Sport and Religion in the Twenty-First Century

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Brad Schultz, Mary Lou Sheffer
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , December
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In recent years, the connection between sport and religion has gained great interest among scholars of religion and also, to some extent, within the field of sport studies. It is therefore somewhat surprising to find an anthology with the title Sport and Religion in the Twenty-First Century where a majority of the contributors are scholars of communication and media. In itself, this volume indicates how important the discussion on sport and religion has become in the United States. However, one might ask why a group of media scholars would write a book about it?

One potential answer to this question could be the pivotal role that sport plays in the North American media. As former sports writer for the Washington Post, Alan Goldenbach, shows in his chapter “From Sunday Sermon to Monday Night Football: The Rise of the Use of Prayer in North American Sports,” the television airings with the largest audiences are major sporting events. In 2013, Americans spent thirty-three billion hours watching sports on television. Needless to say, the religious aspects of and influences on the sporting world also affect the media.

Not unexpectedly, it is the media perspectives in the book that are the most intriguing. One such example is Jeffrey B. Kurtz’s discussion of how increased media attention to sport has changed the social position of athletes, and how the general public perceives athletes. However, this is, at-best, a forced connection to religion and religious studies.

An issue that reoccurs in the book—and in research on sport and religion in general—is the question of whether sport can be considered a religion. In the first chapter of the anthology, Mary Lou Sheffer discusses this question at some length, and reaches a conclusion similar to the remaining authors’ line of argument. Applying functional definitions of religion by sociologists and anthropologists such as Émile Durkheim, Clifford Geertz, and John Milton Yinger, Sheffer comes to the conclusion that sport is a religion. She does, however, not mention that there are plenty of other definitions of religion, including more narrow substantive definitions, according to which sport would not qualify as a religion; nor does she mention the fact that almost any human activity could be considered a religion according to many functional definitions. In my opinion, the credibility of the argument would have been higher if either Sheffer or the other authors would have discussed—or at least mentioned—some of the many critics of this narrative. In the words of Tara Magdalinski and Timothy J.L. Chandler, “The relationship between cultural institutions requires a nuanced approach, which explores more than cursory structural comparisons” (With God on Their Side: Sport in the Service of Religion, Routledge, 2002, 1–2).

In fact, the only chapter which problematizes views on sport as a religion is the one written by scholars of religion. In their article on the American South, Eric Bain-Selbo and Terry Shoemaker argue that sport and religion are competitors because “sport functions like religion” (135, my italics). They argue convincingly that sport and religion compete because “both institutions maintain components of masculinity, nationality, traditions, generative histories, and much more” (138). To some degree, according to the authors, the institution of sport is displacing the institution of religion in the construction of a “Southern” cultural identity. As far as the relation between sport and religion is concerned, Bain-Selbo and Shoemaker’s argument is palpably more sophisticated than any of the other authors’.

When it comes to sport and religion, the most obvious example is of course the Olympic Games, with its religious origin. In his chapter “An Olympic Religion: Does the IOC [International Olympic Committee] Still Have Faith in the Olympic Games?,” Anthony J. Moretti skillfully sketches the history of the games in antiquity, and then in modern times. He recapitulates the Olympic ideal of the founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, noting its religious overtones and how these affected the future of the IOC. The article would have gained a lot from including a discussion of Coubertin’s idea of a secular athletic religion (religio athletae) and how he was influenced by Auguste Comte’s idea of a “Religion of Humanity.” Moretti’s article would also be improved by omitting the downright speculative section entitled “What Would Jesus Do If Introduced to the Olympic Idea?” Unfortunately, the latter is indicative of quite large portions of the book which become reminiscent, inspirational, and at times even incoherent, rather than analytical in their approach. Thus, Sport and Religion might not be as suitable for religious studies scholars as it is for people with a general interest in sport, religion, and journalism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Martin Nykvist is a doctoral student in Church History at the Centre for Theology and Religious Studies, Lund University, Sweden.

Date of Review: 
September 9, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brad Schultz is professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi. 

Mary Lou Sheffer is associate professor in the School of Mass Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern Mississippi.



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