Sport and Christianity: A Sign of the Times in the Light of Faith

Kevin Lixey, et al., eds.
Published by Catholic University of America Press in 2012

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Sport: How Calvinism and Capitalism Shaped America’s Games

Steven J. Overman
Published by Mercer University Press in 2011

Howard Cosell: The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports

Mark Ribowsky
Published by W. W. Norton in 2011

Eric Miller is Professor of History and Humanities at Geneva College.

The penultimate track of the CD that accompanies Ken Burns’ 1994 film Baseball features the actor Amy Madigan reading a quotation from The Sporting News. “Great is baseball,” she intones. “The national tonic. The revival of hope. The restorer of confidence.”1 Madigan starred opposite Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, the celebrated 1989 baseball flick. The quotation she reads on the soundtrack surged from a writer’s pen in 1931, more than a year into a Great Depression that had done much to diminish any sense of collective hope and confidence. Curious to me is that amidst economic and social loss of unprecedented dimensions, baseball—a game of relatively recent vintage and mysterious at best to much of the world—could be said at that moment to have such an effect. Tonic. Hope. Confidence. How can a game yield these?

It is almost as striking that this Depression-era writer was able without apparent hesitation to use the word “national” to describe the reach of this tonic—and with the definite article to boot. We may yet call baseball “the national pastime,” but if network TV still means anything, it is not at the top and has not been for some time. To be sure, professional baseball claims legions of fans, and tens of thousands of little leaguers brave chilly springs and fiery coaches to take a whack at that funny little ball, stitched in a way that itself calls forth another age. Baseball is still big. But the national tonic? The times have in fact changed. If anything it is football that provides for Americans, if not a tonic, at least a buzz.

How shall we understand these shifts? And more crucially, what accounts for such hope? The theologian Stephan Goertz, seeking to illumine the ascendance of sport across the world, stresses the importance of studying the “concrete historical, social, and cultural contexts in which sport is practiced,” the contexts that can help us make sense of what we see.2 As any scholar knows, this takes some work. When in 1911 Ring Lardner penned the lyrics for his comical paean to baseball “Gee, It’s a Wonderful Game,” he launched into time not just a song but a culture, the nature of which requires delicate probing a century later. It was not, for instance, until I had read Cait Murphy’s splendid Crazy ’08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History that I figured out what Lardner was saying when he imagined a time-traveling Napoleon crying out “I’m a bug, I’m a bug!” upon witnessing the prowess of Ty Cobb. “Bug,” it turns out, was baseball lingo for “fan.”3

That definition was not obvious. What is more obvious in both Lardner’s song and in the Sporting News quotation is that 100 years ago baseball was captivating the imagination of Americans, forging new forms of identity and, indeed, new forms of hope. Murphy’s book has as its opening epigraph a revealing quotation from the October 17, 1908 edition of Sporting Life:

So grandly contested were both [pennant] races, so great the excitement, so tense the interest, that in the last month of the season the entire nation became absorbed in the thrilling and nerve-racking struggle, and even the Presidential campaign was almost completely overshadowed.

Allowing for journalistic hyperbole, we may still reasonably conclude that something beyond sport itself was happening, something involving hearts, minds, and bodies in a fashion amazing and mysterious to bug and non-bug alike.

Of course, that something is still on the move, evolving in ways both familiar and strange. This past spring I ran into a college friend I had not seen in many years. We had played college soccer together, he arriving from West Virginia and me from Brazil. “I became a fan of Brazilian soccer from watching you play,” he told me (that praise 30 years later hit a tender spot, I admit). “My son’s a big fan of Brazil, too,” he continued, gesturing in the direction of a teenaged boy. And in those two statements our evolving circumstance was again underscored. In my youth, soccer, let alone the distinctive qualities of Brazilian soccer, was an invisible sport to most Americans. Today with a few clicks the enlarging number of American soccer enthusiasts can develop a genuine, even transformative appreciation of players and teams anywhere. It is, you might say, a sign of the times. That at least is what Pope John Paul II said. At the closing ceremony of the Jubilee of Sport in 2000 he considerably elevated the question of sport in today’s world by referring to it as a sign of the times, an ancient phrase that had sounded loudly at Vatican II. At that signal moment Pope John XXIII had delivered a message titled “Recognize the Signs of the Times”; a document later proceeded from the council that charged the Church with “the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus “in language intelligible to each generation,” the writers instructed, “she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other.”4 Reflecting on this mandate several decades later, Goertz goes so far as to claim that “the Gospel can be truly liberating only when the specific historical realities are answered”—when Christians discern “the concrete historical, social, and cultural contexts in which sport is practiced” and, thus sharpened, move into them with the liberating vision of Christ.5

And so the meaning of sport and the evolution of sport come together to give Christians today a tough but timely assignment: to explain for a sports-mad world—one that includes, of course, millions of Christians—what is happening in sport and why it matters. At a time when so many turn to sport for relief from the issues and events that dominate the age, the arena of sport requires more than fan-like attention. And that is precisely what three recent books on contemporary sport, each worthy of careful attention, make possible.

