UW News

January 25, 2007

Super Bowl: Sports or religion?

“I believe in the church of baseball.” So says Annie Savoy, a character in the 1988 movie Bull Durham. Bull Durham is a comedy, so we don’t have to take Annie seriously, but this year the UW’s Comparative Religion Department is turning a scholarly eye on the interaction between religion and sports with a lecture series, “Pilgrimage, Ritual and Piety in American Life.”

“We had been doing work on religion and violence for five years, so we decided it was time to move on,” said Jim Wellman, the chair of comparative religion. “And one of our professors had a friend who was doing interesting work on religion and sports.”

That friend is Joseph Price, professor and chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Whittier College, who will kick off the series with Goal to Go: Religion and the Super Bowl. His talk will be in 220 Kane on Jan. 31, just four days before the actual Super Bowl.

“I’ve always been a sports fan. It’s been a constant part of my life,” Price said. “But I’m also the son and grandson of a minister, so religion and sports have competed and merged throughout my life.”

Price’s initial interest in the faith of athletes has expanded in recent years to include the study of the religious character of rituals in sporting events and the spiritual significance of fans’ devotion to sports teams. He is the editor of a collection of essays, From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion.

The Super Bowl, Price said, is a kind of religious pilgrimage for many Americans. Alone among the major sports, the championship is decided in a single day with a single game — and the time and place of that game are known far in advance. Thus the game becomes a central event for which the devotee can prepare.

And many fans prepare in a manner not unlike followers of primitive religions by, for example, painting their faces or wearing masks “in order to establish full identity with their teams or the teams’ mascot,” Price said.

The game itself is full of rituals too, some varying from year to year. Price described a pre-game show that included a reverent look at heroes of earlier generations, as well as a portrayal of current stars as “demigods” who “possess the talent necessary for perfecting the game as an art.”

But does Price really believe in sports as a religion?

“Religions,” he said, “try to shape a person’s world view. So sports becomes a religion to the degree that it shapes the fan’s world view.”

The second lecture in the series is Baseball: An American Religion? by Christopher H. Evans, the Sallie Knowles Crozer professor of church history at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. Evans’ research interests are in American history and religion. He is the author of The Religion of 50 Million: Baseball, Religion and American Culture, a book that shows how baseball is a civil religion that reveals much about the American character. That lecture will be on March 28 in 220 Kane.

The series concludes with a panel discussion on May 9 in 120 Kane. Titled Religion in Sports: Tensions and Opportunities, the panel includes UW men’s basketball coach Lorenzo Romar, head football coach Tyrone Willingham and former UW athletes. Wellman will moderate.

All three programs are from 7:30 to 9 p.m. The lecture series is being supported by The Founders Annual Lecture on Comparative Religion and Contemporary Life with generous assistance from the Alumni Association. Series passes are $25, $20 for Alumni Association members and $10 for students. Individual lecture tickets are $10, $8 for Alumni Association members and $5 for students. They are available from the UW Alumni Association, 206-543-0540, http://www.uwalum.com