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Religion and Sports: An Introduction and Case Studies

Rebecca T. Alpert
Published by Columbia University Press in 2015

Reviewed by Tracy J. Trothen, Religion, Queen’s University

In this very effective and much-needed book, religious studies scholar Rebecca Alpert convincingly argues that religion must be part of the interdisciplinary sports conversation. Through a case study exploration of what she calls “the interconnections” between sports and religion, Alpert aims to introduce students to the growing scholarly field of religion and sport.

This book is intended as a text for university courses in religion and sports. To this end, after discussing scholarly perspectives on sport and religion, and the relationship between them, Alpert presents a series of case studies designed to engage the student and instructor in further discussion about the theoretical issues raised in the substantial introductory chapter.

The introductory chapter is 38 pages long and provides the base for the subsequent chapters, which are collections of case studies organized by theme. She begins by acknowledging the potential for both moral good and moral bad in world religions and in sports (3). Alpert follows this thread throughout her book, asking questions about values in sport and values in world religions. Next, using a conversational tone, Alpert explains that there is no one agreed-upon definition of religion. Alpert charts the movement of scholarly approaches to defining religion, explaining why there has been an overall shift away from searching for an essence common to all religions, toward a functionalist approach, to even more “all-encompassing” (7) approaches. Similar to well-known scholar of religion and sports Joseph L. Price, Alpert settles on Ninian Smart’s understanding of religions as being characterized by varying degrees of six dimensions, combined with a “family resemblance” lens. As she concludes: “Smart’s tool is useful for mapping religions and understanding them as living, breathing, changing phenomena that may share characteristics but use and express them quite differently” (7).

The rest of chapter 1 introduces four interconnections between religion and sports. These interconnections provide the structure for the book. Each subsequent chapter (or part) consists of case studies on each of these four ways that religion and sport interconnect.

In part 1, Alpert uses two cases to help the reader explore “why people think sports are a religion.” In the introduction, Alpert laid the foundation for this question. Using Smart’s dimensions, she suggests that the customary list of world religions is not the sum total of religions. Readers are given an overview of the state of the field as it has historically unfolded. Threaded throughout are the names of noted scholars such as Robert Bellah, Clifford Geertz, Emile Durkheim, Michael Novak, Joseph Price, and David Chidester, among others, as they have informed the field. Two cases are used to illustrate this interconnection: Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights narrative of “how sports can become a religion” for a community; and “the story of double amputee runner Oscar Pistorius” (39).

In Part 2, Alpert asks if religion has “a place in sports or sports in religion.” In the introduction, Alpert provides a quick historical tour, beginning with sports as they intersected with religion in the ancient world. Her use of examples such as the Mayan ball game (1,000 BCE), and martial arts in China (525 BCE) brings this complicated history to life, illustrating the longevity of the intermingling of religion and sports. She also shows how various religious attitudes to sport have shifted over time and place (for instance, the evolution and manifestations of muscular Christianity). The four cases include Jewish umpires and the Baseball Chapel movement in the United States; controversy over the relationship between Zen and archery in Japan; and the use of juju in African football.

The four cases in part 3 help the reader explore “what happens when religion and sports come into conflict.” Using examples from several religions including Daoism, Hinduism, and Judaism, Alpert sketches out the conflicted attitudes regarding the expression of religious practices in sport. Alpert explores what happens when athletes’ religious commitments come into the sports venue. Cases include the refusal of the 1930s Belleville Grays, a black Jewish baseball team, to play baseball on Saturdays; basketball player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s refusal to stand for the National Anthem on the basis that it conflicted with his Muslim values; and the wearing of hijab by Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani in the 2012 Olympics.

Part 4 considers “religion and ethical dilemmas in sport.” The four ethical “dilemmas” in sports that Alpert addresses are gender, sexuality, disability, and race. She also looks at the ethics of enhancement use in sport, and violence in sport. In particular, she asks if “religious groups have an obligation to take responsibility for…[harmful] attitudes and… practices” (34). Cases in this part include: 11-year-old Caroline Pla’s determination to play football on a boys’ Catholic Youth Organization team and requests for the Catholic Church to condemn bullfighting in Spain.

The pedagogical goal is stated clearly at the beginning of each case. Diverse perspectives are included in each case. Through carefully and creatively crafted classroom activities such as writing a blog or a tweet, engaging in a debate, or small group discussions, Alpert invites students and instructors to think critically about the relevant issues and form their own opinions.