Mark Ribowsky, in Howard Cosell: The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports, leads readers into face-to-face contact with the man Frank Deford, dean of contemporary American sports writers, once christened “sports in our time.”6 “To call Cosell a sportscaster is to call Muhammad Ali a prizefighter,” Ribowsky quips.7 “His presence so dominated popular American culture that it was virtually impossible not to know who he was.”8 From the 1960s through the 1980s Cosell symbolized exactly what Goertz calls a “context,” the context that turned sport into a sign of the times.

Part of that context involved the coming of age of professional sports of all kinds, from Formula One racing to bowling, under the aegis of corporate capital’s encompassing care. With that professionalization came a level of implication in the rest of society that made sport a necessary object of political attention. Don Ohylmeyer, the ABC executive primarily responsible for Cosell’s rise, once remarked that by 1968 “you couldn’t separate sport and society anymore—which was Howard’s message all along.”9 Cosell’s genius was to see journalistic possibilities within a world that had fancied itself sequestered away from serious journalism’s reach. And as Cosell, in his colossally idiosyncratic way, reached toward the end of serious sports journalism, he emerged, says Ribowsky, with a “suddenly profound yet entertaining persona.”10

For many that is, to say the least, a dubious claim. Cosell’s arrogance, even as shtick, repelled many more than it won over. And thousands found him so entertaining they turned down the volume when watching any contest he was announcing. Yet what Deford and Ribowsky note goes beyond the sphere of entertainment and existential response. Cosell represents “what the sixties were in broadcasting,” writes Ribowsky: the quickened movement of a culture out of the traditional Protestant frame in the name of freedoms long denied to many.11

What made Cosell so peculiarly positioned to help effect this change—that which made him not simply a “transitional” figure but a “transformational” one?12 For one thing, he was not a Protestant. His parents were Jewish. His grandfather’s family emigrated from Poland when his father was a year old, settling eventually in Brooklyn, where in 1918 Howard William Cohen was born. “Cohen” was the name transcribed clumsily by the immigration authorities; Howard would later honor his grandfather’s request that his family change it to reflect more closely what was likely something like “Kozel.” Although Cosell’s childhood was marked by economic insecurity and his parents’ marriage was far from happy, Cosell’s father saw that higher education would be necessary for his children; Howard accordingly matriculated at New York University, majoring in English for two years and then switching over to NYU’s law school. He earned the Bachelor of Laws degree by the age of 22, which is also when he changed the spelling of his name.

He was “most definitely a New York Jew,” Ribowsky writes, in reference to the title of Alfred Kazin’s famous autobiography.13 In one of his books Cosell recalled that “as young as you were you knew, by God, that you were Jewish, and you knew every restrictive boundary and every thoughtless slight.”14 So along with an educated man’s cultural reach came an outsider’s cultural sensitivity. A friend from NYU days of the filmmaker Stanley Kramer (famous for, among other films, the very carefully aimed, socially-conscious High Noon, Judgment at Nuremberg, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), Cosell began to sense, Ribowsky avers, that he “had a place in the new breed of postwar thinkers and trendsetters,” that somehow he might join others in “rewriting cultural assumptions by not shying away from harrowing truths.”15

Yet “his most immediate passion was sports,” notes Ribowsky, though Cosell himself had never come close to achieving athletic distinction.16 While practicing law, quite successfully, he began to make insistent movements toward a career change to sports broadcasting, working his way into the locker room through, at first, a five-minute radio program in which kids would pose questions for players. By 1955, at age 37, he had managed to draw the attention of a New Yorker writer, who featured Cosell in a Talk of the Town piece for his pro bono legal work with ballplayers, themselves only just becoming aware of their need for lawyers. He and his wife, a Presbyterian from an affluent Philadelphia family, began to host parties that featured numerous celebrities—athletes like Frank Gifford, entertainers like Tony Randall, and various writers and academics; Cosell was collecting contacts in a way that, he hoped, would yield results. In 1956 he quit his work in law altogether, having developed a trio of short television programs on sports for ABC. In 1958 he became the producer of ABC’s boxing coverage.

