The whole lot of us, marching down the switchbacks leading from the stadium to street level below, are packed body to body, moving slowly but feeling giddy for all we had just witnessed and felt an intimate part of.
Just minutes before, the San Francisco Giants had beaten the St. Louis Cardinals in their first home game of the National League Championship Series, a heart-stopping 10-inning affair that came to an abrupt end when one of our homeboys laid down a bunt that was followed by the pitcher making a wild throw to first base, allowing the runner who was advancing from second base to race home and end the game. Just like that!
Giants win, 5-4, setting off a near-deafening, delirious roar among the 42,500 fans. And now, we are making our way back to the world outside, and there are chants erupting as we traverse the cavernous walkways: “Let’s go Giiiiiants, let’s go Giiiiiiiiiiiiants.”
Sing-songy, every person with wide boisterous grins, and every one of the chants begun and sustained by young and loud men, carpe dieming like mad, feeling it.
And then it switches:
“YES! YES!! YESSSSSS!!!!”
Rolling like thunder goes the mass of humanity with its full-throated chant. It goes for a good 10 minutes down a slope that no ski run could ever match for its platform of pure joy and satisfaction.
What is it about sports that inspires such near manic, religious fervor, with expressions of mass exaltation exceeding anything that happens in even the most rollicking church? At the end of some sporting matches, thousands pour spontaneously into the streets of the city, there to hug strangers and soar with the spirit of life as if it were the end of a world war.
Modern life, with its sprawling porchless homes, entrances and exits via enclosed garages, and now endless self-amusement staring into the 2” by 4” rectangle of our smartphones, seems to do its diabolical best to disprove John Donne’s assertion that “No man is an island.”
There is really no doubt anymore that sports has many trappings of religion, its devotees consulting the scriptures of its box scores and websites, engaging in endless reflections and speculations in the newspapers, blogs, Facebook groups and sports talk shows, then gathering at the stadium or in front of their televisions and radios for the services. Fans spend big money on tickets but more, in many cases, on the clothes—jackets, jerseys, shirts, hats—that are de rigueur on game day, like a choir carefully donning its robes.
Many of us wear these players’ $100+ jerseys or less costly T-shirts, their names and star power on the back standing in for our own, our identification with them complete. When is the last time you saw clothing with “Pope Francis” or “St. John of the Cross” emblazoned across the back?
Actually, besides the near ubiquitous sports jerseys, one also sees more Einstein and Thoreau T-shirts these days than ones with Jesus’s face, but that may be just a function of my living in northern California, hard to know.
What we do know is that religion has been in decline for at least 500 years for all the reasons we have discussed here before, but that humankind cannot live by rationality, science, and commerce alone. Our need for ecstasy, wonder, awe, ritual and community is as urgent as it ever was, though modern life, with its sprawling porchless homes, entrances and exits via enclosed garages, and now endless self-amusement staring into the 2” by 4” rectangle of our smartphones, seems to do its diabolical best to disprove John Donne’s assertion that “No man is an island.”
Sports, though, is a readily available and inviting substitute for much—though not all, more on that below—that we miss from the decline of religion.
On the social end, we make elaborate plans to go to games with friends and loved ones with whom we eat and imbibe before, during and/or after the event. We gather there with thousands of strangers in common cause, focused in our devotion, bursting with desire to unleash our expressions of worship and communal bliss.
On these scores, it is difficult to make the case that sports do not fill essentially religious functions. All the intense subjective emotional qualities of religion are there, including, most emphatically, giving yourself to a cause larger than you are, transcending your everyday consciousness, and nurturing hope for your team to vanquish the opposition, overcome all obstacles and emerge triumphant, saved, champions of the world and redeemed of all past failings, their names and exploits immortalized on plaques, in books and individual memories and halls of fame.
But there’s another critical aspect of religion that sports is less successful at replicating. For all the communal enthusiasms that sports engenders, it in no way matches the functions and rewards of religious community.
