Religion and Sports

An Introduction and Case Studies

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Rebecca T. Alpert
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , May
     2015.
     224 pages.
     $28.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780231165716.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Rebecca T. Alpert’s book, Religion and Sports, sets out to provide a textual aid for the teaching of courses on religion and sport. The book is organized topically, beginning with justification for the co-study of sports and religion, followed by case studies divided into four sections. Part one considers sports as religion; part two looks at where sport and religion interact in their respective spheres; part three investigates conflicts between religion and sport; and part four focuses on ethical dilemmas in sport and religious perspectives on them. The book attempts to encourage consideration of the diversity of phenomena that fall outside of the “world religions” paradigm.

Defining a frame of reference for both “sport” and “religion” proves challenging in the introduction. Ninian Smart’s model of conceptualizing religion is utilized by Alpert, as well as family resemblance, in attempting to articulate her chosen categorizations of religion and sport. Religion is understood as interacting and intertwining with politics, economics, and popular culture for the purposes of the book. The model of “sport” Alpert opts to use is “the business of creating spectacle and the opportunity for (paid) spectatorship” (8). These two models provide a satisfactory categorization of religion and sport to work from for an introductory reader. 

The bulk of the book is a collection of case studies and activities. Alpert primarily focuses on Abrahamic faiths, with the majority of examples related to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The range of sports covered within the examples include: American football, track and field, archery, basketball, baseball, judo, soccer, and bullfighting. These examples illustrate present-day issues such as gender equality, racism, cultural appropriation of indigenous groups in logos and mascots, and animal rights, among others. The temporal setting of the case studies ranges from historical, with the boycott of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, to the contemporary example of the 2013 murder charges against Oscar Pistorius. The large-ranging scope presented through the case studies makes the book an appealing read.

 At the end of each case study activities are supplied that are both accessible and engaging for students. This teaching tool is rather versatile as the activities are assorted, and allow for the instructor using the book to pick and choose the case studies and activities that are applicable to course aims. The manner in which the questions and activities are framed encourages the reader to inquire into their cultural understandings and presumptions on religion. However, certain activities are worded in such a way that they could perpetuate prejudice, and caution should be used when administering them, particularly case studies 9 and 10. Those activities which ask a student to question whether practices are orthodox within a faith tradition should be navigated with care, as it is unlikely that students will be equipped to fully understand the diversity within religious groups in order to make such a judgment. It also reifies the idea that faith groups can be understood as monolithic, which marginalizes groups and individuals that fit outside a particular world religions typecast.

Alpert showcases a variety of traditions, beliefs, and sports throughout the book, while challenging the misconception that there is a sole prevailing definition of religion. Throughout the book she cites authors and works that students can refer to as resources. The value of Religion and Sports is due to its popular examples and general accessibility. Alpert provides a practical introductory text for use at the undergraduate level to those without backgrounds in the academic study of religion, sport, and its intersectionality.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Keelin Pringnitz is a PhD stuent at University of Ottawa, specializing in religion, minorities, and sports.

Date of Review: 
May 20, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Rebecca T. Alpert is professor of religion at Temple University. She is the author of Like Bread on the Seder Plate: Jewish Lesbians and the Transformation of Tradition, which won a Lambda Literary Award and Award for Scholarship from the Jewish Women's Caucus of the Association for Women in Psychology; Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball; and Whose Torah? A Concise Guide to Progressive Judaism.

Keywords: 

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