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During basketball season, I attended a Rutgers University men’s basketball game. Perhaps now that Rutgers is a member of the Big 10 conference, bombastic openings are de rigueur. The reverberating bass, the flashing video, the indoor fireworks (for a game against bottom-dwelling Michigan, no less). As the spectacle reached its conclusion, the announcer summed up for us just what all the garish extravaganza was about: “Family!  Religion!  Rutgers Basketball!”

Yes, he actually said that.

I had no idea then, nor do I now, what the common thread was supposed to be, unless perhaps a cousin was a chaplain for the RU men’s squad.

Yet it’s as clear a confirmation as I’ve heard that, in the lives of countless fans, sport functions as a religion.

Take the now-concluded three-season run of Ted Lasso. The American coach takes the helm of a (British) football (soccer) team, Richmond AFC, that is mired in mediocrity. His first and most foundational act is to craft a blue-on-yellow sign with the word “BELIEVE,” and tape it to the wall. Belief: there’s something religionists have said a thing or two about for centuries. A few seasons in, after an insecure kit man (something like an equipment manager) tears up the sign, Ted tells explains the meaning behind the sign:

“Belief doesn’t just happen because you hang something up on a wall. All right? It comes from in here (heart). You know? And up here (brain). Down here (gut). Only problem is we all got so much junk floating through us, a lot of times we end up getting in our own way. You know, crap like envy, or fear, shame. I don’t want to mess around with that shit anymore. You know what I mean. Do you?…You know what I wanna mess around with? The belief that I matter… regardless of what I do or don’t achieve. Or the belief that we all deserve to be loved, whether we’ve been hurt or maybe we’ve hurt somebody else. Or what about the belief of hope? Yeah? That’s what I want to mess with. Believing that things can get better. That I can get better. That we will get better. Oh man. To believe in yourself. To believe in one another. Man, that’s fundamental to being alive. And look, if you can do that, if each of you can truly do that, can’t nobody rip that apart.”

“Heart, brain, and gut,” sound like the “sure knowledge and wholehearted trust” of Heidelberg 21’s definition of true faith. “So much junk floating through us….” feels like a prayer of confession. “I matter . . . regardless of what I do or don’t achieve”—that’s more than vaguely religious. “Believing that things can get better”—there’s some kind of eschatology hiding in there. “That I can get better” is a testimony of transformation. I could, were I so inclined, attach scriptural proof-texts to nearly every one of Lasso’s statements.

New York Mets fans may have felt that Lasso’s “Believe” was lifted from Tug McGraw’s
famous motto of the 1973 season, when “Ya gotta believe signs” sprouted at Shea Stadium like April tulips in the Netherlands. But believing—in your team, in yourself, in who-knows-what, was hardly original with McGraw. Every player has heard it, and every coach has said it: “Ya gotta believe in yourselves, girls, you can do it!”

Sport and belief go hand in hand. There is something at play here more than just self-confidence: Believe in your family, believe in your religion, believe in Rutgers basketball!

Sport asks for at least as deep a visible commitment as religion. A faithful Muslim will pray five times a day. A faithful soccer player will spend two hours a day dribbling and shooting, as will a basketball player (different dribbling and shooting, for you sports ball fans). My peers and I went to Catechism on Wednesday night and Sunday School and church on Sunday morning; my children had two full-on practices a week and at least one game, sometimes two, each weekend. In a low-competition rec league. (Not club teams.) Even low-performing high school cross country teams will log 60-70 miles a week. Surely, eventually, all that time gets below the skin, and the athlete’s identity is formed by their sport(s) of choice.

Corollary to the commitments of the performers, think of the sheer number of volunteer hours that (mostly) moms and dads offer to the sport. The meetings, the practices, the games—it surely must total more than the average amount of time a Sunday School teacher gives to lesson preparation. And the relationship between athletes and their coaches are similar to how my peers and I felt about our Sunday School teachers. Sport can inhabit a youngster’s life the way obligatory religious practice does.  

Sport not only promises rewards; it delivers them quickly. From a coach’s approbation to a whack on the butt (which doesn’t happen too much anymore) to participation certificates or trophies, the kids don’t leave the court or field without something to boost their self-esteem. Of course, religion offers some sort of reward, too, but its rewards are so much more delayed (eternal life, for instance) or intangible (the feeling you get after helping someone out). Sure, sport offers long-term rewards for the truly dedicated, but you don’t have to give 10,000 hours before you get your first lollipop.

