their significance, such as Christmas for Christians.
Every year, the Superbowl, the championship game in the National Football League,
brings together millions of followers to celebrate that day and the event occurring. Thanksgiving, which was created to give thanks and blessing for the harvest and to ask for another plentiful harvest the following year, is another one of these days. Thanksgiving is not necessarily religious, though it does have cultural and religious traditions, but in the United States of America, football and thanksgiving have become a tradition.
American football can be interpreted as part of Christianity because many teams and individual players pray and follow Christian moves before the game, during the game (for both injuries, and touchdowns, or when the team needs an act of God to help save the game) however football is not only a Christian game. Football is its own religion. Football brings together not just the fans but the players and coaching staff on the team as well. This is because it is more than just the end score; football is a religion because it is about the game as a whole, not one moment in time. For example it is not about the score or winning the game, it is about the relationship with those on the field, the ones you love, knowing that you didn’t let them down because you gave the game your best, no matter the end score you did your best and everything you could.
HOCKEY AS A RELIGION
Hockey night in Canada (HNIC) can also be characterized as its own religion. According to Joseph Price, sports exhibit many of the characteristics of established religious traditions that exercise power for shaping and engaging the world for millions of devoted fans across America, constituting a form of popular religion (Price). Many Canadians grew up with Hockey Night in Canada and it has become a key part in what it means to be Canadian. Recognizing this, the CBC decided to broadcast their games in Punjab.
This was done primarily for two reasons
- The influx of East Asian immigrants coming to Canada and
2) A hope of assimilating them into Canadian culture through sport.
Many families will raise their children with the ritual of watching a hockey game together on Saturday night. It is rooted in tradition which has been passed down from generations. There is a hermeneutical element where HNIC gives meaning to life. A social element- the attending, gathering, wearing a jersey, all are displays of collective activity which has an effect on our brain. Fans gather together at a bar or an arena in jerseys waiting to cheer on their team. Their speech is nuanced that only fellow fans will understand. Watching the game is their church. Donald Cherry playing the role of pulpit giving his fire and brimstone speech on hockey after the first period. There was no other cultural form, no other popular practise that brought “two solitudes” [Anglophone and francophone Canada] into regular engagement with each other in quite the same way.
Moreover, although millions of immigrants from other European countries had brought their own popular recreations with them when they moved to Canada, it wasn’t long before their children and grandchildren were watching and playing hockey (35). Sports are prone to quasi religious because it takes so much time, energy and mental strength so the athletes (and fans) need a “higher” power to help guide them through rough times. There are themes of identity and social cohesion which mirror religion. There is a lot of dedication and repetition involved; people develop a routine: set schedule, devoting x amount of hours. People also become affiliated with players and teams that they build a connection with them, so its almost like a religious experience because there are ups and downs, joys and triumphs, and “suffering” when they lose. Many fans also consider the most talented players as more superior to humans or super-naturally talented, like Carey Price of the Montreal Canadians being known as “Jesus Price,” directly linking him to a God-like figure.
Some fans also believe that in rare occasions, the only sound explanation for an unbelievable play or last-second thrill of a dramatic and high-intensity game is divine intervention. The co-modification of in hockey as a brand began when Rogers bought the rights to distribute the NHL in Canada. Due to the show’s popularity, Rogers decided to keep HNIC on the air
BUT IS THIS A GOOD THING?
Not all of the religious behaviour seen in sports is positive. Paralleling the cult-like, particular system of worship that entire groups of die-hard fans follow, is the treatment of Chicago Cubs fan Steve Bartman overt the last 12 years. In the eighth inning of Game 6 of the NCLS in 2003, a group of fans — Bartman included — reached for a foul ball, potentially disrupting the left fielder Moises Alou from making the out. Alou was furious and inspired the same attitude from fans.
A summary of ESPN’s documentary Catch Fire recounts how “the TV cameras focused on the isolated fan, frozen in his seat and staring straight ahead as if in a trance,” and after the missed play, the Floria Marlins went on to score eight runs before they were eliminated with a Game 7 loss the next day (ESPN staff, para. 2).
After the incident, Bartman had to be escorted from the stadium in disguise and placed under police protection for days. His name and picture were released to the public, and he has remained the scapegoat for Cubs’ playoff loss for over a decade. The Cubs have still not won a pennant since.
As recently as this October, the Onion, a satirical website, called for Bartman’s death, claiming that the only thing that could bring a Cubs’ World Series title win would be “a dagger, clutched in the hand of a true Cubs fan, plunged directly into [Bartman’s] heart” (The Onion, para. 1). This article proves that Bartman remains the figure head for the Cub’s bad luck since the incident.
Would Alou have caught the foul ball without Bartman’s interference? Why were the other fans not given the same treatment as Bartman? Bartman’s treatment by fellow die-hard Cubs fans proves that large masses directing their passionate energy toward one victim could be dangerous or ruin lives.
To conclude, Fandom to any professional sporting team can become its own religion thanks to a set schedule, shared emotions by large groups of people, and the idolization of players. In North America, this religious attitude tends to grow mostly around football, hockey, and baseball, but can lead to negativity and danger if deeply committed fans have the same destructive attitude.
ESPN Staff. ESPN Films: “Catching Hell.” Summary of “Catching Hell.” 30 for 30. Director Alex Gibney. 2011. Web. http://espn.go.com/espn/espnfilms/story/_/page/catchinghell/catching-hell.
Gruneau, Richard S., and David Whitson. Hockey Night in Canada: Sport, Identities, and Cultural Politics. Toronto: Garamond Press, 1993.
The Onion Staff. “Steve Bartman: ‘You Must Kill Me To Break The Cubs’ Curse.’” The Onion 52.42 (2015). Web. http://www.theonion.com/article/steve-bartman-you-must-kill-me-break-cubs-curse-51655.