by Joanne Sanders
Office for Religious Life
I arrived at Stanford University and the Office for Religious Life ten years ago, a freshly ordained Episcopal priest and recent Divinity School graduate. Embarking on a new path and embracing, at the supposedly enlightened age of 40, a life transforming response to heed a relentless nudge toward a religious vocation – I came – apprehensive and eager. Now what?
It was an honest and resonant question. Before I was ordained an Episcopal priest, I spent almost 10 years in the collegiate coaching ranks. I taught tennis professionally for a collective 20 years. Prior to completing a Master of Divinity degree, I earned a Master of Science in Sports Administration. I competed as a collegiate student athlete and was extremely fortunate to contribute to the effort of winning a national championship. All that to only illuminate that sports and athletics has played a uniquely foundational role in my life personally and professionally.
To be sure, I revere sports. I am known to suggest on occasion that sports are religion. My office colleagues endure athletic metaphors regularly. A collegial game of croquet on the lawn near Memorial Church has rendered me unable to forego that as a challenge, met with the focus and strategy of a former athlete and coach. Though there have been many others, two of the most unique, if not profound opportunities I’ve had in my clergy role at Stanford have been to bless a new fleet of sailboats and offer some perspective and solace following the incomprehensible tragedies of September 11, 2001 during halftime at a football game in Stanford stadium.
Equally so, I am justifiably reluctant about sports too, for which I hope to enumerate and articulate reasons for both in this and future contributions to the Home of Champions endeavor regarding robust and diverse discourse regarding the transforming characteristics and consequential challenges inherent within intercollegiate athletics and sports as a whole.
As Associate Dean for Religious Life at Stanford, I am engaged with a university office whose distinctive function is to guide, nurture and enhance spiritual, religious and ethical life within the Stanford University community.
The Office for Religious Life is collectively committed and devoted to ensuring lively, thoughtful and supportive contexts for Stanford students, faculty and staff who wish to pursue spiritual interests. To that end, it recognizes that a spiritual/religious journey can be an important, balancing complement to the numerous challenges one faces in the pursuit of academic and career goals. Its’ primary objective as an office is to collaborate as a multi-faith team, work with all constituents of a dynamic university and promote enriching dialogue, meaningful ritual, and enduring friendships among people of all religious and spiritual backgrounds.
Among the number of responsibilities in my role at Stanford as an associate dean for religious life has been one that complements my previous background in athletics and contributes to the notion that as I often declare, creates opportunities for me to be a different kind of coach these days. Needless to say, when it comes to any discourse about sports, I am both passionate and perplexed, reverent and reluctant.
In The Gospel According to ESPN, Enough to Make a Man Believe, countercultural journalist the late Hunter S. Thompson was asked:
Are sports a religion in America?
Is it an organized religion?
No. It does not appear to be organized – but if it were, we would all be members of a very powerful church.
In the 1999 film The Cup, young Buddhist monks in training sneak out of their monastery to watch World Cup soccer. They are willing to risk expulsion from their religious order because they’ve found a more compelling object of devotion in Ronaldo and the Brazilian soccer team. The Cup treats the tension between sports and religion as lighthearted and reconcilable. Contrast this with Bull Durham, in which the narrator, Annie Savoy begins the film: “I’ve tried ‘em all. I really have. And the only church that truly feeds my soul day in and day out is the church of baseball.”
Some ask, myself included: Are sports a substitute for religion, or perhaps a separate “religion” with its own set of rules and beliefs? Sociologists draw striking parallels between sports and religion as millions of worshipers congregate each week to bear witness to the manifestations of their faith in churches and stadiums across the land. Scholars call the national pride and local heroes that emerge from athletic contests a form of civic or folk religion. And, there’s no question that communities segregated by race, class and religion rally around their team and their sports stars.
For example, do you think the extraordinary swimmer Michael Phelps has attained that kind of status in the U.S? Ironically, during the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, the NY Times described his regimen of eat, sleep, swim as a window into a “monastic life,” one in which fast food, fast friends and family are sacrificed for fast times.
