Author and priest Randall Balmer: ‘Sport has eclipsed religion as the US pastime’

Author and priest Randall Balmer: ‘Sport has eclipsed religion as the US pastime’

Does the penalty box have religious connotations? Randall Balmer leans in that direction. A scholar of religion at Dartmouth College, he’s intrigued by the origins of the so-called sin bin.

Ice hockey emerged in late 19th-century Canada, influenced by the indigenous sport of lacrosse. As the game became popular among Catholics in Canada in the 1930s, it started to incorporate the penalty box, 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 as probably not a coincidence that the penalty box was introduced into hockey about the same time that Irish and French Canadians were beginning to play the game in large numbers,” Balmer says, noting, “I wish I had more direct evidence for this.”

He likens the penalty box to both a Catholic confessional, and to a colonial Puritan practice – the stocks used for public shaming on New England village greens. Balmer put plenty of research into the book as he delved into the connections between religion and sport.

“There are a lot of similarities between the two worlds,” he says. “Other people have talked about them, too – the kind of sense of liturgy, procession, sacred space, these sorts of things. I thought it was interesting and wanted to take it a little bit further – a kind of symbolic world behind all of these major team sports that shapes how we see them.”

The book represented a challenge for its author, who says he is more comfortable writing about his specialty of evangelical Christianity. Raised in an evangelical family, he is now an Episcopal priest who has penned multiple 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 wasn’t exactly a sport novice. During his graduate studies at Princeton, he coached an intramural softball team with a colorful nickname – the Revolting Masses. Early in the 1990s, he serendipitously encountered sport talk radio and marveled over the callers’ intensity, which reminded him of religious fervor.

“If the New York Jets did not win their game against the Baltimore Ravens, the whole world was going to end,” Balmer recalls. “They were so invested in these games.”

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

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

He has become disenchanted with one athlete-advocate – Kyrie Irving, who was traded by the Brooklyn Nets earlier this year after a stormy period of downplaying coronavirus vaccines and tweeting a link to an antisemitic film, From Hebrews to Negroes. Balmer says that the Nets “may not be too disappointed to be rid of a troublesome character.”

The links between religion and sport, the author argues, can be traced to early days the of ice hockey, basketball, baseball and football. One prominent factor was Muscular Christianity, a philosophy shaped by clergymen of the Church of England who felt that once-rugged young men were growing soft from office work.

“It’s fair to point out that these four major team sports developed around the middle of the 19th century into the middle of the 20th century,” Balmer says. “It’s a crucial period when rules develop and various conventions surrounding these sports begin to emerge. Muscular Christianity was a big part of that.”

As he explains, some clergymen “began to argue for a kind of robust Christianity. They understood it would be to their advantage if men falling away from the church associated their faith with athleticism. It really drives the development of each of the major team sports.”

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

The sport’s founder, 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, the head of the college, gave his protege an assignment: Create an indoor game for bored young men between the football and baseball seasons. With players trying to shoot a ball into peach baskets, the new game proved popular among men and women from its early years. It became a global sensation through the Y.

“As graduates of the school began to fan out across North America and around the world as directors of YMCAs, they introduced basketball to various places,” Balmer says. “Basketball almost becomes kind of a missionary sport in foreign venues and [Native American] reservations.”

The book notes basketball’s interfaith appeal: It has been embraced by the Catholic Youth Organization, the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, and Muslims across the world.

The book probes other, more indirect connections between religion and sport, such as the importance of an origin story. In baseball’s early decades, adherents embraced the myth of Civil War general Abner Doubleday as the founder of the national pastime despite ample evidence to the contrary. Balmer compares these devotees to today’s creationists arguing for the teaching of the Book of Genesis in public school history and science classes.

“What I would argue is the real importance of these creation stories,” Balmer says. “Whether or not 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 “baseball’s Cooperstown myth” expresses “something about the rural, idyllic ideal of baseball – which was, of course, developed during the Industrial Revolution.”

Initially, religious institutions tended to look disapprovingly on sport. In the 19th century, and well into the 20th, organized play on Sundays was prohibited. John Franklin Crowell, the president of the Methodist college of Trinity, which later became Duke, upset his co-religionists when he tried to introduce American football on campus. The Methodist clergy of North Carolina became concerned with the violence of the game and ultimately got Crowell fired.

Over time, attitudes changed with the rise of church leagues, to the point where a church in Washington State rescheduled a weekend service because it clashed with a Seattle Seahawks road game on the East Coast.

“It symbolized how sport has really eclipsed religion as the national pastime,” Balmer says. “People are much more fanatical about sport than religion these days.”

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