The New Church on Sundays

In Passion Plays: How Religion Shaped Sports in North America, professor Randall Balmer illuminates America's newest "religion"—the world of competitive sports.

Forty years ago, Randall Balmer would listen intently as his graduate school mentor waxed poetic about athletics. "He used to talk about the symbolism behind each sport," says Balmer, the John Phillips Chair in Religion, about his mentor, the late Colonial historian and former Princeton history professor John Murrin.

It got Balmer, a fellow sports fan, to thinking: Not only were there notable cultural and historical influences within organized sports, but there were significant religious connections, too. What if he used his mentor's observations as a jumping-off point to delve deeper into the origins and development of competitive sports?

His resulting book, Passion Plays: How Religion Shaped Sports in North America, examines the cultural and religious histories of four popular sports in America—baseball, basketball, football, and ice hockey. Throughout the book, Balmer offers surprising and thought-provoking reflections, even for the most well-versed sports fan.

A prize-winning religious historian and Emmy Award nominee, Balmer has published more than a dozen books and written widely for both scholarly journals and mainstream publications, including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, the Nation, and The New Republic. He regularly appears on network television and NPR, and has also been a guest on The Colbert Report and The Daily Show. 

Here, Balmer shares some key insights from his latest book.

What inspired you to write this book?
It began during my graduate days as a doctoral student at Princeton. Even though my degree was in religion, my real mentor was John Murrin, who was a Colonial historian. He was extraordinarily encyclopedic in his knowledge of his field, but he was also a sports fan. And he used to talk about the symbolism behind each sport. 

For example, John talked about baseball being the quintessential immigrant game, noting that immigrants have always excelled at it. In the 19th century it would be immigrants from Europe. More recently it's immigrants from the Caribbean, particularly from the Dominican Republic, and now more and more from Asia. He pointed out that baseball is the only game where the defense controls the ball, and it's the object of the offensive player—the batter—to disrupt the defense's control of the ball. He's outnumbered nine to one in that effort. If he fails seven times out of 10, he'll probably go to the Hall of Fame—that's how difficult it is. 

John talked about how that was a kind of metaphor for the immigrant experience: You come to a new place; you're facing a hostile terrain with only three islands of safety out there in that alien land; and, of course, the greatest triumph is to return home. It was observations like that that got me thinking about this book. I've just been mulling it over for the last 40 years.

That observation about baseball is also representative of how sports and history are inherently intertwined. In your book you demonstrate how religion plays a critical part in the evolution and practice of team sports, as well.  
It's part of the development of each of these sports. For example, as Catholics began playing ice hockey—it began with the Irish Catholics in schools in Canada, and then the Francophone Canadians—penalty boxes were introduced. Before that time, penalties were assessed somewhat like parking tickets: The referee would issue a ticket or summons and it would be a small "fine" or minor penalty. But coincident with Catholics playing the game in large numbers, the penalty box was introduced. It combines both the Protestant and Catholic notions of sin and repentance. Players call it the "sin bin." This is where the player goes to do his penance for having violated the rules, right? But it also replicates the Puritan notion of shame, where the Puritan would be put in stocks in the village square and be looked upon in a public way for having violated the social norms.

Along the same lines, when I started to listen to sports radio, I was fascinated that there would be a kind of ritual incantation when a caller would call in. In the early years of sports radio, one of the lines was, "First time, long time," meaning this was a first-time caller, long-time listener. That was the ritual incantation. And then the host would offer some sort of greeting, and the caller would essentially do his confession, which was to outline his thoughts on the game or players. He's looking for the approval or affirmation of the host, and the host—or the priest—either grants it or he doesn't. The caller then feels vindicated in some way. It seemed to me that it was similar to the confessional.

Some sports were even created by religious figures, weren't they?
The inventor of basketball was a Presbyterian seminary student and a teacher at the YMCA in Springfield, Mass. There was a whole movement in the 19th century called Muscular Christianity, which emanated from Britain. It was developed out of concern that men were becoming weak, in part because of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of offices and sedentary office jobs. There was this emphasis on having a virile, muscular faith, with the idea that it would promote virtuous character.

Speaking of muscular, let's talk about football for a minute. Football is the most popular sport in the United States, with 37% of Americans citing it as their favorite sport to watch in a 2018 Gallup poll. To attain that status, you argue that football had to overcome the "three Rs."
The first R is region, because it was primarily a Northeastern game. The second R is race. I talk about the integration of football and how that comes about, which is a fascinating story. The third R is religion. With the emergence of Catholic schools—Boston College, Fordham, particularly the University of Notre Dame—the great satisfaction for those schools is to be able to beat the Protestants at their own game. That's why football becomes so important at a place like Notre Dame, because these are Catholic kids who are, in effect, claiming their place in American society by beating the Protestants at their own game.

One of your primary observations in the book is that competitive sports seem to have become America's new "religion." What led you to this idea?
It seems to me this is where real passion has migrated, this is where the real devotion is directed. It's not to organized religion. It's sports.

I try to argue that the appeal is really for certain white males. Part of the reason that some white males gravitate to sports is because of their perception that the larger world is unfair or stacked against them in some way. I want to emphasize that this is a perception, not necessarily reality. The appeal of professional sports teams or team sports generally is that they offer this proverbial level playing field. Now, because of economic privilege and factors like race, sex, and gender identity, some people have better access to that level playing field than others. But I think sports is probably the closest thing we have to a meritocracy in American society.

It's also an enchanted world where the rules are clear and impartially enforced. For example, something is either fair or foul. It's either in or out of bounds—and not subject to appeal. One of the reasons white males gravitate to sports is that it's an orderly universe, unlike the one many perceive in broader society. That's one of the appeals of religion, too. I think more and more people are finding that same assurance in the world of sports. 

There is a church out in Washington state that typically had Sunday morning services at 10. That is fairly standard for churches. Well, when the Seattle Seahawks are playing the New York Giants, for example, the game time is 10 a.m. in Seattle. So what did that church do? They changed the time for their Sunday services from 10 in the morning to five in the afternoon, because it was clear that the Seahawks were going to win the attention of their congregants. They simply adapted. And that story has been replicated hundreds of times.