Sports as religion


Throughout history many people have regarded sports as a religious ritual. Harold Kushner writes that in some Aztec writings, football was not only a game but part of a religious ceremony. The game’s outcome is divinely pre-determined, so the losing team would be sacrificed to the gods. Today, fans of losing teams also want to do the same, to ease the former’s frustrations and anger.

Notice how, in the current FIFA World Cup, football fans regard their journey to Russia as a pilgrimage. In every game, they passionately and devoutly sing their anthems and hymns, scream their cheers and slogans, utter their prayers, display their banners like battle standards in a holy war, and smear themselves with body paints like fanatic crusaders who believe that God is on their side. Also, observe how football fans watch the World Cup games on television for hours, like devotees in deep meditation.

To a lesser degree, this is also true with enthusiasts of other sports like boxing, tennis, golf, basketball, volleyball, and other high-paying spectator sports that command millions of die-hard and hysterical followers.

In many ways, sports has become a substitute for our diminishing religious sensibility. While authentic religion lifts us up from the slime to the sublime, sports elevates the trivial to the monumental, giving us the illusion of greatness as we bask in the glory that is not ours. As it seems, the basic religious creed in sports is this: “The first will be first and the last will be last.” Especially where national pride is at stake, the public accords the winner popularity and acclaim, while the loser reaps only ridicule and humiliation.

In ancient Greece, the result of a game was intimately connected with the athlete’s fate or destiny and this happened according to the will of the gods. There was no way for human beings to know this beforehand, but they could consult the oracle who would predict the result for them.

Today there are no more divinely inspired oracles who forecast the results of games. Instead, in China there is the so-called “psychic” cat that became world-famous for correctly predicting the outcomes of six World Cup football games. In Japan, an octopus named Rubio also correctly predicted the outcome of Japan’s three World Cup matches before it was turned into a sashimi. Earlier, in 2010, Octopus Paul became a world-wide sensation for correctly predicting eight 2010 World Cup games from his aquarium in Germany.

There was a time when we looked at life as permeated with religious imageries and meanings. We considered ourselves as participants in a cosmic story of creation, sin, and redemption. That bigger story gave a transcendent meaning to our experience of life and death, struggle and achievement, victory and failure, love and betrayal. Our icons of devotion were the saints, the martyrs, and heroes.

Today, as this larger story fades in our memory, thanks to the onslaught of secularism and commercialism, we have somehow lost that sense of transcendence. Our role models are no longer the saints, but celebrities in the entertainment industry, in sports, business and politics.

When we starve our soul of that bigger story that makes us believe in lasting values and unexpected blessings, we desperately scavenge for the short-lived triumphs of athletes and the make-believe heroics of superheroes and celebrities.