Spirituality, Sport, and Doping

More Than Just a Game

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Tracy J. Trothen
SpringerBeliefs in Religious Studies
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , October
     100 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


There is sometimes an evil spirit in sport—as when “a being thwarts, reduces and/or starves another being in its activities,” according to H. Richard Niebuhr. Considering the violence that regularly occurs when a charging baserunner deliberately runs into the firmly planted catcher receiving the throw, and bolls him over, if not knocks him out completely. The situation is the same for a football quarterback knocked to the ground, albeit the charging lineman is risking penalties, fines, and/or retaliation. There is the dominant norm of “win at any cost, ”the end justifying the means—even compromising safety.

Though there is an extraordinarily high status that sports has for its participants, and even their supporting cast; while temporary, this might entail a celebratory adulation, extra money via sponsorships, and empirical signs of “success” via lots of discretionary money. Thus, the Globe and Mail sports journalist Cathal Kelly speaks of the once high-ranked tennis player, Eugenie Bouchard, now living “in the lowest rung of hell for a working athlete—famous for once being famous” (July 3, 2019). On the other hand, there are legacies of grace, such as the late Humboldt Junior Hockey player Logan Boulet’s donor donation, which exemplified such grace; or, when clean athletes are elevated in the medal standings, albeit belatedly and due to the falls from grace of cheaters, and alas, their support staff or government.  

Tracy Trothen’s latest book, Spirituality, Sport, and Doping: More Than Just a Game, identifies and unpacks what it is about sports that continually invites us to probe deep, think widely, and challenge the above temptations to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Relentless in this pursuit and use of multiple and interdisciplinary strategies in her detailed research and resultant reflections, this terse work qualifies as both practical theology as well as ethics. Risking repetitiousness—and the benefits via Winning the Race?: Religion, Hope, and Reshaping the Sport Enhancement Debate (Mercer University Press, 2015)—this volume excels with its preface and closing chapter (“Spirituality: Implications for Sport Enhancement Ethics”). Additionally, each chapter’s instructive abstracts also includes bibliographies, and helpfully-annotated, cross-referenced footnotes, and then she integrates the academic—with thanks to her participation in the American Academy of Religion’s “Sports and Religion” unit—as well as ecclesial and personal athletic involvement credentials. Oh, would that there had been an index for such a book’s compact offerings! 

Noteworthy is the attention this book affords to a Humboldt, Saskatchewan [Canada] Junior Hockey play-off tragedy, when more-than-half of a  bus loaded with players, coaches, and support staff were killed in a t-bone crash with a rookie truck driver on April 6, 2018. This event had and still does, galvanize a country searching for its soul—for sports is more than a game. 

The preface evokes a broad discussion, with crisp depictions of the book’s subtitle terms—spirituality, sport, and doping. Trothen’s fundamental view of sports’ spirituality is one of sacred dimension. Herein, the discovery of the sacred “can be expressed in the hope experienced in sport” (vi). Trothen unpacks the virtue of hope and, as a discipline, the dedication it invites (11-19, 67, 83; cf. Winning the Race’s chapter 6, “Hope in the Secular Religion of Sport,” along with some twenty-five index references and many more pages to the theme!) Flagging the pervasive presence of hope inspires, renews, nourishes, and sustains inevitable failure, defeat, and even despair in sports—whether individual or in a team format. Broadly, Trothen proffers that “[w]hen the locations of hope in sport are examined, the core sacred attributes … sacred qualities … of transcendence, ultimacy, boundlessness, interconnectedness, and spiritual emotions emerge as aspects of hope in sport” (9, 11). She concretizes what Sojourners’ chief editor has recently noted as “the critical importance of perseverance and hope in the face of failure” (Jim Wallis, Sojourners, June 2019). She especially draws from the research of Kenneth I. Pargament, and numerous studies on “the qualities that facilitate perceptions of the sacred” (vi), and its implications. Two chapters present comprehensive, nuanced—and given mixed motives—discussions of enhancement, with focused depictions of its emotional, physical, affective and spiritual, cognitive, and moral aspects. 

These themes are all transferable to life’s multiple dimensions—family, vocation, enduring sports’ involvements, nature, music, and kinship—to religion or organized spiritualties. These themes attest to the sacred dimensions of life’s meaning. Trothen boldly takes on the aspiration to and of perfection, not merely a striving for excellence, and not only a “desire for fulfillment” (16). Thus, employing perfection “[tries] to capture those sports moments that elicit strong feelings of riveted awe and amazement, leaving one with bated breath, and even a sense of suspended time or boundlessness.” As a nod to realism, Trothen adds, “[t]hese perfect moments must occur within the muddiness and sometimes ineptitude of raw human effort and amazing human abilities if they are to generate the awe of which I write” (16). Here, and elsewhere, there is due attention to sin, as Trothen notes a “corruption of the sacred” (85), or “distortions that twist sport” (v), including the lures of “big money” (86). To affect a measure of balance, evidence of sanctification in sports is affirmed—as towards spiritual maturity, wisdom, and wider responsibilities (68). 

The concluding pages note the ethical nature, if not dilemma, of what may occur in the prolonged build-up—usually mass media-driven hype and then crowd-induced hysteria—in a championship play-off series, and all that conjoins and congeals in the process. Canadians have recently experienced this on the road to the 2019 National Basketball Association play-off series and, lo, the exciting final victory of the Toronto Raptors over the Golden State Warriors. Some of us worried about the dire consequences, had the team and its steadily ravenous fans’ surreal support not won—might it have been another fostering of a breakdown of social etiquette, as had occurred in Vancouver, British Columbia when the Canucks lost the final game of the 2011 National Hockey League play-off series, and a riot broke out along with a senseless fire and looting? In the concluding section—“Real People, Real Sport, Real Spirituality: Some Last Thoughts”—Trothen heralds towards more research. Indeed, she commends, that sports is more than a game, but at least a business as suddenly traded players often experience, that “[a]s we consider a range of actual and potential performance enhancers, we need to be mindful of this focus on winning that can reduce the athlete to a tool instead of a whole, multi-faceted person” (29, 87). One bids that there be a follow-up to Spirituality, Sport, and Doping to complete a welcomed trilogy. 


About the Reviewer(s): 

Barry K. Morris is an Independent Scholar. 

Date of Review: 
September 18, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Tracy J. Trothen is a Professor of Ethics at Queen’s University (Schools of Religion and Rehabilitation Therapy). Trothen’s research interests include sport, spirituality, and human enhancement. The author of numerous publications including Winning the Race? Religion, Hope, and Reshaping the Sport Enhancement Debate, Trothen set.


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