It was in the world of boxing—a sport that since the 1970s has become more culturally profane by the year—that Cosell emerged on the national scene. With a stubbornness to match that of any pugilist Cosell gained the technical proficiency to call fights in an utterly memorable way, “like a pealing, staccato diesel engine,” as Ribowsky aptly puts it, at a time when boxing claimed six prime-time slots per week.17 And when Cassius Clay began to move into the center of the boxing world Cosell would too, developing a truly entertaining public relationship (and genuine friendship) with Clay that enmeshed big-money sports and advocacy journalism in historically significant ways. As Clay became Muhammad Ali, Cosell stepped out as a liberal advocate for outsiders of all types, especially those marginalized by race and religion. “Only with Cosell,” suggests Ribowsky, “could the young black Muslim have perceived that it wasn’t just safe but preferable to push the envelope on race and religion.”18 Cosell’s public voice in support of Ali, particularly when in 1967 Ali was stripped of his title for refusing to enter the armed forces, rang into the public realm with a conviction and intelligence that moved well beyond sports-as-usual.

In the 1968 Mexico City Olympics both Cosell and the sixties met in a revolutionary rush. And it happened, significantly, through the medium of television. As Cosell fought for and garnered interviews with the protesting African American athletes, the larger media began to nod in his direction; both Time and Newsweek published profiles. The index of Cosell’s peculiar brand of celebrity is suggested by the fact that Woody Allen began to feature him in films. In the 1971 Allen film Bananas, Cosell, as himself, “covers” the assassination of the president of a fictional Latin American nation. “This is tremendous, Don, just tremendous, the atmosphere heavy, uncertain, overtones of ugliness,” Cosell spits into a mike, as the crowd gathers around the city square awaiting the president’s emergence from a building. The president appears and the assassin repeatedly shoots; Cosell makes his inevitable call and subsequent charge for an interview: “IT’S OVER, IT’S ALL OVER, FOR EL PRESIDENTE! This reporter is going to get to him if he can, through this mob for one last word before he expires.” He wades in, yelling “Would you people let me through—this is American television, American television.”19

On vivid display was the sardonic wit that helped make Cosell a successful entertainer—but also the alert social commentary signaling that sports and society had become part of some larger whole. The story of each was clearly playing out in the other, with everything heading in a direction no one fully understood. Amidst the swirling current Cosell tried to keep the tension between entertainment, sport, and journalism fruitful. His fame reached new levels with ABC’s rolling out of Monday Night Football in 1970, a tale Ribowsky narrates with insight. Cosell, as one of the weekly broadcasters, was the one figure, Ribowsky thinks, able to preside over the “marriage of sports and popular culture” the show effected, a ratings bonanza for ABC and a boon for the NFL.20 “The game faced a younger, more brazen, more materialistic future,” Ribowsky observes. “And Monday Night Football was the avatar of this new sensibility.”21

Cosell’s notoriety, as most any American over 40 will know, grew to immense proportions during these years, as Americans stumbled and groped for ways to discover who they in the sixties’ aftermath were becoming. The fact that in 1973 Ronald Reagan and John Lennon chummed together one evening in the Monday Night Football (MNF) broadcast booth gives some sense of the strangeness of the times and the place of professional sports in them, sports becoming the inevitable mediator for a pluribus trying to remain unum. As Cosell’s celebrity grew “parodic,” Ribowsky notes that “the culture that would find no place for him was gathering force, becoming almost dizzying,” whirling yet more manically with the arrival of ESPN in 1979, CNN in 1980, and MTV in 1981.22

In the eighties Cosell sought to keep the journalistic dimension of his career taut with his Sunday afternoon ABC program Sportsbeat, a critically successful attempt to provide a 60 Minutes for sport. Ironically, his exit from the broadcast booth came over a perceived violation of the liberal ethic he had championed. During a MNF game in 1983 he marveled at the way a diminutive Redskins receiver named Alvin Garrett, an African American, played the game: “…that little monkey gets loose, doesn’t he?” was the offending comment.23 Despite being publicly defended by even some of his most eminent journalistic critics, and despite his own self-defense (it was a phrase he claimed he used to describe his own grandsons), Cosell opted not to return to MNF the next season, a casualty in what the Economist described as “an early skirmish in the political-correctness wars.”24 Ribowsky charges that “rather than race, the real core of the matter was that, to the press that loathed him, the aging lion was now even more vulnerable to criticism.”25 “He was too big to not fail.”26

Cosell was a victim, in the end of not just his own excesses but those of a culture bloated with excesses of all kinds. By the time of his death in 1995 Cosell seemed a quirky, embarrassing figure from an earlier age. And, in Ribowsky’s view, sports journalism had devolved, becoming placid and shallow once more. Today, he complains, “no one on the sports beat is either loved or hated … It is as if Howard Cosell had never existed”—for Ribowsky a lamentable situation.27