As a parish pastor, if I’ve heard “I brought my kids to church because it helped teach them some morals” once, I’ve heard it, well, more times than I can count. Judeo-Christian religion is expected to pound good values into the little one’s heads: the (Big) 10 Commandments, the Golden Rule, the love God and love of neighbor. How exactly the church can impart a moral code in a couple hours a week has always stretched my imagination, but, given the time children spend in sports, it’s no surprise that their ethics arise from their time in competition. Better to play fair and lose than cheat and win. Respect your teammates. Fight like heck during the game, but shake hands when it’s over. Stick to your position. Sport builds character.

Sport has its own form of ritualized blessing as well. If you have ever witnessed the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games, you have watched one of the most highly ritualistic performances on the planet. The oaths the athletes and officials take, the raising of the flag, the processional parade of nations, the lighting of the torch—it’s all ritual. One might argue that such things occur only at the pinnacle of the sporting world, but the sense of cultus trickles down. PeeWee baseball games start with the National Anthem and “play ball,” and end with mutual hand-slapping. Every level between PeeWee and the Olympics displays some sort of quasi-religious ritual that is meant to communicate to the athletes that they are part of something bigger than themselves, something good, something healthy. The rituals bless the play.

It is obvious, given the multibillion dollar industry of sport merchandise and memorabilia, that sport evokes a level of loyalty that outstrips the devotion of a typical religious believer. Such loyalties are passed down from generation to generation, uncritically, in a way that Christianity in North America is no longer effectively communicated. “We’re a Packers family” carries more weight than “We’re Christians” to myriad cheese-heads. You know the stories of people being buried in team uniforms, of dates going south when a Yankees fan finds out her beau is a Red Sox fan, of poor animals being made to dress up in Lakers gear. Religious differences? We can work those out. Sports rivalries? Be gone!

Sport eats the re + ligio part of religion (etymologically, religion is supposed to be like ligaments that tie bones together) for lunch. Walk down the street wearing a Colorado Rockies cap, and spot another Rocky fan . . . well, the two of you have at some level become one. You identify with the team, and, now, with that stranger. Your hearts beat on the same wavelength, baseball-wise-speaking. If I meet a Vikings fan of a certain age, we will both know without doubt that Drew Pearson pushed off of Nate Wright with 32 seconds left in the NFC playoffs in 1975. We might not know anything else about one another, but that incident binds us, heart and soul.

Oh, and I almost forgot the singing in European football stadiums. You have never heard a congregation sing with the gusto of the crowd at a match between lowly Luton and, well, anyone. (Luton looks headed for relegation this year.)

In many ways, sport functions as a religion. It occupies peoples’ lives the way religion does – and, for millions, more deeply, more fervently, more “transformationally.”

It is worth contemplating, then, whether sport operates as an obstacle to the practice of religion, as a parallel to religion, or an outcome of religion.

Think of it this way (following A.A. van Ruler very roughly, and highly speculatively). If sport offers to its participants integrated systems of meaning, ethics, reward, esteem, ritual, devotion, and humanization, could it, in at least a shadow way, be an instrument of the Holy Spirit? The Spirit works not only to save individuals, and not only within the boundaries of the church, but also in widening circles of public life: people-society-state-law-reason-custom-art-science-philosophy.” Perhaps we can wedge “sport” between custom and art. (That sport may fall short of promising or delivering transcendence demarcates it from religion, for whom second-order “above-ness” is its stock in trade.)

If one is able to construe sport as within the broad aegis of the kingdom of God, then it belongs within the public concerns of the church, not beyond them, and it ought not be viewed with disdain or as a lesser form of human endeavor. To the contrary, sport could rightly be seen as one of many appropriate recipients of the church’s task of proclamation.

This does not mean that the church ought to start forming ever-expanding “Christian” leagues in everything from cornhole to gymnastics. Instead, it means the first instinct of the church ought to be finding what there is to bless in sport. For example, churches could host breakfasts for volunteer coaches at the beginning of their seasons, thanking them for their participation and encouraging them to seek the higher aims of sport, rather than win-at-all-costs competition. It could mean nurturing youngsters not only to be vessels of God who act Christianly in their sporting activity, but to be instruments of God, incorporating their physical exertions within their self-understanding as followers of Christ. In other words, the church could encourage young people to see sport as vocation. In such a context, sport is not mere recreation; it is reframed as a form of gratitude to the God who made bodies in such a way as to kick and paddle and shoot and toss.

