Understanding Sport As a Religious Phenomenon

An Introduction

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Eric Bain-Selbo, D. Gregory Sapp
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , September
     184 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


We have all heard someone metaphorically claiming that “sport is my religion,” but maybe there is more to the saying than one first realizes. According to Eric Bain-Selbo and D. Gregory Sapp, sport is—or at least functions as—a religion. Bain-Selbo and Sapp do not claim that “sport is a religion in the same way that Hinduism is a religion,” but rather that “the human drives and needs that compel some to be a part of a particular religion are the same drives and needs that compel some to be a part of sport in some way” (1–2). This claim is not new, and readers familiar with the writings of Michael Novak, Charles Prebish, and Shirl J. Hoffman will recognize many of the arguments presented in the book.

By utilizing Ninian Smart’s Dimensions of the Sacred (University of California Press, 1999), Bain-Selbo and Sapp claim that the seven dimensions identified by Smart in religion can also apply to sport, thus claiming that sport is inherently religious. Uncritically adopting Smart’s definition, they argue that (1) the ritual or practical dimension; (2) the doctrinal or philosophical dimension; (3) the mythic or narrative dimension; (4) the experiential or emotional dimension; (5) the ethical or legal dimension; (6) the organizational or social dimension; and (7) the material or artistic dimension are all, to some extent, present in sport. That sport is a highly ritualized phenomenon is obvious, so making a case for the first dimension is elementary. More interesting, however, is the experiential or emotional dimension, which the authors correlate with the mystical phenomenon of “runner’s high,” and which could very well be understood as a spiritual religious experience.

Nevertheless, there are considerable flaws when it comes to Bain-Selbo and Sapp’s adaptation of several other dimensions. For example, the doctrinal or philosophical dimension is, according to the authors, made manifest in sport through “coaching philosophy.” What separates “coaching philosophy” from “strategy” is not made clear and it seems that the use of the word philosophy is the only relevant connection to Smart’s typology. Also problematic are the examples of the mythic or narrative dimension. As Bain-Selbo and Sapp show, myths do prevail in sport, whether they concern Babe Ruth or the Brazilian soccer team, but to claim that they bear the same meaning to people as religious myths about the origin and future of humanity is carrying things to an excess, in my opinion. A more comprehensive critique, which is often brought forward when it comes to using functional definitions of religion, is that many, if not all, of the dimensions attended to in Understanding Sport as a Religious Phenomenon can be identified in almost any social institution, whether it is sport, school/academia, or family.

The remaining chapters discuss a number of different perspectives on religion as well as sport. The reader will become familiarized with psychological, philosophical, sociological, theological, and ethical aspects of both religion and sport, being introduced to seminal researchers such as Mircea Eliade, Émile Durkheim, Victor Turner, Max Weber, Harry Edwards, and Johan Huizinga. Even though this is a textbook written for courses at the undergraduate level, it is remarkable that none of the extensive criticism toward a majority of the aforementioned scholars is brought forward. Ironically, one particular critique of Eliade comes to mind, namely that of feminist theologian Carol P. Christ. She claims that Eliade’s theories are deeply androcentric. The latter is also true of the accounts given by Bain-Selbo and Sapp, which present sport as an essentially male enterprise. The book, which provides quite a number of names, mentions one female athlete, the Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci.

The aim of the book is clearly to incite debate, which is evident from the fact that every chapter commences with a number of questions for discussion. But the one-sided narratives in the chapters serve as a weak basis for nuanced discussion. If, however, the book is supplemented with other readings proffering different arguments, it should serve quite well for classroom discussions. As it is, the only differing standpoint introduced by the authors is that of Robert J. Higgs and Michael C. Braswell, presented in their book An Unholy Alliance (Mercer University Press, 2004), which Bain-Selbo and Sapp declare unacademic in its approach. The latter might be true, but by presenting Higgs and Braswell as the only adversaries of their own standpoint, Bain-Selbo and Sapp claim that their conclusion is the only one that is academically valid. An introductory textbook must be more nuanced.

The authors might be correct in asserting that sport, in many aspects, functions in the same way as institutionalized religion. Claiming that both sport and religion are instrumental in creating identity, that they both have rules, and that they both have mythical heroes does not, however, mean that the metaphorical claim “sport is my religion” must be taken literally.

About the Reviewer(s): 

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

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Eric Bain-Selbo is Department Head and Professor of Philosophy and Religion, Western Kentucky University, USA.

D. Gregory Sapp is Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Stetson University.



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