Christianity, Race, and Sport
- ISBN: 9780429316326
- Published By: Taylor & Francis Group
- Published: May 2021
For decades, the question “can sport be considered a religion?” has dominated US scholarship on sport and religion. Seeking to enliven the field with new possibilities, Jeff Scholes’ previous work (with Raphael Sassower) adopted a framework through which to explore the intersection of sport and religion that highlights both sport and religion as ineluctably cultural productions. Scholes’ present volume Christianity, Race, & Sport serves as an example of that framework in action, combining Katherine Lofton’s insights about the organizing capacity of religion with David Leonard’s articulation of whiteness as central to the commodification of professional sports. The result is an analysis that finds a source of political theology in the anti-Black racialization and exploitation of Black athletes by white owners and fans.
While there are substantial but distinct bodies of literature on sport and Christianity, sport and race, and Christianity and race, Scholes book brings these three literatures together to inform his project. The resulting book includes chapters that range from Black athlete activism in the Civil Rights era to the contemporary activism of Colin Kaepernick. Theoretically, Scholes’ project also takes aim at racializing strategies past and present. With this approach he both looks at Christianity as it occurs in sports while also adopting a critical approach to Christian terms like “sanctification” and “sin” as an analytic frame. This double movement serves as a way for Scholes to highlight the way that Christianity often operates normatively in sports as a white racial frame. At the same time, it also allows Scholes to show how some articulations of Christianity—along with concepts like “prophet”—challenge such white-framing.
The book opens with two chapters outlining the whitewashing of athletes and activists such as Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and George Foreman by interrogating their “sanctification” and “domestication” by and for the white imagination. The following two chapters focus on gridiron football and feature a comparative approach analyzing white and Black religious expression and reception in the National Football League, and the universalizing whiteness of NCAA coach Dabo Swinney’s colorblind hamartiology. The final two chapters look at two contemporary Black athlete icons: Serena Williams in the white world of tennis and Colin Kaepernick, whom Scholes situates in the Black prophetic tradition articulated by Cornel West.
While other scholars have documented the disproportionate role of Christian identification in elite sport, Scholes’ work suggests that Christianity also plays a significant role in the political economy of sport in the U.S. Extrapolating from this insight, it becomes necessary to consider the roles that Christianity plays in producing sports fandoms as intimate and affective publics necessary for the socially reproductive—and exploitative—capacity of sports.
Collectively, these chapters offer a thoughtful and accessible introduction to the role of Christianity in the creation of racial differentiation and the maintenance of white supremacy in sporting spaces. Scholes' work also offers a starting point for further critical reflection on the intertwined relationship of Christianity, race, and sport in the US (and beyond). Notably, the focal characters in Scholes’ book are legible within a Black/white binary racial structure. Using Scholes’ ideas about race as an organizing strategy within the field of athletics, future work could look at how “Christianity, race, and sport” are re-articulated for athletes of color like Jeremy Lin or Roberto Clemente. Additional critical lenses like LatCrit (Latina and Latino Critical Legal Theory) could productively expand the work started by Scholes, and perhaps even productively reorient the analytical priorities set by the Christianity/sport/race triad. New work could also build on Scholes chapter on Serena Williams to consider the ways that gender is also central to racializing logics and hierarchies. How do WNBA stars Maya Moore and Layshia Clarendon offer insights into the ways that some athletes use Christianity to challenge dominant racial and gender hierarchies in pursuit of social justice?
At its best, Scholes’ book encourages readers to look at the sport/Christianity nexus as a site of political contestation. His premise that Christianity and race operate as organizing principles in contemporary sport culture is one that generates further questions for critical consideration, class discussion, and hopefully future scholarship: How is Christianity leveraged to support or challenge the racial capitalist logic of contemporary athletics? What role do Black theologies (e.g., womanist, liberation, or prosperity gospel) play in the articulation of sport as a site of political contestation? How does studying sporting spaces illuminate the ongoing relationship between Christianity, race, and settler colonial empire?
Due to the case-study approach to the subject matter, accessibility of the writing, and relative name recognition of the figures examined, this book would make an excellent addition to syllabi in courses covering topics as varied as Christianity and popular culture, religion and sport, and sport and race. Instructors will find Scholes’ book suitable for both undergraduate and graduate classrooms, especially when paired with primary readings from the thinkers that Scholes' draws upon, such as W. E. B. DuBois. And, while Christianity, Race, and Sport is obviously situated within religious studies, scholars in sport sociology, physical cultural studies, and sport history will find it a productive example of sport scholarship that takes seriously the political valences of religion as both hegemonic and (though to a lesser extent in this volume) counter-hegemonic.
Zachary T. Smith is an assistant teaching professor in the School of Behavioral Sciences and Education at Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg.Zachary T. SmithDate Of Review:October 12, 2022