Pro Sports as Substitute Religion

If you want a papal endorsement of sports in right proportion, look no further than Pope St. John Paul II.

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Man was made to worship. It's in his DNA, so to speak, to reach out toward and even to surrender to a Higher Power. The object of his worship will either be the one true God, or any of the myriad of false substitutes like pornography or alcohol (or other drugs) or even human esteem.

One example of a substitute religion is the world of professional sports. Don’t get me wrong. I am a certified sports fan. I grew up playing hockey in Nova Scotia competitive hockey (hating the Habs, and loving the Blackhawks), golfing with my dad, and I still love a robust game of racquetball. So I appreciate the prowess and hard work it takes to become an A-list athlete (which I am most assuredly not). Sports team membership is also an important rite of passage for many young people.

I'm talking about the broader structure of how professional sports are presented to the public, and how the sports business is conducted. It bears a close resemblance to civic religion, complete with the marks of secular liturgy. 

  1. You have the opening processional hymn known as the national anthem.
  2. There are moments of reverential silence in which thousands bow their heads.
  3. Sometimes there is the recitation of the Creed known as the Pledge of Allegiance.
  4. The religion has holy cards or icons in the form of baseball cards, so fans can be inspired to imitate the virility of the athletes, much the same as the faithful are inspired to imitate the virtues of the saints. 
  5. Instead of vocational directors, the religion has talent scouts.
  6. The big liturgical event that goes down once a year—known variously as the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Masters, the Stanley Cup, Wimbledon and the World Cup—is the primordial clash on the field in which the fans in the stands vicariously participate in the battle between good (our team) and evil (their team).
  7. And what is the name of the heaven where the best athletes go? The Hall of Fame, or course, a tiny imitation of eternity.

Not surprisingly, today’s professional athletes are unquestionably celebrities, which is why we call them stars. What’s a star? Biblically, it’s a being of the heavens. The Latin root of the word celebrity is celebritas meaning famous, or thronged, which connotes something of a solemn rite.

Deep in our race, there is some inchoate to find the sacred in the profane.

Following the Big Game, with players as clergy, the laity are called to go out (ite, missa est) to bring the spirit of sportsmanship and excellence into the world.

Again, Christians have good reason to love the sporting life and the lessons it teaches. St. Paul employed athletically themed metaphors like running and boxing to communicate the gospel (2 Timothy 4). Historically, the popes have been avid sports fans, and have communicated this to the universal Church.

The problem enters in when something inherently good is abused, when a relative good—subordinated to the good of spending time with family and with God in worship—is made an end in itself.

“Honey, kids, I want to say one last thing before I die…I wish I had watched more ESPN.” —Said by no man on his deathbed, ever.

If you want a full recent papal endorsement of sports in right proportion, look no further than that mountain climbing, slalom skiing, hiking-prone Polish saint who became Pope.

Remember him?