Fr Tom Fogarty explores the link between religion and sport - friend or foe?

November Masses for the Deceased in Moyne Templetuohy

People are hooked on sport but how does it impact on religion?

A special reflection by Rev Fr Tom Fogarty, PP Moycarkey Borris and former Tipperary hurling Manager

Fr Tom Fogarty pictured above with Archbishop Emeritus Dermot Cliffrd, former Patron of the GAA.

A few weeks ago, somebody asked me, “When is this lockdown going to end? I haven’t been to Mass in months.” I was just about to respond when the person quickly added, “If only we could attend matches again it would be great.”


That person’s comments prompted me to think about the relationship between sport and religion? Are they friend or foe? Is it possible to reconcile these two diverse planes that often are in “head-to-head” competition with each other for their weekend audiences? Is it possible that religion, which is occupied with the soul, can be reconciled with sport, which deals with the body?


A documentary exploring whether football can be considered a new religion was shown on Channel Four a few years ago. It was called ‘Hallowed be thy Game.’ As church attendances dropped, the programme attempted to explore whether sport is attracting more passionate followers to its ranks.


Former Dominican friar and lifelong Manchester United fan Mark Dowd interviewed leading soccer stars and religious figures about whether devotion to sport is now moving into the space left by conventional religious belief.


In the documentary he talked about a meeting with a Portsmouth fan. Entering his apartment was like entering a religious shrine. He had more than twenty teddy bears, Portsmouth duvets, banners that proudly proclaim “Portsmouth ‘til I die” on display. Dowd asked: ‘What would happen to you if I could press a button and disinvent football?’ He replied, “I just wouldn’t have a life”.


Mark Greene, (Christianity Magazine, Christian Communications Partnership Limited, 2004), wrote, “If you want to understand a culture look at what the culture talks about, and our culture most talks about, writes about, and broadcasts about sport in general, and football in particular.”


There was a time when sports coverage was confined to a few pages at the back of newspapers. Today, stories about sport are not just the preserve of the back pages but increasingly of the front pages.


Hooked on Sport
All over the world people are ‘hooked’ on sport. Bull Durham is an American romantic comedy sports film. It is partly based upon the minor-league baseball experiences of writer Ron Shelton and depicts the players and fans of the Durham Bulls, a baseball team in Durham, North Carolina. The film commences by showing numerous photographs from a collection by Annie Savoy (a fan), whose wall gallery serves as a sort of shrine to bygone baseball heroes and their incredible feats. Annie makes the following confession:


“I believe in the Church of Baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu and Shíva. I know things, for instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I learned that I gave Jesus a chance, but it just didn’t work between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. You see, there’s no guilt in baseball, and it’s never boring. I’ve tried them all, I really have. And the only church that truly feeds my soul day in and day out is the Church of Baseball”.
(Ron Shelton, Bull Durham (Los Angeles: Orion Home Video, 1989).


There is no doubt that interest in sport has reached unprecedented heights. According to Jeremy Reynalds (American Voices - A Forum for Conservative Americans), “Americans no longer worship the Lord, they are now worshipping at the altar of sports.”


Reynalds found it difficult to understand why Americans would get so immersed in sport given the social problems they have to deal with. There are daily crises in the Middle East, violence and destruction in Iraq, room for improvement in the economic situation and a host of other issues too numerous to mention. Instead of concentrating on these issues, Americans generally want to live in a state of perpetual mental escape by turning to sport.


Deeper Insight
Mark Greene provides a clear insight into how dependent we are on sport. He wrote, “Far from being a pastime, the rhythms of the football calendar have the power to affect the mood of literally millions of people. There are over twelve million football fans in the United Kingdom and 67% report that they experience depression at the end of the football season. 75% say that the game ‘is more important than anything in their lives’ and 86% plan their lives around games.

Not surprisingly, 60% are ’psychologically dependent on the game’. Football is the central organising principle of their lives – not family, not friends, but football” (Christianity Magazine (U.K. Christian Communications Partnership Limited, 2004)). I am certain that the same could be said about hurling and Gaelic football.


For many people sport has become an obsession. They live for next weekend’s fixtures. They spend the entire week looking forward to the next match. Some go so far as to build their whole lives around it. They will go to the match and watch the Sunday Game or Match of the Day when they return home. Many allow other important moments to pass them by. In a sense the weekly hurling, football, soccer or rugby match is their ‘fix’.


Why is Sport so Popular?
The American sports journalist Howard Cosell referred to sport as “the toy department of human life.” Sports give people a buzz. Winning a big match like a Munster or All-Ireland final is like a taste of heaven; it’s sheer ecstasy; it’s awe-inspiring. Sport means so much to so many because it provides people with moments of excitement, drama and passion that are often denied them in their daily lives.


Fr. Brendan Hoban (Killala Diocese) is of the same opinion. He wrote, “People want to get away from a grimy, ordinary world where they are bored by repetitive work, dulled by the complexity and difficulty of relationships, reminded every waking hour of how inadequate and insipid life can be and are suckers for imagining a surrogate life where colour, significance and excitement are mediated to them through the television in the corner of the kitchen. Once religion raised the hearts and minds of people; now sport seems to be doing that”. (Brendan Hoban, Spirituality: Dominican Publications 2004).
There are many reasons why sport is so popular. The attention devoted regularly to it in the mass media; the amounts of money, public and private, spent on sport; the dependency of business on sport for advertising.


