Sports and Religion

Earl Warren, former chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, told readers of Sports Illustrated in a 1968 interview: “I always turn to the sports pages first” because they record “people’s accomplishments; the front page nothing but man’s failures.”

How would Chief Justice Warren read newspapers today?

As we know only too well, sports have now migrated to the proverbial front page. And what is uniquely characteristic of the current problem with sports, both professional and amateur, is how widespread it is, casting its shadow over a multitude of different sporting activities at the same time.

The doping in cycling is so rampant that critics are calling for the Tour de France to be shut down for a few years. The National Hockey League shut itself down a few years ago when player greed locked horns with union intransigence. A steroid cloud hangs over an entire era of Major League baseball, while referee gambling haunts the National Basketball Association, and criminal activity plagues the National Football League.

Olympic athletes now perform in what is called “The Chemical Olympics.”

The saga of a particular NFL quarterback reads like a replay of Genesis. It is as if God had said to him: “I will give you great fame, fortune beyond calculation, widespread adulation, athleticism beyond compare, health, influence, status and position. But there is one thing you must not do, if you do not want to risk losing all my gifts. You must not involve yourself with dog fighting.”

Apparently, living within this restriction proved unacceptable.

The “accomplishments” that once drew people to read the sports pages of newspapers first, now resemble the “chronicle of crimes and follies” that, for Edward Gibbons, characterizes human history. For those who have come to regard sports with religious fervor, these recent developments are most disillusioning.

The ancient Greeks regarded sport as a religious and moral undertaking. For them, sport is a display of beauty and courage, two of mankind’s noblest aspirations.

By witnessing physical grace and coordination, the soul contemplated beauty; by viewing players struggling in competition with each other, the soul beheld courage.

If we are now disillusioned because of the lack of integrity in sports, as we witness how greed and cheating have displaced beauty and courage, then we should direct our religious impulse to its proper object — religion itself. We should shift our attention to what should be on the first page of our life’s road map.

Sport at its best is not religion, but derives its highest values from religion. Consider the following texts: 1) “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one (1 Corinthians 9:24).” 2) “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race, I have kept the faith (2 Timothy 4:07).” 3) “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us (Hebrews 12:01).”

In each case, St. Paul is exhorting Christians to use their physical gifts, literally and metaphorically, for religious aims.

The beauty and the courage that the ancient Greeks witnessed in sport are best exemplified in religion. Catholics can contemplate the beauty of the Mass, as well as the beauty of personal integrity, the courage needed to keep the faith, and the courage to stand against the powerful tide of secular attractions.

The imitators will always prove to be, in the end, disillusioning. But disillusion from what is secondary and inauthentic should only whet our appetite for what is primary and authentic. The scandals that are currently rampant, especially in professional sports, should turn our attention from what is a poor imitation of religion to what is truly religion.

Most sports enthusiasts are spectators. Typically, in an NFL game, 70,000 people in the stands cheer for 11 men on the field.

Religion is not a spectator activity. True religion invites people not merely to admire beauty, courage, self-control, fidelity and perseverance, but to personify them.

In this regard, the world of religion is far more demanding than the world of sports. But if people sink from religion to sports because the former is too demanding, they should remember that there is still plenty of room for further sinking below the level of sports.

It might be a salutary and revolutionary act, in these times, to begin reading the newspaper by turning first to the religion section.

It would be better even, to obtain a newspaper that is nothing but a religion section.

Donald DeMarco is adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.