Perhaps it is most lamentable because Cosell, as a kind of quasi-public intellectual, understood that both our contemporary fixation on sports and the structure beneath it require respect and parody at once, due to the bedrock presence of a social reality indescribably more significant than sport and upon which sport rests. The “postmodern culture that has wiped men like him off the slate” has, as Ribowsky intuits, diminished our common awareness of such a dimension, leaving sport to fill a large vacuum—a collective transfer of attention and energy hugely out of proportion to its object.28 Cosell at his best knew there were truer, more consequential ends to pursue, and that to save sport Americans should reduce it to its proper place within them. For him these ends seemed to gather around a mid-twentieth-century liberal, pluralistic vision of citizenship and the polis. But citizenship as an ideal had by the end of Cosell’s life become considerably more complicated and challenging, as the kind of fragmentation Daniel Rodgers has recently describes in his book Age of Fracture broke loose.29 And so sport has continued its lengthening trajectory as a collective evasion of the weightier requirements of the law.

If on this view Americans have lapsed into a costly form of moral-political failure, manifested in the realm of sport, Steven J. Overman comes at this failure from a different angle. A sociologist of sport, he certainly concurs that true moral failure has taken place, and like Ribowsky he severely faults America’s Protestant heritage for it. But Overman’s framing of this failure stretches out the historical canvas considerably, and his concerns are not centered on civil rights and citizenship so much as human freedom more generally understood: the level of freedom that is synonymous with pleasure, fulfillment, and flourishing. It is this freedom that, on Overman’s reading, America’s Protestant heritage is responsible for impeding, and we can see it with clarity in our conception and practice of sport.

His book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Sport: How Calvinism and Capitalism Shaped America’s Games, is a long, at times scoffing, historical-sociological lament, of the sort its author hopes will contribute to an alternate vision and experience of sports. Make no mistake: despite the generic pretense of social-scientific objectivity, Overman is advancing a normative vision, one he believes has the power to awaken Americans from their dreary Calvinist slumbers. Sport for him is a means to human freedom, and his own fundamental conception of sport, though veiled, is in some sense religious. He concludes his treatise by professing hope that sport might “recapture a sense of the ‘religious,’” which is perhaps the end he means to suggest by what in his title he calls “the spirit of sport,” a conception he never adequately develops.30 What he is clear on, though, is the insistence that the Calvinist tradition has yielded exactly the wrong kind of religion for this foundational culture-building task. “The need exists not only to humanize human toil,” he instructs, “but to foster human development through appropriate uses of leisure. Puritan asceticism and the Protestant work ethic have little to offer in this regard.”31

Overman’s attempted take-down of this debilitating Calvinist culture is unfortunately dependent on scholarship, historical and otherwise, that is so dated and misapplied as to damage his critique in manifold ways, leading to a just-so story that is at times just-so-awful, the kind of work critics of interdisciplinarity use to scare scholars away from it. For support of the claim that early Calvinists lived “in a cold, rational social climate marked by unprecedented austerity,” along with the judgment that “deprived of natural delights, the Puritan retaliated by affecting to despise them,” Overman turns to the mid-century sociologist Talcott Parsons, Parsons’ near contemporary R. H. Tawney, an English historian writing in 1926, and Ralph B. Perry, a philosopher whose Puritanism and Democracy was published in 1944.32 Of course, there is no reason why such works could not be useful in the demanding project of rediscovering Calvinist history and culture. But to rely so intensively on such sources without consulting the extensive historical literature from the past 50 years that has yielded a much more complex picture of the Calvinist world is to engage in academic hearsay, repeating tired commonplaces from the age of Mencken and Freud.

When on page 61 Overman makes the astonishing claim (citing only secondary sources, and these dating from 1944, 1961, and 1965) that “the Puritans sought a spiritual perfectionism that required abstinence from any activities that could provide pleasure,” the sense that one is reading a comic book (without comics and only unintended comedy) is confirmed. Careful attention to the vast work of a remarkably strong and diverse roster of recent historians that has done much to correct and deepen early-twentieth-century conceptions of Calvinist culture would seem to be a requirement for convincing interdisciplinary work of the kind Overman, rightly, aims to achieve.33 Such work is a tall challenge, to be sure. But absent it there is little chance of deep scholarly influence.

