Author and priest Randall Balmer: “Sports has eclipsed religion as entertainment in the US” | american sports

Does the penalty box have religious connotations? Randall Balmer leans in that direction. A religious studies scholar at Dartmouth College, he is intrigued by the origin of the so-called sin basket.

Ice hockey emerged in the late 19th century in Canada, influenced by the native sport of lacrosse. As the game became popular with Catholics in Canada in the 1930s, it began to feature a penalty bench where players received a sort of absolution through separation. Balmer explores this connection in his new book Passion Plays: How Religion Shaped Sports in North America, which was published late last year.

“It struck me that it was probably no coincidence that the penalty box was introduced to hockey around the same time that Irish and French Canadians started playing the game en masse,” says Balmer, noting, “I wish I had more direct evidence for it.”

He compares the punishment bench to both the Catholic confessional and the colonial Puritan practice – flasks used to publicly shame New England green villages. Balmer put a lot of research into the book, delving into the relationship between religion and sport.

“There are many similarities between the two worlds,” he says. “Other people have talked about that too – the importance of liturgy, processions, sacred space, that sort of thing. I thought it was interesting and wanted to go a little further – the kind of symbolic world behind all these major team sports that shapes how we view them.

The book was a challenge for its author, who says he is more comfortable writing about his specialty, which is evangelical Christianity. Raised in an Evangelical family, he is now an Episcopal priest, the author of many books about Evangelicals. These include Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, which was adapted into a three-part PBS documentary series and earned Balmer an Emmy nomination.

He was no sports novice. During his graduate studies at Princeton, he coached an intramural softball team with a colorful nickname – the Revolting Masses. In the early 1990s, he unexpectedly came across sports radio and marveled at the intensity of the callers, which reminded him of his religious zeal.

“If the New York Jets hadn’t won the game against the Baltimore Ravens, it would have been the end of the world,” recalls Balmer. “They were so involved in these games.”

Today, he sees another parallel between religion and sport through the activism of athletes. He says fans are often less than happy to welcome activism from the players they usually cheer for on the field, quoting Fox News host Laura Ingraham’s statement to “shut up and dribble.”

“It seems to me that the voices of conscience in our society used to be religious leaders,” says Balmer. “The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Dorothy Day – were religious figures who offered moral guidance to our society. Today, it’s not so much religious leaders as athletes, people like Colin Kaepernick, people like LeBron James.”

One sports attorney has disappointed him, Kyrie Irving, who was traded by the Brooklyn Nets earlier this year after a tumultuous period of downplaying coronavirus vaccines and tweeting a link to an anti-Semitic film From Hebrews to Blacks. Balmer says the Nets “can’t be too disappointed to get rid of a troublesome character.”

The author argues that the links between religion and sports go back to the beginnings of ice hockey, basketball, baseball and football. One major factor was muscular Christianity, a philosophy shaped by Church of England clergy who believed that formerly naughty young men were softened by clerical work.

“It’s important to note that these four major team sports developed from roughly the mid-1800s to the mid-2000s,” says Balmer. “This is a crucial period when the rules are evolving and the different conventions for these sports are starting to emerge. Muscular Christianity was a big part of that.”

Some clergymen, he explains, “began advocating a kind of solid Christianity. They understood that it would be to their advantage if men leaving the church linked their faith to athleticism. It’s really driving the growth of each major team sport.”

He calls the invention of basketball “the most obvious example.”

The founder of the sport, Dr. James Naismith, was a trained Presbyterian minister who joined a movement called the Young Men’s Christian Association, now known as the YMCA. Naismith was on the faculty of the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts. In 1891, Dr. Luther Gulick, a college principal, gave his protégé the task of creating an indoor game for bored young men between the football and baseball seasons. Thanks to players who tried to shoot the ball into peach baskets, the new game was popular among men and women from an early age. It became a worldwide sensation thanks to Y.

“As graduates of this school began to travel around North America and around the world as YMCA directors, they introduced basketball to different places,” says Balmer. “Basketball is becoming almost a missionary sport in foreign clubs and [Native American] reservations”.

The book highlights the interdenominational appeal of basketball: it has been embraced by the Catholic Youth Organization, the Young Men’s Association of Hebrews and Muslims around the world.

The book explores other more indirect links between religion and sport, such as the importance of origin stories. In baseball’s early decades, supporters embraced the myth of Civil War general Abner Doubleday as the founder of the national pastime, despite much evidence to the contrary. Balmer compares these devotees to today’s creationists who advocate teaching Genesis in history and science classes in public schools.

“I’m saying the true meaning of these creation stories,” says Balmer. “Whether they were historical or not – they were never intended to be historical – they tell us something.” Genesis teaches “about the nature of God and humanity,” while the “Cooperstown Baseball Myth” expresses “something about the rural, idyllic ideal of baseball – which, of course, developed during the Industrial Revolution.”

Initially, religious institutions viewed sport with disapproval. In the 19th century and into the 20th century, organized parties on Sundays were forbidden. John Franklin Crowell, the president of Methodist College of Trinity who later became Duke, upset his co-religionists when he tried to introduce American football to the campus. The North Carolina Methodist clergy became concerned with the game’s violence and eventually fired Crowell.

Over time, attitudes changed as the church leagues grew, to the point where a church in Washington State postponed a weekend service because it conflicted with a Seattle Seahawks road game on the East Coast.

“It symbolizes how sport has really eclipsed religion as a national pastime,” says Balmer. “Nowadays, people are much more fanatical about sports than about religion.”

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