Great Moments
The elements of surprise, the unexpected, the shared moments, the moments that almost make people cry, that is what is great about sport. A great moment is made by the person who had the talent, who practiced the talent, who overcame the opposition, and did something that transcends sport itself, so that some people would be able to say, ‘I remember it well’.
Paul Weiss (Philosopher at Yale University) suggests that “Both when participated in and when watched, sport quickly works on the emotions; it wins people’s allegiance readily and often to a degree nothing else is able to do.” (Paul Weiss, Sport: A Philosophic Inquiry (Southern Illinois University Press, 1969).


Weiss is correct because sport is one of the few things in contemporary society that has the capacity to lift the hearts and minds of people of all age groups and backgrounds. Art, science, and philosophy, surely, make larger contributions to society than sport. Agriculture and business contribute more to the economy than sport, though, of course, sport is not without its economic importance. Paul Weiss rightly points out that rarely do these other human experiences, “Enter into people’s daily disputes or lay claim to basic loyalties in the way or to the degree that sport does. It is sport that catches the interest and elicits the devotion of young and old, the wise and the foolish, the educated and the uneducated.”


Sport provides people with an opportunity to connect with others; to do something significant together; to belong. When we engage in sport, we become part of a team. Like religion in the past, sport is now a means of national identity – one that can transcend the multicultural barriers pertaining to race, creed, ethnicity and even religion. As J. MacClancey observes “Sports are vehicles of identity, providing people with a sense of difference and a way of classifying themselves and others.” (J MacClancey, Sport, Identity and Ethnicity (Oxford: Oxford International Publishing.)


Harold Edwards (Harold Edwards, Sociology of Sports (Dorsey Press), argues that sport prepares the athlete for life. It helps the player to develop self-confidence and teaches the competitor to accept the disappointments that life brings to all people.
Sport celebrates skills and physical expression; it allows the triumph of the “underdog”, the disadvantaged and the oppressed far more often than occurs in other spheres.


Sport also has the capacity to evoke intense excitement and emotional commitment from individuals and groups. The wonderful thing about sport is that it allows people to become children again. It permits people to play, to have fun in their lives. In a world that seems to be getting more serious the tendency is to grow old too quickly. Youthful indulgences are a reminder of the child that is within each person.


Church & Sport:
Sunday has exploded into a celebration of sports. All codes now schedule fixtures for Sunday mornings. The Irish Bishops issued a statement in 2008 calling for an end to sports matches and training on Sunday mornings in a bid to make Sunday sacred again. They were concerned that religious worship was being neglected because young people are afraid to miss their sporting pursuits. (The Irish Independent, March 12, 2008, by John Cooney and Gráinne Cunningham).


As far back as 1985, the Super Bowl Final in the USA commanded such power that the public celebration of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration was shifted from the constitutionally required day for the swearing in of elected Presidents, January 20th, a Sunday, to the following day.


The church has always taken a keen interest in sport. The day after his death the Italian sports journals were filled with pages of tribute to Pope John Paul 11. They referred to him as the “Athlete of God”. During his long and distinguished papacy, he made one hundred and twenty references to sport – more than any of his predecessors. He encouraged the world to give thanks to God for the gift of sport.


Secularisation of Sunday
Pope John Paul II was also very concerned about the secularisation of Sunday. In July 1998 he published a document on the importance of keeping Sunday holy. The hundred-page manuscript was called ‘The Day of the Lord’ or ‘Dies Domini’. He warned against Sunday becoming merely part of a weekend. He stressed that it should be more than a free day; it should be free of secular activities, like entertainment and sports. (Pope John Paul II, Address to Conference of Sports and Ethics: Sports can be viewed as a service to mankind.

“L’Osservatore Romano” weekly English edition, n. 2, January 8, 1990, 5).
He stated that sport, while it promotes physical strength and character, must never distract those who practise it from their spiritual duties. He reminded all Catholics of their obligation to attend church on a Sunday. He reiterated his teaching on the importance of keeping Sunday holy when he addressed the Australian Bishops. He urged them “to encourage Catholics to attend Mass on Sundays, a day that should not be dominated by sport. (D. Teutsch, “Sunday for Sport, not for Mass”, The Sydney Morning Herald, (28 March 2004).


Pope John Paul 11 said that sport encourages young people to develop important values such as loyalty, perseverance, friendship, sharing and solidarity. He stressed the importance of role models for young people. In his address to athletes in Rome’s Olympic Stadium in 2000 he reminded them that “The eyes of sports fans throughout the world are fixed on you. Be conscious of your responsibility! It is not only the champion in the stadium but also the whole person who should become a model for millions of young people, who need ‘leaders’, not ‘idols’. They need people who can convey to them a sense of discipline, the courage to be honest and the joy of unselfishness”.


Check out Part 2 next week

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