Which is a shame, because there is in fact something fruitful in what Overman is most basically attempting to do: employ Weber’s still-spry thesis on Calvinism and capitalism to probe the history of sport in America. “The overall purpose of this book,” Overman writes, “is to argue that the ethos of American sport is best explained as a derivative of secularized Protestant values operating within the milieu of industrial (and now post-industrial) capitalism.”34 If Overman’s overwrought portrait of the Calvinist tradition in America is derivative of what Marilynne Robinson tartly dismisses as an “old polemic,” his determined engagement with Weber forces the reader to think more deeply about what it is that does make sport in America so distinct from its practice elsewhere.35

For me, that elsewhere is Brazil, where I as a teenager embraced with a passion I could not understand the aforementioned futebol, what Brazilians proudly called o jogo bonito (“the beautiful game”). It was a game to be played with the lyricism of the language Brazilians use to describe it—futebol arte they named this ideal, an ideal to which they instinctively and full-heartedly aspired. The sign of its realization would be not simply victory but the only fitting responses to beauty in play: joy, levity, alegria, laughter. And these qualities—not absent, it must be stressed, a certain kind of seriousness—would be present not only in the celebration of success but also in the effort toward it: in the moment-by-moment playing of the game. In short, it was fun, deeply fun, to play futebol.

Playing soccer in the U.S., on the other hand, left me wandering in a state somewhere between boredom and depression. So much earnestness. So little music. If the sport was technically the same, the ethos was so different as to, in my case, kill the spirit—the spirit of sport, the spirit of futebol, if you will. I “played” the game for four years. But there was so little play.

History does repeat itself. Many years later, now 40 and teaching history in the quintessentially western PA town of Beaver Falls, a few undergraduates talked me into joining their intramural flag-football team. It sounded like fun. It was not. I mistakenly thought of what I would be playing as “just intramurals,” but there was no “just” to it. I tried to play in what I think of as “the spirit of sport.” But the students responded by crushing my (now) rapidly deteriorating body in a full-contact version of flag football. I limped around for a few days, reminded with every ginger step that I was not a kid in Brazil anymore. Whatever joy there was to be had in this instance of sport came in only a fierce, focused, grim variety. Football in this land is nothing like futebol—and neither is its brand of soccer.

So Weber scores some points, points that I at least awarded him when reading the Chilean sociologist Claudio Véliz’s brilliant 1994 book The New World of the Gothic Fox: Culture and Economy in English and Spanish America, another deeply suggestive rumination on, among other things, Weber’s insight about the effects of Protestantism on the character of American life. Véliz, contrasting the Reformation-spawned North America to the Counter-Reformational South, notes wisely that

Genesis cannot shape artifacts permanently, but it does bequeath qualities that are, by necessity, intrinsic to subsequent modifications. Unless we are prepared to accept that cultural artifacts are absolutely and permanently interchangeable, the eloquence of origins must be granted more than a perfunctory hearing.36

Early Christians may have wondered what Athens has to do with Jerusalem. This latter-day Christian puzzles over the odd juxtaposition of Rio and Pittsburgh.

In reading Overman, then, the relevant question for me is not whether Protestantism has shaped American culture—undoubtedly it has—but rather whether it is useful to see American culture as so monolithically “Calvinist.” To be sure, in an intellectual age as simplemindedly nominalistic as ours, it is too easy, especially for a historian, to quarrel with the kind of overarching, synthetic cultural analysis Overman attempts. But while few scholars would I suspect disagree with the notion that “Protestant culture acted as an assimilative force across religions,” to lay at the feet of “the Protestant ethic,” to take one example, the “highly organized” nature of contemporary sports at all levels succeeds on the one hand in merely restating a sociological truism (Protestantism has led to “rationalization” of everyday life) and on the other leaving even a sympathetic reader asking serious questions:37 Is sport so exceedingly organized in all countries and regions touched by the “Protestant ethic”? What other historical elements might shed light on our highly structured sporting life? Does America share characteristics with highly rationalized non-Protestant countries (Japan, for instance) that might also illumine on our way of life? Why were American sports less organized when the country was more seriously Protestant? Would it yield insight to distinguish early Protestant America and modern secularizing America more completely rather than to elide them, as Overman (and many others) do?

The closer Overman stays to the political economy of sport and the further he strays from his Protestant ethic thesis the sharper is his analysis. To the great Calvinist bogey that stalks us all he traces such dubitable claims as “the puritanical fear of carnality remains strong in American sport,” and American “athletes may ‘win one for the Gipper’ but rarely play for themselves.”38 How does one verify such claims? Counter-examples are too easy to imagine. On the other hand, anyone who has recently attempted to coach any little league sport can probably testify in support of Overman’s argument that “the ethos of sport has been fully integrated with the spirit of capitalism,” and that in a consumption-driven culture Americans invest in ever-proliferating athletic products not because of their sporting benefits so much as their psychological effect in “assuring themselves that they are seriously involved” in the given sport.39 So the lingering question is, why must the history of American support be so entirely driven back to the Protestant ethic?