One of the closing speeches in Ted Lasso takes place when a group of team owners gather to discuss whether to form a super league. Such a strategic move would almost certainly relegate Richmond AFC to the “minor leagues.” During the meeting, Rebecca (the owner of Richmond AFC) makes a moving speech, which includes this story:

“You all used to love this game. I’m sure of it. I know this little boy—working class—from Richmond. He loved football so much he used to sneak into the matches because his family just couldn’t afford the tickets. Then one afternoon he finally got caught and the security guard smacked him ‘round the face. Knocked him on the ground. But that little boy stood up, smiled, kicked the security guard in the bollocks and ran away, never to return, until 25 years later, when he walked in and bought the entire club. And on his first day as owner, he went and found that same security guard, and gave him a pay rise, without any explanation.”

That little boy, through sport, experienced a form of transformation. Redemption? Perhaps not in the manner in which Christians ordinarily use the term, but I would leave the door open to his journey being some species of lower-case-s “salvation.”

Ultimately, sport opens windows to transcendence. One can hardly watch Usain Bolt run the 100 meters, or Simone Biles do a floor exercises, or Caitlin Clark sink a three-pointer, or witness Jim Redmond supporting his injured son Derek across the finish line without recognizing that God is at work in an extraordinary way.

Perhaps in the end it’s better to simply suggest and embrace and bless the religious in sport than shout it into a microphone the Jersey way.

Paul Janssen

Rev. Paul G. Janssen is the Pastor and Teacher of United Reformed Church in Somerville, New Jersey. A son of Iowa, he has served parishes in Hackensack and Park Ridge, New Jersey. He has been a weekly preacher for nearly 40 years, in addition to writing nearly 100 hymns (words and/or music). He was raised a Minnesota Twins fan, but since moving to New Jersey in 1981 he has rooted (tepidly) for the New York Mets.


  • Diane Dykgraaf says:

    Thanks, Paul. I, too, have seen the ‘church’ view sports as competition to the Sunday morning service. I wonder what it would look like if we saw sports as an extension (or just a different venue) of that worship of the God who made it all.

  • Janice Zuidema says:

    Our granddaughter played on a number of ‘travel soccer teams’ as well as numerous school basketball and soccer teams through her brief 15 years and we know that she played, including many Sundays, as a Christian witness. Her teammates knew her beliefs because she spoke about them, but also lived them. One example: although deeply competetive, she heartily congratulated the opposing team when they won, sometimes shouting it out from the bench before the hand slaps. She pushed teammates to think about their faith, to practice it, and to live it. Her participation brought her sheer joy, but also had a strong missional element to both Christian and non-Christian friends she made along the way. Thank you for pointing out the religious nature of sports and helping me see even more clearly how skipping church didn’t lessen faith but perhaps planted the seeds in so many hearts.

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr says:

    Sports can function like a religion, but it is not a religion, not substantively. There is a long article explaining the similarities and differences by Damian Barnat here:
    He argues that using a more substantive view, they are very different. Many things can function like religion: nationalism, capitalism, humanism, but they are not religions the way Christianity or Islam is a religion. Sports in America (& elsewhere) is more of an idol or secular substitute for religion but it is 100% human not divine.

    • Joyce Looman Kiel says:

      Important balancing point Rowland

    • Paul Janssen says:

      Thank you, Rowland. I’ll check it out – I didn’t mean to imply that religion is ONLY its functions or behaviors, but I did intend to indicate that sport is, if not religion, certainly more than “kid stuff.” Peace to you.

  • Ronald Mulder says:

    I think sports has become our new idolatry. Kids learn early on that the way to be popular is sports, not studying chemistry. When canvassing to invite people to church, the most common rejection to the entreaty is children’s sports. And, it’s said non-apologetically like it’s some sort of trump card. When you do the math 95% of big time sports is spectator–overweight people watching those who need rest. Bring back recreational softball and volleyball leagues.

  • Tom says:

    I played fast-pitch softball at the old CRC Rec Center for about 30 years, a game per week all summer long, but that’s all gone now and my sons do not have the benefit of that experience. I sometimes wonder if our denomination would be a little less divided if we were still playing each other every Wednesday night. Perhaps we would still debate as intensely as we competed, but also be as respectful of each other as we were on the ballfield.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Yes, on Van Ruler and sport, and play, as you’d expect from me. But, now take Barth on Gospel vs. Religion, and the Kingdom of God belonging not to Religion but to Gospel, does the truth of sport as religion ultimately mean bad news? Or at best ambiguous news?