This is an excellent collection of cases and Alpert successfully demonstrates the complex relationship between religion and sport and why this relationship is important to a liberal arts education. There are, of course, some limitations to this otherwise impressive book.

Because Alpert’s intent is to introduce readers to the interconnections of sports and religion largely through case studies, she provides an introduction to complex concepts, not a comprehensive exploration. For example, if you elect to use this book in teaching a course on sports and religion, and you want your students to grasp the concepts of civil, cultural, or natural religion, you will need to supplement your desired course with other sources.

On a more fundamental level, after the first chapter, Alpert does not pay as much attention to how sport is a religion itself as she does to how the world religions interact with sport. Part 1 concerns why “people think sport is a religion.” However, there are only two cases in this part, unlike four for each of the other three interconnections. I also wonder if one of these two cases – the Oscar Pistorius case – might be better placed in part 4 as an “ethics” case. Alpert frames Pistorius’ case – an Olympic runner with prostheses for running – as suitable to part 1 since his case “lends itself to thinking through ultimate questions as expressed in two of the dimensions of religion outlined by Ninian Smart…: the ethical/ legal and the doctrinal/philosophical” (48). Her stated goal in introducing this case is for readers to “apply our understanding of sport as a religion to the values connected to human embodiment, justice, and fairness” (48). While Pistorius’ case is related to two of Smart’s dimensions, it is more about questions of ethics and values than why people think sport is a religion. For this reason, I think it belongs more appropriately in the ethics section of the book.

Alpert’s other case for part 1 – Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, which illustrates “how sports can become a religion” for a community – is a very fitting choice for this section. Perhaps a case study on a flow experience in sport would be helpful in exploring why some people experience sport as a religion. Differing perspectives on whether or not flow is a sufficient condition to make the argument that a sport is a religion could be explored. (For example, see Eric Bain-Selbo,1 Graham Ward,2 Nick J. Watson and Andrew Parker,3 and Kathleen M. Dillon and Jennifer L. Tait.4) Flow states are mentioned very briefly at the beginning of the book as belonging in one of Smart’s dimensions (12) and toward the end of the book in the final case study (184) but Alpert does not explain the concept.

Regarding the fourth and final interconnection, I do wonder why Alpert chose to frame the question in terms as “how religion might contribute to resolving” ethical “dilemmas” in sport. Certainly, this is one way to approach this interconnection. I may be more inclined to ask how the relationship between sport and religion further problematizes these issues or how an understanding of sports as a religion might affect the ethical conversation. On the other hand, Alpert’s framing of this interconnection may be a more accessible way to introduce the topic of ethics as it relates to sports and religion.

One of the strongest features of this book is the way in which Alpert carefully explains the field of religion and sports. Through skillful organization, the use of well-placed examples, and a down-to-earth writing style, Alpert engages the reader and explains complex concepts in accessible terms. Unlike most other books on religion and sport, Alpert intentionally uses cases from diverse religious traditions, diverse sports, diverse time periods, and diverse global contexts. Although the book slightly favors examples from the United States more so than other countries, Alpert does a very impressive job drawing on global examples. Moreover, she manages to introduce student readers not only to the relationship between sport and religion but also to aspects of different world religions.

For those who are looking for texts specifically on Christianity and sport, Alpert’s book adds a much-needed contextual dimension to the conversation. The preponderance of books on sport and religion has been restricted to Christianity or focuses mostly on Christian examples and Christian theological reflection. Alpert’s situating of the relationship between Christianity and sport within the broader discussion of religion and sport helps the reader to understand better the issues associated with diversity and to perceive some common themes that characterize the relationships of several religions to sport and vice versa. I will certainly use this book as a required text in my undergraduate course on religion and sport, and recommend it strongly to others.

Cite this article
Tracy J. Trothen, “Religion and Sports: An Introduction and Case Studies”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 45:2 , 204-207


  1. Eric Bain-Selbo, “Ecstasy, Joy, and Sorrow: the Religious Experience of Southern College Football,” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture XX (Fall 2008): 9.
  2. Graham Ward, “A Question of Sport and Incarnational Theology,” Studies in Christian Ethics 25.1 (2012): 61, 64.
  3. Nick J. Watson and Andrew Parker, eds., Sports and Christianity: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (New York: Routledge, 2013), 18.
  4. Kathleen M. Dillon and Jennifer L. Tait, “Spirituality and Being in the Zone in Team Sports: a Relationship?,” Journal of Sport Behavior 23.2 (2000): 91-100.

Tracy J. Trothen

Queen's University
Religion, Queen’s University