More sympathetically, it is important to stress that many Americans do worry along with Overman about “how to protect sport from cultural forces that would usurp and, ultimately destroy its inherent spirit.”40 What that spirit is, though, and why it matters, Overman leaves in a species of sociological darkness. He contends that “sport can act as a functional equivalent of religion,” surfacing within human beings “a desire for freedom, a zest for symbolic meaning, and a longing for perfection.”41 He sees, strikingly, sport rising in contemporary America to serve a civil religious function, sporting events now overshadowing more traditional religious observances on our national calendar. He hopes that sport might “recapture a sense of the ‘religious.’”42 But to understand more fully why sport matters, and perhaps even more crucially, how to go about reforming it, we need to move beyond social science and into disciplinary traditions more free to discuss freedom.

Having said this, I hasten to declare that it is to the immense credit of the contributors of Sport and Christianity: A Sign of the Times in the Light of Faith that philosophy and theology are not the only disciplines used to approach their theme. In fact, I have never read a book in which the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and Pope John Paul II were equally apt (well, almost) to turn up on any given page. The result is a richly framed, pleasingly current collection of essays, offering historical, theological, and practical insight for those seeking illumination and wisdom on this tricky topic.

This book is just the sort of scholarly achievement one imagines the academician and pastor John Paul II had hoped for. In fact, it is probably not too strong a claim to say that he elicited it. The book had its start at a 2009 conference in Germany, where representatives of the Vatican’s Office of Church and Sport (instituted by John Paul II in 2004) and the Scientific Commission of the Church and Sport Working Group of the German Bishops’ Conference gathered to take up the question of sport as a sign of the times. In his 2000 address on sport the Pope had proposed that modern sport could help us more completely understand “humanity’s new needs and new expectations,” and might in fact “make an effective contribution to peaceful understanding between peoples and to establishing the new civilization of love.”43 Seizing on this vision, these eleven authors, six of them clerics and in toto ranging from ethicists to anthropologists to philosophers to chaplains, examine the considerable peril and promise we today face, oddly enough, from the games we play.

The book centers on a theological consensus: that sport is a celebration of God’s good gift of creaturehood. Alois Koch notes that “man belongs in his totality to God,” so that “Christians—as people who know they are God’s creatures—answer physical exercises in the affirmative because of the fact that they are human beings.”44 Although the question of physicalism versus dualism is not raised in the book, a robust defense of the need to honor the physical dimension of our creaturely estate is central throughout, nowhere stated more eloquently than by the priest and anthropologist Pero Barrajón: “It is never the spirit alone nor the body alone that loves: it is man, the person, a unified creature composed of body and soul, who loves.”45 Our hopes for satisfaction and for holiness rest on the various forms of unity—inter-and intra-personal—realized only through love, “the goal and vocation of the human person.”46

And so as God’s creatures we play, play in body, play with spirit: “People want to sense and represent themselves bodily,” Goertz observes, underscoring the primal fact that God chose the pathway of incarnation for self-revelation.47 And this physical activity, this embodied creatureliness, is unceasing, moving us, who are in status viatoris, down a historical pathway. Barrajón, nodding to Hans Ur von Balthasar, thus helps us to see why historical study is necessary and games are satisfying. “Because life is a continual action and always in movement, a static description of this situation, that which is essentialist, is not possible; life is a drama.”48 We will play games. We will seek meaning in time. And we will intuit that the games we play take us deep into the eschatological mystery that frames our dramatic existence.

That which is dramatic also holds danger, danger that extends well beyond games even as it manifests itself within them. If a steady chorus proclaiming the goodness of creation is present throughout this book, another movement, in a minor key, also sounds as the authors grapple with what one simply calls “the modern sport phenomenon.”49 Most stridently, Koch, a Jesuit priest, raises questions about the idolatry he sees driving modern sport. For John Chrysostom “idolatry was the crucial point of criticism against the athletic competitions of his time.”50 Koch wonders—especially in view of the modern Olympics, “conceived as cultic celebrations for the idolization of man”—whether the redemption of the modern sport complex is possible. “Does sport remain ‘open’ to this salvific meaning that comes from above?” he asks. “Or is it enclosed in a manmade ‘secular religion’ that tends toward the ‘cult’ of man himself?”51