I have a confession to make. Live and in the flesh, I saw Michael Phelps take a shower (with his swimsuit on to clarify – along with a number of people, cameras in hand, at the Stanford campus Aquatic Center where the U.S. Olympic Swim team trained prior to competition in Beijing in 2008). And like so many others I got weary and bleary eyed thanks to the late night broadcasts of the Olympic Games on NBC that summer.
Truth be told, I vacillate between ambitious and ambivalent when it comes to sports. It is a reality that conjures up images of both light and darkness for me in its own inimitable way. And no matter how jaded we might get over Olympic or any other sports obsession, sports doping, cost, hype, the ridiculous and redemptive quality of it all – there are plenty, plenty of people who stay up late watching the Olympic Games, even the most marginal of sports fans. There is something very compelling and worthy still – about the Olympic games, not to mention sports in general.
I’ve learned for example, that the word fan derives from the word fanaticus, meaning inspired by a deity, frenzied. As it turns out, fanaticus comes from the Latin word for temple, fanum.
Author and philosopher Michael Novak’s own fandom inspired him to write The Joy of Sports, a source I have found very intriguing and helpful, as well as inspiring. Novak asks what made him cheer for the Dodgers? Why did he care whether they won or lost? He equated sports with a “natural religion” that re-creates symbols of cosmic struggle, in which human survival and moral courage are not assured. To this extent, they are not mere games, diversions, and pastimes. Their power to exhilarate or depress is far greater than that. Novak says a game is a symbol…to lose symbolizes death and it certainly feels like dying; but it is not death. He finds the same effect in religious rituals such as baptism and communion in which “the communicants experience death, symbolically, and are reborn, symbolically.”
Historian of American religion Catherine Albanese points out that play and ritual are satisfying for their own sake for each is an activity in which people may engage because of the pleasure it gives in itself. In this regard, she compares sports and religion: “Sports and deliberate religious rituals, through their performances, create an other world of meaning, complete with its own rules and boundaries, dangers and successes. In other words, both sports and religious rituals establish a sense of order by creating a world. Were we born to play?
Two summers ago I offered a sermon series in Stanford Memorial Church called Religion and Popular Culture. I suggested then that the reason for such a focus was actually about renewal.
Needless to say, as much as I am an adherent and admire sports and its virtues, I am equally concerned that the overt and obvious commercialization of sport has turned play into work. ‘The little city with few people in it” according to the wisdom of the Book of Ecclesiastes could be appropriated perhaps with the direct correlation between spectatorship and passivity. Some actually argue that less sports activity corresponds to smaller amounts of civic activity. In other words, we’ve become a society of isolated watchers content to stand on the sidelines. We spend less time in conversation over meals, we exchange visits less often, we engage less often in leisure activities that encourage social interaction, we
spend more time watching and less time doing. Has sports contributed to this more passive culture or can it somehow rescue us from it? It’s been suggested that the instrumental and utilitarian impulses of Western culture have separated us from the restorative power of play. Students on this campus and many others are more driven, stressed out and overscheduled each year. After a draining workday, most are too tired to play anything.
So where does this leave us? My objective, in the interest of renewal is to help us take a deep collective breath and step back. To not allow us to linger in despairing critique and dismiss the world of sport altogether, though the evidence continues to mount. Let’s be honest – there is excess and failing in every aspect of human life. This is the human condition and religious institutions know this just as well as Major League Baseball, the Olympic Games, or the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Nevertheless, at the heart of ball games, matches and riveting Olympic competition and races that energize our culture is an essential human need for play. Play, Sabbath rest, our bodies are meant to be sources of joy. Virtues before vice. They give us a reason to lighten up, and celebrate for the sake of our humanity.
Michael Novak’s The Joy of Sports is also a confessional of sorts. He was encountering mid-life thoughts about setting his love for sports aside for more mature pursuits. Novak writes: “Play, not work, is the end of life. To participate in the rites of play is to dwell in the Kingdom of Ends. To participate in work, career, and the making of history is to labor in the Kingdom of Means. The modern age, the age of history, nourishes illusions. In a Protestant culture, as in Marxist cultures, work is serious, important, and adult. Its essential insignificance is overlooked. Work, of course, must be done. But we should be wise enough to distinguish necessity from reality. Play is reality. Work is diversion and escape.” In the end, Michael Novak concluded that a reverence for play was part of the goal of growing up.
