In March 2020 BCE (Before COVID Era), sports fans were gearing up for another college basketball binge, with conference championships underway and the fabled NCAA tournament ready for roll-out. Excitement was building for a new round of heroes and villains, upsets and blowouts, Cinderella stories and human-interest pieces, all carefully curated into an ever-expanding multimedia and multi-sensory experience. As this annual ritual approached, the liturgical nature of it all seemed more obvious than ever before. I began reflecting on sports rituals and possible lessons for the Church.
Then came COVID. Within days the unthinkable happened. March Madness was canceled and sports leagues shuttered. My musings on the liturgy of sport seemed irrelevant. Almost a year later, as we approach March 2021 CE (COVID Era), the NCAA has “worked tirelessly to reimagine a tournament structure,” and recently announced that they “will stage the entire 2021 men’s basketball championship in Indiana, with the majority of the tournament’s 67 games taking place in Indianapolis.” Perhaps modeled loosely after the NBA Bubble that was used to finish the 2020 season, “the NCAA is partnering with a local health provider to administer COVID-19 testing within the controlled environment for players, coaching staffs, administrators and officials.”
Other sports leagues made similar decisions during the pandemic and found ways to return to play under new protocols. Though altered, sports have survived and still retain much of their liturgical nature. The massive effort and resources expended to get sports up and running again during the pandemic reinforces just how central sports continue to be in American life. Sports offer a window into how human beings come to adore something and form lasting habits of devotion and commitment, which has significant application for the Church. There is much to learn from the cultus of sport, as the sports sphere overflows with rhythm, ritual, rigor, and reception in a way that only can be called religious. Similarly, the Church must treasure and recover the rhythm, ritual, rigor, and reception that has sustained the great historical expressions of Christian faith and practice throughout the ages.
Sport as a Cultural Liturgy
Even in the COVID era, sports continue to serve as a cultural liturgy. As James K.A. Smith explains in Desiring the Kingdom, “liturgies are rituals of ultimate concern: rituals that are formative for identity, that inculcate particular visions of the good life, and do so in a way that means to trump other ritual formations” (86). Central to Smith’s argument is that humans are not fundamentally “thinking things,” but “embodied agents of desire or love” (47). As such, even if we think or believe all the correct things, we are still constantly being formed by habits, desires, and stories that may run counter to what we say we believe. Smith adds, “if we are inattentive to the formative role of practices…we will fail to recognize that they are forming in us habits and desires…such that we become certain kinds of people without even being aware of it” (85).
Smith analyzes three main cultural experiences: “the mall, the stadium, and the university,” and endeavors “to unveil the liturgical shape of their practices” (93). I’d like to expand upon Smith’s stadium analysis, and apply it more broadly to the whole athletic world. Sports provide a vivid glimpse into the human psyche and how habits of devotion and adoration are formed. The habituating forces of art, music, story, and celebrity that accompany sports speak to us through desire—what we want, or perhaps even more so what we want to be.
The Messages Sent by Modern Sports: Consumerism, Competition, Entertainment
Though many of the massive sports stadiums at college campuses and in major cities across the United States that Smith referenced in Desiring the Kingdom sat largely empty in 2020, their imposing presence still tells us a great deal about what ranks highest in the American pantheon. Sports certainly do offer many positive life lessons, but they also generate a trinity of consumerism, competition, and entertainment that inspires powerful cultural rituals with all the elements of an organized religion. This three-part blend taps into human nature’s lower instincts in a very visceral way. Consumerism feeds the greed, competition fuels the pride, and entertainment furnishes unending distractions.
Sports are big business, evidenced by the fact that in nearly all of the fifty states, a college coach is the highest paid public employee. Consumerism finds full expression in the endless products marketed to fans; from fantasy sports and online gambling, to team branded hooded sweatshirts, baby onesies, and unmentionable undergarments. But the business of sports starts much earlier than the college and professional ranks and is more pervasive than just donning the garb of your alma mater. As a multi-sport athlete in high school, and a current high school coach, one of the biggest changes I’ve noticed in recent years is the rapid rise of travel sports at the elementary, middle, and high school level. An increasing number of parents pay exorbitant fees for their children to participate in elite travel sports leagues. As Sean Gregory explains in TIME magazine, Kids’ Sports have “turned pro.” Now a $20 billion industry, Kids’ Sports are “larger than the business of professional baseball and approximately the same size as the National Football League,” writes Derek Thompson in The Atlantic.
There is something very different about these travel sports in comparison to the old local sports leagues that were centered in a community, creating bonds of friendship around competition and shared goals. Thompson explains that due to the exorbitant costs of travel sports, a “two-track story emerges [where] among richer families, youth sports participation is actually rising [while] among the poorest households, it’s trending down.” Additionally, travel sports pull the best players from wider areas and then market these individuals to college coaches at “showcase” tournaments. No longer is that child playing for the team, or community, or something bigger than themselves. Now they are attempting to sell themselves to college coaches in hopes of a scholarship. As sports increasingly become yet another way to express oneself through consumer choices, this only further awakens the narcissistic beast hidden within each one of us.