Sure, we don our orange and black and parade down the walkway with beaming compatriots, chanting with glee and devoted to all things “Giants,” but beyond our immediate companions with whom we’ve come to the game, I don’t know anything about these people caught up with me in this rolling mass of humanity. It’s an ad hoc grouping around a particular slice of entertainment life; I’m here today and gone tomorrow with all of them, knowing them not one minute after departure from the gate where the last chant dies away.
I will not gather with them all again tomorrow or next Sunday, not ask after their kids, not hear about their ill spouse or dying brother for whom I will “hold a good thought” in the coming week, not lay out cookies and coffee for them after next Sunday’s game, not meet with them and other parents for a series of circle dinners during which we break bread and drink wine and share intimately of the challenges all of us face raising teenagers.
I will not listen with them, spellbound, when a real choir performs a liturgical chant that plumbs the dark mysterious depths of the human heart rather than the fleeting feel-goods of “Let’s go Giiiiants!”
The paradox (well, just one of the paradoxes) of the religious quest is that however much its roots spring from individual longings and glimmers of transcendence, of the delicious, soul-satisfying oneness to be found in nature, contemplation and solitude, its true flowering happens in community, in relationships where we are but a small part of a larger whole.
And in longing to be part of that whole, it turns out that we’re natural huddlers, just as most creatures are. As much as we might enjoy parties, street and restaurant gatherings, we mostly like to huddle with our familiars, our homeys, those who know and love and accept us as we are.
The intimacy of religious community—of the intention to pursue shared values, with people one commits to not for an afternoon of rooting for the home team but for a lifetime of doing the work of kindness, compassion, service and soul—gives the lie to any notion that sports is a viable, life-affirming substitute for religion. That it serves functions similar to religion in certain contexts seems beyond dispute, but that’s a long way from proclaiming the establishment of The Church of the San Francisco Giants in anything but the most whimsical, tongue-in-cheek manner.
Turns out that just as sports is like life in certain fundamental ways (requiring virtues of teamwork, struggle, self-sacrifice, persistence, tenacity, etc.), sports is also like religion in other ways.
But sports isn’t life—it’s the toy department of life. And sports isn’t religion either. It’s just a fun venue in which to share some of its more superficial rewards.
Talk about ritual—how about singing lustily along with “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in the middle of the 7th? I wouldn’t consider a baseball game complete without it.
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Rotating banner photos top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Photo of AT&T Park entrance at top of page by Corey Seeman, Saline, Michigan, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/cseeman/
Photo of AT&T Park field by Andrew Hidas, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.
Photo of college fans by Chad Cooper, Buffalo, New York, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/chadcooperphotos/
As much modern sports resemble religious devotion, it seems to me it has as much to do with tribalism and wish fulfillment, which are of course in many ways subsets of religion. My village will battle with your village for…..I don’t know….better access to a watering hole for my goats, the National Legue Pennant? We will send our strongest and most cunning warrior to vanquish the similar one your village sends. This method is better than annihilating each other through all out warfare. And, boy don’t I wish I was as strong and cunning as the guy we are sending. I imagine myself in his place. I wear a beaded necklace similar to his to tap into some of that mojo.
I use to love to go to Dodger games. Spent a lot of time in Chavez Ravine as a kid growing up. As an adult I have almost no interest in team sports. I have found my tribe in other endurance athletes. And I much prefer to participate than to watch. But my temperament is solitary and non-competitive. I don’t care much about your village or its watering hole. I can and will run as far as I need to in order to get to a better one. I am uneasy with the feeling of “assimilation” which comes with being part of a sports team community. My religion is every breath I inhale and exhale. It’s in the steps I take.
But I am odd that way. And not above enjoying a ballgame. Which is exactly what I did when I was in Boston last April for a tribal event of a different sort. That my mom had grown up nearby and watched Ted Williams only added to the feeling of connection. Perhaps she had sat in the very seat I was sitting in? Perhaps.