Most of the authors affirm a weaker form of the latter while raising hope, as John Paul II did, for a possible “yes” to the former. Bernhard Maier, a Salesian priest who has since 1982 been the chaplain of the Austrian National Olympic team, thinks that “sport or soccer or other mega-sports are just surrogate beliefs for an outlook on life” and are all too appealing given that “our society, which is void of meaning and religion, is fragile and prone to ideologies that are fairly reckless and easily dominate.”52 Lending support to this point, Goertz points out that it is “in the football stadium—and not in churches—where men are singing,” and in a fashion that is “not less ritualistic nor fervent than the ancient hymnals” [sic].53 In the book’s closing chapter Norbert Müller summarizes this concern with force: “We are witnessing a desperate search for meaning, the quest for an inner life … Even in secular societies, the spiritual dimension of life is being sought after as an antidote to dehumanization.”54

The particular forms of dehumanization they believe we are witnessing are more than troubling. The very conditions and developments responsible for the “modern sport phenomenon” are of course also responsible for other contemporary phenomena, such as body art, Star Trek conventions, and drone warfare. In one of the most incisive chapters of the book, the philosopher Karen Joisten exposes what she believes to be a common “trans-anthropological mindset” that threatens sport, and much else.55 Today, she writes, “man is concerned, after the disappearance of God, with the task of overcoming his own self.”56 In what she describes as the “total sellout of human tradition,” twenty-first-century humans seek a kind of transcendence the elusiveness of which is masked by the technological conceits that constantly challenge any settled notions of reality.57 Her meditation on this is worthy of close consideration:

After the death of God, the death of traditional relationships and knowledge acquired through experience, the loss of time and space, of values and the omnipresence of technical images, man has—in a figurative sense—begun to kill himself. He has turned his back on himself, he has abandoned himself, and he is now endeavoring with every possible means—whether biotechnology, artificial intelligence, or media-theory research—to create something new and different: a trans-human.58

In the midst of these evolving conditions and ends, Joisten sees sport as a place in which we are engaging in a kind of collective experimentation, both fleeing our true identity and seeking to establish a new one. Sport becomes “a medial space to which man and community relate and align themselves,” in the hope of creating the kind of heroic prototype by which we might define and measure ourselves in the world that is becoming.59

Dietmar Mieth simplifies the notion of trans-humanism by pithily calling it “a total objectification of humankind through humankind,” spurred by “dreams in which it is forgotten that it is the same finite, vulnerable, fallible humans who dream these things.”60 In the end, he delivers a crucial reminder to readers: “The Church has always defended the human person from threats imposed by secular society, and it must also uphold the dignity of the person from a sporting environment that seeks to use people as a means to an end.”61

If human beings need defense even from sport, it is truly a sign of the times. Yet bound up in these strange times is that goodness which excites for so many sport’s initial and enduring appeal. And the only just and fitting response to that which is good is, of course, gratitude—something recognized by Christian and non-Christian alike, as Christoph Hübenthal observes, quoting the literary scholar Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, who in his 2006 book In Praise of Athletic Beauty writes arrestingly that sport provides occasion “to express gratitude for my life as well as for the loving of my life. Praise of sports originates just from this impulse of gratitude—even though,” he adds, “it has to remain intransitive.”62

This intransitive state—this voluntary muteness—is a self-imposed limitation. Thousands of others, whether with the sign of the cross or a finger pointing to the sky, make the transitive connection in very bodily ways, professing a faith with the capacity to provide structure and instruction for a world faltering in its provision of both. Through this faith we learn finally that it is not baseball, football, futebol, the Olympics, or any other sport that provides the renewal we need and seek. Rather, renewal comes ultimately from the One who will make all things new, and who through sport awakens within “a longing for paradisal life,” as Benedict XVI once said.63 Every chant of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” voices a hope for a world more deserving of the wonder of sport. And so with great gleeful gratitude Christians can stand and sing along, knowing that, win or lose, the game is already in the bag.

Cite this article
Eric Miller, “Every Good and Perfect Gift: Sport and Society in the Twenty- first Century—A Review Essay”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 43:2 , 171-185

