The volume in which Americans consume sports is unprecedented. The 2014 Global Sports Media Consumption Report maintains that 168 million Americans—or roughly 70% of the population—follow sports, devoting approximately eight hours per week to some form of fandom. Moreover, the U.S. Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstract of the U.S.: 2012 reports that Americans spend $76 billion a year on sporting goods, and we spend $10 billion more each year on admissions to athletic events than we do to movie theatres. And this is to say the very least of what could be said regarding the ways in which many American families are fundamentally ordered around children’s sporting events: practices, tryouts, games, and so on. Sports, as it turns out, constitute an essential part of the American way of life; indeed, observed empirically, it is not too much to say that our sports culture is a religious phenomenon.
Perhaps the ultimate example of this religious fanaticism in American sports is the Super Bowl. So argues Joseph L. Price in this brief essay on the place of the High Holy Day of American sports culture. Price holds that the Super Bowl’s quasi-religious function is due to the fact that it is a “devotional festival for the practitioners of American civil religion.” The National Anthem that hallows the field, the stadium flyover by fighter jets, the images of soldiers around the world watching the broadcast, the television commercials, the halftime show, and the football game itself—all this put together “blends several symbol systems” and narratives that form our interrelated desires for country, sports, entertainment, and consumer capitalism.
In this piece for Christianity Today, Shirl James Hoffman extends this basic insight by surveying and calling into question the “cozy coupling” of American evangelicalism and American sports. “Sportianity,” as Hoffman calls it, is a mutated version of Christianity wherein evangelicals overload “play” with too much cultural import, and in so doing simply overlook the multiple ethical dilemmas at the heart of our sports culture. Why, Hoffman wonders, would a community so prone to be scrupulous in other matters of popular entertainment—movies, music, and the like—be so willing to turn a blind eye to phenomena like increased brain trauma in high-contact sports, the de facto glorification of athletes, the notion that competition is an inherent good, the professionalization of childhood sports, and the sheer excess and materialism of big-time sports? Hoffman implores Christians to challenge the prevailing logic of American “sports’ reigning orthodoxies”—not to tinker with sports a mere bit, but to re-imagine sports altogether so that they might be genuinely “well-played.”
Richard J. Mouw, an esteemed theologian and past-president of Fuller Seminary, articulates just how the Christian community could re-imagine sports in our time. In his response to Rabbi Martin Siegel’s article on “getting closer to God through athletics,” Mouw admits that he does not experience any “self-transcendence” when watching his favorite team play football. In fact, he believes that adverse feelings toward the opposing team and a certain lack of awareness of God’s presence may be problematic forms of fandom. Yet he still feels that watching a football game can be “a good way of spending a few hours.” On account of these emotions he aims to situate sports in its proper cultural place—to situate “play” as “play,” and not as an overloaded religious phenomenon. By situating sports in this way Mouw reaches the following conclusion: “We should not hope for too much self-transcendence in a [sports] stadium, but we should not deny the experience when it happens!”
In aggregate, these contributions illuminate that American sports culture is neither morally neutral nor morally straightforward. Rather, in a way that points to deep truths about our late modern cultural climate, the culture of sports is morally ambivalent: the good intermixes with the bad, the bad with the good, creating a culture of acute contradiction wherein the faultless enjoyment of sports is nearly impossible.