Perhaps with an eye toward reverence and growth, whether you are a sport enthusiast or sport agnostic, the Olympic games, World Champion San Francisco Giants baseball – who wouldn’t want to cheer for a group of self-proclaimed misfits that clearly modeled teamwork sans superstar and actually seemed to enjoy it – still might provide a broadening kind of diversion in our understanding of the sacredness of play as not only good for the body but also good for the soul.
In 2002, I had the great privilege to serve as one of 35 multifaith chaplains based in the Olympic Village on the University of Utah campus for the Salt Lake Winter Games.
During the Games, I paid a visit to the Athletes in Antiquity Exhibit at the University of Utah Library. The exhibit, on loan from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, reminded me that the athletic contests of the original 776 B.C.
Olympic games were founded at a sanctuary dedicated to Zeus and were just one element in a religious festival. I noted that the reality of the observations from those Greek and Roman athletes of antiquity made relevant their understanding of the connection between body and spirit. That sport, competition and play for that matter, was a form of religious practice itself. And while I’m quite certain there does exist a high degree of skepticism about that perspective today, I happen to believe that is still a relevant observation.
Even in 1896, when the ancient games were first revived and held in Athens, Greece, Basil L. Gildersleeve, a professor of Greek and Latin who made it to Athens to see the end of the Games, recalled his own skepticism about the enterprise, which ultimately gave way to enthusiasm. Gildersleeve had been convinced that the sacredness associated with the original Olympics would elude the modern games. After all, the original games had in part constituted an offering to the gods. He feared that the 1896 Olympics would end up as a mere athletic contest.
“We must not forget” Gildersleeve recalled, “what it all means.” “We must not forget the great altar that dominates Olympia. We must not forget that there were priests and prophets among the victors. The festival was sacred to the supreme god. The year was a sacred year; the poems that celebrated the victories were sacred poems…the athlete served God with his body.” Was this a bit closer to the idea of running the race and receiving the prize of everlasting life that Corinthians reflects?
Gildersleeve mused further by asking: “Is there anything left of the old spirit, or can anything of the old spirit be evoked? Will the new Olympic Games be anything more than athletic sports?”
For that matter will sports ever be more than a game turned into a commodity, where decisions are dictated by statistics and no one remembers why they once started playing?
There may be something about this reverence for play – which I suggest is a part of all of us and what it means to be human – that will chasten even the worst cynics who have been closed to the enormity and enthusiasm of sport, not only in our American life, but also around the world. It may seem naïve or unrealistic, but I wouldn’t want us to give up on it just yet.
The great but short-lived baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti wrote:
“All play aspires to the conditions of what the ancient Persians called pairidaeza – paradise. It is the condition of freedom that paradise signals – and that play or sport – however hedged in by the world – wishes to mirror. Games, contests, sports reiterate the purpose of freedom every time they are enacted, the purpose being to show how to be free and to be complete and connected, unimpeded and integrated, all at once.
That is the role of leisure,” Giamatti continued, “and if leisure were a god, rather than Aristotle’s version of the highest human state, sport would be a constant reminder – not a faded remnant – of that transcendent or sacred being. As our forebears did, we remind ourselves through sport of what, here on earth, is our noblest hope. Through sport, we re-create our daily portion of freedom, in public.”
From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion; Joseph L. Price, editor; Mercer University Press, 2001.
A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture; Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor; Baker Academic, 2003.
The Joy of Sports, Michael Novak; Madison Books, 1994, rev. edition.
The New York Times; In Pool or Out, Olympic Star Stands Apart; August 16, 2008.
The Spirit of Play; The Rev. Joanne Sanders; sermon preached in 2004, Stanford Memorial Church.
*Religion on Steroids: One Nation Under Sports; The Rev. Joanne Sanders; sermon preached in 2008, Stanford Memorial Church.
*(The congregation was treated to a lovely rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” by our gracious organist, Dr. Robert Huw Morgan)