Dennis, good point on tribalism. Anthropologists have written entire libraries on the topic, which in many ways remains the bane of the modern world just as much as it was the ancient world—except now the tribes have more lethal guns and easy air transport! Relative to those, modern sports with their rhubarbs and rivalries are a wonderfully productive sublimation, a tightly controlled and benevolent environment for the excesses of tribalism and testosterone…
Glad you brought up differences between participatory and spectator sports. Those differences are substantial, I think, and they exist on many levels. Shared participation, whether on a team or as running or golfing buddies, generally involves long-term commitment, in settings conducive to relationship building, open-ended and open-air conversation, and just as importantly, elevated heart-rates and blood circulation, with all the benefits those are known to bestow to both body and spirit. I count various runs, hikes and bike rides with my buds over many years as among the more enduring spiritual experiences of my life, and I’m thinking of you, Jay and Kevin, among select and occasional others…
Most interesting comments Dennis and Andrew – I can fully relate – I’ve never been too hard core of a fan – a good friend from college, Ron Cey, became a super successful Dodger in the 70s/80s – went to many games, partied on occasion w/Ron & other ball players – fun stuff, into it – but the moment he was traded to the Cubs I had a Cubs hat and was rooting for them… alas, I was really a Cey fan (my Dodger fan pals from the 19 yrs spent in SoCal think I am a serious traitor of course now rooting for the Giants) – what I find most interesting, along with the competition (which I for one, do like – adds to the drama – the soap opera part of this dance – very different from those glorious runs in the hills, that are spiritual for sure, but not dramatic per se… at any rate, I find myself now not so much relating to the delirious fans chanting you mention Drew, but more enthralled by the back stories and symbolism of players like Travis Ishikawa who went from unemployed on Aug 23rd to enduring hero in Oct… the games we play!
Kevin, the Ron Cey era Dogers are just the ones I’m talking about. I could not name a single player on the team today, but I vividly remember Cey (81 World Series!), Lopes, Garvey, Russell, Dusty Baker (there’s a bit of Giants connection). I recall, perhaps idealistically, that this era seemed to be the last where the players truly seemed “All American” and the taint of drugs was still years in the future. How quaint Reggie Jackson’s bluster seems today. Nobody swaggered on the field with Rip Van Winkle beards, dreadlocks, and gold chains. They seemed like regular guys, only faster and stronger and luckier than us for getting a crack at The Show. I once felt similarly about bike racing, and then Armstrong went from hero to villlain. I have no sports “heroes” now. People I admire for sure. But I have woken up to the smell of too much coffee to ever idolize those who play sports again.
Oh…..maybe Meb’s a hero for sticking it to Nike and winning the Boston Marathon this year. I was lucky enough to run Boston this year so I was there for that. Which is the great thing about running races. I toed the same line that Meb did (more or less…..I was a couple corrals back). How many sports will allow you to be in the same “game” as the elites? I have participated in a couple races with Killian Jornet, arguably the best endurance athlete on the planet. I got to shake his hand and wish him luck at this year’s Hardrock 100 mile race in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, where he went on to a record shattering performance. Running, particularly trail and ultra running, are supremely democratic sports.
Drew…..bike rides and runs and a spiritual connection. Don’t even get me started……..
A married couple living in a small rural town are both professional music educators. They hail from KC (him) and Philly (her). She rarely misses a Phillies game on TV and is now thrilled to root for the Royals because it is her spouse’s team. She shared with me that her neighbors, a geneticist and a librarian, are Baltimore fans and the two couples watched each of the Orioles games together. It strikes me that baseball/sports serve a powerful need for the sense of connectedness and community that transcend differences and life circumstances. In a world of great mobility it can be of some comfort and sense of kinship to see someone in public sporting your favorite team’s hat or t-shirt. I have had wonderful encounters with complete strangers asking about my Detroit Tigers cap. In each case I have come away feeling just a tad more connected to the larger community of humanity. Is it religion? I don’t really know; but I do know that it feels good and it feels right to connect with others in common interest and community.