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Sport as Religion

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In a recent episode of The Marriage Ref, one husband got in trouble for devoting his Sundays to fantasy football, thereby excluding his real wife. If even a pretend sport can monopolize a person's mental life, imagine what real sports can do.

Indeed, psychologists claim that sport has many of the same effects on spectators as religion does. Here is Daniel Wann (1), a leading sport psychologist at Murray State University, and his co-authors:

"The similarities between sport fandom and organized religion are striking. Consider the vocabulary associated with both: faith, devotion, worship, ritual, dedication, sacrifice, commitment, spirit, prayer, suffering, festival, and celebration (1, p. 198)."


It may seem odd, to equate religion with sport entertainment but it must be understood that prior to mass communications, religious ceremonies were a source of entertainment for ordinary people who rarely attended a theater or traveled to a sporting event. Sports and religion may get categorized separately but their intersection is striking.

As Wann and collaborators note, various scholars discuss sport in terms of "natural religion," "humanistic religion," and "primitive polytheism" pointing out that "spectators worship other human beings, their achievements, and the groups to which they belong." And that sports stadiums and arenas resemble "cathedrals where followers gather to worship their heroes and pray for their successes" (1, p. 200). Meanwhile, fans wear the team colors, and bear its flags, icons, and mascots whilst literally singing its praises.

Given that sports entertainment has similarities to religious rituals, it is reasonable to ask whether the connection between fans and their preferred sport has psychological effects that are comparable to religious experiences -- effects that may account for religion as a worldwide human adaptation (2).

Sports as a substitute for religion

As a group, sports fans are fairly religious, according to research. It is also curious that as religious attendance rates have dropped off in recent decades, interest in sport spectatorship has soared. Moreover, research has debunked several stereotypes about sports fans that seem incompatible with religiosity. Fans are not lazy, nor are they particularly prone to violence. Male fans do not have bad marriages.

Some scholars believe that fans are highly committed to their favored stars and teams in a way that gives focus and meaning to their daily lives. In addition, sports spectatorship is a transformative experience through which fans escape their humdrum lives, just as religious experiences may help the faithful to transcend their everyday existence.

From that perspective, the face painting, hair tinting, and distinctive costumes are thought to satisfy quasi-religious goals including identification with the team, escape from everyday limitations and disappointments, and establishing a community of fans.

So far, the transformative aspects of fandom are quite close to those associated with religion. Lest the fans become too smug, here is a socialist critique:

Shaped by the needs of capitalist systems, spectator sports serve vested interests as a type of "cultural anesthesia, an 'opiate' that distracts, diverts, and deflects attention from the pressing social problems and issues of the day (1, pp 201-202)."

Of course, Karl Marx famously declared that religion is the opium of the people, stifling their capacity for political development. According to one critic (3), sport "has turned into a passion, a mania, a drug far more potent and widespread than any mere chemical substance." It is the new opium of the people.

1. Wann, D. L., Melznick, M. J., Russell, G. W., & Pease, D. G. (2001). Sport fans: The psychology and social impact of spectators. New York: Routledge.
2. Barber, N. (2011). A cross-national test of the security hypothesis of religious belief. Cross-Cultural Research, 45, 318-333.
3. Harris, S. J. (1981, November 3). Sport is new opium of the people. Democrat and Chronicle, p. 3B.