Footnotes

  1. Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns—Original Soundtrack Recording (Nonesuch, 1994).
  2. Stephan Goertz, “Sport as a Sign of the Times,” in Kevin Lixey, et. al., eds., Sport and Christianity: A Sign of the Times in the Light of Faith (Washington D. C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2012), 192.
  3. Cait Murphy, Crazy ’08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History (New York: Smithsonian Books, 2008), 189.
  4. Quoted in Goertz, “Sport as a Sign of the Times,” 190.
  5. Ibid., 192.
  6. Mark Ribowsky, Howard Cosell: The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011), 15.
  7. Ibid., 12.
  8. Ibid., 3.
  9. Ibid., 186.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid., 149.
  12. Ibid., 4.
  13. Ibid., 63.
  14. Ibid., 36.
  15. Ibid., 57, 61.
  16. Ibid., 57.
  17. Ibid., 6.
  18. Ibid., 139.
  19. Bananas, directed by Woody Allen, MGM Studios, 1971.
  20. Ribowsky, Howard Cosell, 207.
  21. Ibid., 237.
  22. Ibid., 382.
  23. Ibid., 401.
  24. Ibid., 403.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid., 3.
  27. Ibid., 18, 19.
  28. Ibid., 436.
  29. Daniel T. Rodgers, Age of Fracture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).
  30. Steven J. Overman, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Sport: How Calvinism and Capitalism Shaped America’s Games (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2011), 337.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Ibid., 24, 25.
  33. Consider for instance the following small sampling, in chronological order: Perry Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1954); Edmund Morgan, The Puritan Family new edition, revised and enlarged (New York: Harper & Row, 1966); Kenneth Lockridge, A New England Town: The First Hundred Years, Dedham, Massachusetts, 1636-1736 (New York: Norton, 1970); Christine Leigh Heyrman, Commerce and Culture: The Maritime Communities of Colonial Massachusetts, 1690-1750 (New York: Norton, 1984); Patricia Bonomi, Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986); Carol F. Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England (New York: Norton, 1987); Richard Godbeer, Sexual Revolution in Early America (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002); Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); Brian Donahue, The Great Meadows Farmers and the Land in Colonial Concord (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004); and John Fea, The Way of Improvement Leads Home (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008). 34Overman, Protestant Ethic, 16.
  34. Overman, Protestant Ethic, 16.
  35. Marilynne Robinson, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998), 150. The passage is worth quoting at length: “Puritanism was a highly elaborated moral, religious, intellectual, and political tradition which had its origins in the writing and social experimentation of John Calvin and those he influenced. While it flourished on this continent—it appears to me to have died early in this century—it established great universities and cultural institutions and an enlightened political order. It encouraged simplicity in dress and manner and an aesthetic interest in the functional which became bone and marrow of what we consider modern. Certainly the idea that a distaste for the mannered and elaborated should be taken to indicate joylessness or an indifference to beauty is an artifact of an old polemic. No acquaintance with New England portrait or decorative art encourages the idea that Puritan tastes were somber.”
  36. Claudio Véliz, The New World of the Gothic Fox: Culture and Economy in English and Spanish America (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994), 20.
  37. Overman, Protestant Ethic, 97, 148.
  38. Ibid., 171, 204.
  39. Ibid., 296, 290.
  40. Ibid., 336.
  41. Ibid., 9, 10.
  42. Ibid., 337.
  43. Quoted by Dietmar Mieth’s Preface of Lixey, Sport and Christianity, 3.
  44. Alois Koch, “Biblical and Patristic Foundations for Sport,” in Lixey, Sport and Christianity, 84, 85.
  45. Pero Barrajón, “Overcoming Dualism,” in Lixey, Sport and Christianity, 40.
  46. Ibid., 41.
  47. Goertz, “Sport as a Sign of the Times,” 204-205.
  48. Barrajón, “Overcoming Dualism,” 49.
  49. Mieth, Preface, 6.
  50. Koch, “Biblical and Patristic Foundations for Sport,”97.
  51. Ibid., 100.
  52. Bernhard Maier, “Sport as Pastoral Opportunity,” in Lixey, Sport and Christianity, 218, 219.
  53. Goertz, “Sport as a Sign of the Times,” 198.
  54. Norbert Müller, “Concrete Pastoral Action within Sport,” in Lixey, Sport and Christianity, 232-233.
  55. Karen Joisten, “Man, Mortality, and the Athletic Hero,” 32.
  56. Ibid.
  57. Ibid., 33.
  58. Ibid., 35.
  59. Ibid., 37.
  60. Dietmar Mieth, “A Christian Vision of Sport,” in Lixey, Sport and Christianity, 183, 179.
  61. Mieth, Preface, 6.
  62. Quoted in Christoph Hübenthal, “Morality and Beauty,” in Lixey, Sport and Christianity, 76.
  63. Bishop Josef Clemens, “Sport in the Magisterium of Benedict XVI, in Lixey, Sport and Christianity, 141.

Eric Miller

Geneva College
Eric Miller, Ph.D., is professor of History and the Humanities at Geneva College, where he directs the honors program. His most recent book is Brazilian Evangelicalism in the Twenty-First Century: An Inside and Outside Look (Palgrave, 2019, co-edited with Ronald J. Morgan).