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Religion has helped top sports leagues rise – and been in their shadow

Randall Balmer is an Episcopal priest and lifelong sports fan, but none of these facts really explain why he just published a book about sports and religion.

Balmer, a professor of religion at Dartmouth College, published the book because he couldn’t stop thinking about sports radio. Specifically, how much people who call into sports broadcasts care about their teams.

“I discovered sports radio in the early 1990s and I was flabbergasted that there was such passion driving these discussions and debates,” he told me last week. “I could not believe it.”

Listening to the proceedings, Balmer would recall the claim that sport is a religion. Although he still doesn’t believe it’s true, the call shows have convinced him that people today bring the same level of passion to sports fandom that they once brought to religious faith.

“The way I said it in the book is that real devotion migrated from the sanctuary to the stadium,” Balmer said.

This change came as religious organizations in the United States were going through a crisis in attendance and membership. The Pew Research Center recently reported that if current rates of religious abandonment of Christianity continue, America will no longer be a majority Christian nation by 2070.

Despite his religious title, Balmer resisted the temptation to shoot his new book, “Passion Plays: How Religion Has Shaped Sports in North Americain a sermon on how sports fandom will never be as spiritually nurturing as spiritual practice. Instead, he viewed it as an opportunity to reflect on how the role of religion in the sporting landscape has evolved over time.

“I wanted to tell stories and also derive a larger meaning from those stories,” he said.

“Passion Plays” notes that in the 19th and early 20th century, when now-major sports like baseball and football were just getting started, religious leaders were among the games’ most ardent defenders – and among their most vocal opponents. hard.

While some pastors founded church leagues and preached about the value of teamwork, others gave sermons about the evils of playing games on the Sabbath or rooting themselves in violence.

The religious community’s mixed feelings about sports can be seen in the life of James Naismith, the inventor of basketball. When he joined a football team while studying to be a pastor – this was before his famous invention – some of his classmates started praying for the state of his soul.

“There was a kind of lingering Puritan aversion to frivolity in American Protestantism at this time,” Balmer told me.

But Naismith himself, who became a chaplain and basketball coach for the University of Kansas, saw no tension between taking sports and religion seriously.

“Apparently he was good at football. He could be violent and do it with a smile,” Balmer said.

Eventually, religious leaders like Naismith prevailed, and religious groups generally stopped discouraging interest or participation in sports. Today, faith-based schools like BYU and Baylor offer some of the best athletic programs in the country.

As Balmer noted, he doesn’t consider it his job to decide whether this is a good thing or not. It simply points to the trend to help explain how professional sports leagues have become so popular.

“(Sports) is where the real passion is headed in American society these days, especially among white men,” he said.

Rather than filling their calendars with church meetings and Bible studies, families fill them with sporting events. They ask new acquaintances what team they are rooting for instead of where they go to church.

In other words, as participation in religious organization has declined, sports have come to fill the void in the form of religion in many people’s lives, Balmer said.

“There is a basic human need for connection and community. There was a time when many Americans found that in church or synagogue or mosque. Now I think we are looking for it in our sporting allegiances,” he said.

Although it’s been a long time since he first encountered sports radio, Balmer is still surprised at times by the power of fandom’s pull. He’ll light up an NFL game and, before he knows it, he’ll be feeling swept up in the action, body and soul.

“I still kind of feel connected to other fans when I watch it on TV, even though I watch it alone most of the time,” he said.