Is there, underneath it all, some kind of connection between sports and religion?
One of the more fascinating members in my former shul was Joe D.* He supported the shul in many ways, but attendance was not one of them. Even on Yom Kippur, he would arrive just before Yizkor and leave immediately after. Despite all this, I liked chatting with him because, among other things, it gave me insight into how nonobservant Jews think.
One day he said to me, “I don’t need no Torah, Rabbi, I got my own religion, and it’s called football and baseball. I’m totally dedicated to them, and I think about them day and night.”
Joe was a sweet person, but deep thinking was not his forte. Still, his comment gave me pause.
On the face of it, baseball, football, and other sports seem to have no connection at all with spiritual matters. Sports emphasizes physical prowess and personal bravado, which are hardly the essence of the religious life. Still, it cannot be denied that many people expend on their football or baseball teams the same kind of devotion and fidelity that religious people do on their beliefs. Is there, underneath it all, some kind of connection between sports and religion?
Certainly, the vocabulary of sports fans would suggest at least a verbal affinity. People worship the quarterback as if he were a god. Fans are devoted to the team, win or lose, through thick and thin, and they always have faith that the team will get better. “You gotta believe!” echoes through the stadiums. And if, as some claim, religion requires ultimate fanaticism, the word “fan” is short for fanatic. The languages of sports and religion do seem to dovetail.
Perhaps this surface overlay is related to the nature of human beings. Man has an innate need for transcendence, to be in touch with something beyond his immediate self. This was and remains the power of prayer and religion. In modern times, this need has been transferred to other areas. For some, it is the pursuit of money and power; for others, the hunger for pleasure. And for the multitudes, sports offers that transcendence.
For religion is defined as something to which people ascribe supreme importance, and in which they express awe and grant obeisance to superhuman knowledge and ability. Just as qualities like discipline, obedience, reverence, fervor, and worship are all integral elements of religion, so also are they true of sports. We genuflect before the home run hitter, the pinpoint accuracy of the quarterback, and the basketball stars who are endowed with superhuman talent and skill.
Football, baseball, and all sports have their own rituals, their own events and celebrations. Stadiums are centers of worship, the deity is the game itself, and the players fulfill the requirement of the deity. There are rules, boundary lines, and penalties. Grueling training and focus are mandatory. Fatigue and exhaustion are no excuse. And just as a truly religious person continues to believe during good times and bad, so also if one’s team has a bad season, the true devotee never abandons hope. Instead, he has faith that next year, l’shanah habaah, things will be better. His faith is unwavering.
But even though there are some congruities, these are only superficial. Probe beneath the surface, and we find that the analogies are spurious and the differences profound. In genuine religion, the true hero is not the one who hits home runs or throws 50-yard touchdown passes. Avos 4:1 teaches just the reverse: eizehu gibor, hakovesh es yitzro — Who is mighty? He who conquers his inclinations.”
Similarly, the goal in sports is victory at all costs. “Nice guys finish last,” said the famous manager of the old Brooklyn Dodgers. “Winning isn’t everything,” said the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers; “it’s the only thing.”
In sports, he who surrenders is a loser. In religion, he who surrenders himself to G-d — b’yadcha afkid ruchi (Tehillim 31:6) — is the hero. Self-abnegation, acknowledging one’s weakness before a Higher Power, is the key. Humility is desirable, pride is sinful. One is conscious of the Presence of G-d at all times, not only in difficult times. Shivisi Hashem l’negdi tamid (Tehillim 16:8). For the truly pious Jew, religion — Torah — is not just a key element of life; it is life itself. It’s not just everything; it’s the only thing.
So don’t fool yourself, Joe. You may love football and baseball, but though these are absorbing, they are not substitutes for the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Your homemade religion makes no demands of you, has no Thou Shalts and Shalt Nots. It doesn’t change your life in any way, except to provide something to cheer for.
So continue supporting your team, reveling in its victories and mourning its defeats. But unless it makes a better person of you, please don’t call that a religion. Joe, you still need a Torah.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 970)
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