Sports also provide another mythic avenue towards the American Dream. In a society that treats as gospel the rags to riches story and the self-made American hero, sports become another platform for the bootstrapping competition paradigm to play out. Self-aggrandizement through athletic prowess and fitness accomplishments are normalized and a mindset of winning at all costs can drive athletes towards fitness obsession, harmful decisions, or dangerous substances. The healthy drive for competition veers towards becoming all-consuming and destructive.
Furthermore, sports are a massive entertainment enterprise, evidenced by the proliferation of countless sports channels, radio stations, websites, blogs, and podcasts with more daily sports entertainment available than hours in the day. The growing blend of theater and sport seen in the ubiquitous touchdown celebrations, and athletes’ signature camera poses are further evidence of sport as entertainment. The dramatic pre-game introductions complete with costumed mascots, costumed-less females and expensive fireworks increase the entertainment pizzazz. While entertainment and relaxation are necessary components of the human experience, this never-ending sports drama prevents many people from ever using their leisure time for serious reflection or grander pursuits of real worth.
Despite the dangers of sports intensifying the human tendencies towards greed, pride and distraction, sports also can teach us much about how devotion and commitment develop in human beings. For one, sports offer a seasonal rhythm to life. Secondly, sports tap into the ritual power of liturgy.
The Rhythm of Seasons and Calendars
Sports observe and abide by a stringent calendar. Continuing the NCAA basketball theme, as March rolls around each year, everyone knows what’s coming, and it’s not Easter. The forces of culture roll out all of the same music, rituals and routines, and yet again the people participate with excitement and intensity. I have never heard anyone say, “Oh man, I can’t believe we have to do that again this year.” The same is true for any other annual sporting event from the Kentucky Derby, to the Masters, to the Super Bowl. Each year, the same events and calendars inspire people to elevated levels of commitment and sacrifice.
The Church has a similar calendar to tap into; it’s called the Church Year and the lectionary. This calendar orients Christians to the sacred time of the eternal kingdom and helps break the bonds that tether one to the consuming secular or sporting calendar. The Church Year follows the rhythm of Christ’s birth, ministry, death, and Resurrection and can structure the life of those in Christ. The lectionary also provides the appropriate Biblical texts and topics that correlate with that rhythm, which ties everything together—even complete with accompanying colors, symbols and songs. This lectionary also ensures that ministers preach the whole counsel of God, not just their favorite topics. If the sports world enacts a yearly drama that keeps fans engaged, why should it be any different in the Church with its most compelling, redemptive story of all?
The Ritual Power of Liturgy
Sports are filled with liturgical actions and rituals. Watch any sporting event from beginning to end, in-person or on-screen, and there is clearly a liturgy, or ordered structure to the event that is filled with rite and ceremony. It is part of what makes sporting events meaningful, memorable, and participatory. Take for example, the pre-COVID pre-game rituals of any major college football game. Each team parades onto the field with their mascot and team flags with countless fans cheering. The American flag is paraded to a central location, and all rise for the national anthem. Team captains meet in the middle of the field for a coin toss with easily identified uniformed referees. As the kickoff is launched, 100,000 strong, all dressed in the same color chant the same words over and over again – meaningless ritual you say? Ask the fans; they’d say otherwise. As Smith says, “this constitutes a liturgy because it is a material ritual of ultimate concern: through a multisensory display, the ritual both powerfully and subtly moves us, and in so doing implants within us a certain reverence and awe” (106).
The Church can also tap into such liturgical and ritual power. Let’s apply this pregame routine to the Church. For one, the Church should display and parade what holds redemptive value; Christ on the Cross and the Holy Gospel processed and followed by the ordained minister who is easily recognized because he dons a uniform; a clerical collar covered by vestments. Instead, in many churches, the only thing paraded through the aisles is a tray filled with money. Not a cross, a Bible, or heaven forbid the elements of Holy Communion. Cash. What does this communicate?
While the invocation at sporting events is the national anthem, the Church invokes the Trinitarian name into whom all Christians are baptized. The congregants respond and participate in such excitement by saying God’s own words back to him responsively in word and song. If sport culture uses rites and ceremonies to strengthen bonds through participation, experience and repetition, why should it be any different in the Church where each Sunday God delivers his good gifts of forgiveness and salvation?
In Part 2, I will explore further lessons for the Church in how sports require an initiation of sorts, and how sports have a history and are proud of it.
Joshua Pauling teaches high school history, and was educated at Messiah College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Winthrop University. In addition to Modern Reformation, Josh has written for Areo Magazine, Front Porch Republic, Mere Orthodoxy, Public Discourse, Quillette Magazine, Salvo Magazine, and The Imaginative Conservative. He is also head elder at All Saints Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Charlotte, North Carolina.