Many commentators have discussed the ways in which sports spectacles look a lot like religious spectacles: Bands of people gather at specified, special spaces, wearing like colors, chanting songs among a throng of like-minded and like-bodied others. They each have their saints (St. Michael and Babe Ruth), their relics (the bones of St. Peter, and Peyton Manning's Broncos jersey), and their holy spaces (Chartres and Wrigley).
If that's not enough, the language of sports liberally borrows from religious language. The Basketball Hall of Fame conducts an "enshrinement ceremony" for new inductees, while the Baseball Hall of Fame has an exhibition called "Sacred Ground." And that primal entity, the fan, is a direct descendent of the religious devotee: The word "fan" is a shortened form of the word referring to the faithfully fervent devotee, "fanatic," which itself derives from the Latin word for temple, "fanum." To be a "fan" is already to be religious, hanging around the temple, or the stadium.
But when it comes to social progressivism, the comparison falls short. Contra Timothy Egan's recent New York Times column, religious institutions continue to offer much more by way of social progressivism than sports. Egan gives some important examples of sports events breaking down race and disability barriers, and it is good to point those out.
Yet if we look at further comparisons over social progressive causes, religious institutions win hands down.
African-American men and women had been head pastors and ministers in churches for generations before Jackie Robinson played for the Dodgers, and Christian churches were supporting abolition before basketball or football were even invented.
In 2013 NBA player Jason Collins became the first openly gay athlete in any of the four major professional sports leagues. Christian churches have been welcoming and ordaining gay and lesbian people for decades.
And walk into any major urban center in the U.S., where poverty and homelessness are social issues, and who is there helping to feed, clothe, and shelter the people without access? Religious organizations. Sure, the NBA and NFL collect funds to distribute to those in need (they've got to have some tax shelter for their billions of dollars), but who is running the shelters and kitchens? Religious organizations.
The Catholic Church has no saintly heritage when it comes to coverup and denial, but we don't have to look further than the scandal around the names Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky for similar operations. And a long line of former players has derided the professional institutions of sports, from George Sauer to John Moffitt.
But this kind of one-upping never amounts to much: For every Donald Sterling there is a Fred Phelps. And for every Billie Jean King there is a Bishop Gene Robinson. Bottom line: As any attuned reader will note, some elements of sports are progressive, and many more are oppressive. Ditto for religious institutions.
More interesting to me is the fever pitch of the fans, especially from so-called secularists. I still scratch my head when someone lets me know, in no uncertain terms, that they stopped going to church because of the economic and social abuses of "the church." And then they go turn on the television to watch millionaire young adults play games. Or as David Carr put it in the Times, the NBA is "a league where teams are owned mostly by white men who buy and sell the talents of mostly black men." The liberal secular-minded don't like the homophobic attitudes they hear from the Southern Baptists, but never mind the homophobia of the NFL.
As traditional religious institutions decline and professional sports grows ever more bloated with greed and hubris, we need some checks on our fanaticism. I don't believe morality relies on religious institutions, but if we are looking for places with a very long track record of concern and activism for oppressed people, then religious institutions remain a good place to start. And maybe the industrial-sports complex could use a good Reformation.