Sports Fandom: A Religion All its Own?

by Charles Lippolis & RikkiLynn Shields

Asst. Editor & Editor

If you were raised in the Bronx during the mid-90’s there were two cathedrals that you likely found yourself in: St. Patrick’s in Manhattan, and Yankee Stadium on E 161st Street.

River Avenue was (and still is) a pantheon of sorts; memorializing the icons who wore pinstripes from DiMaggio to Jeter, and with street art that is deeply rooted in the culture of New York.

In every corner of the sports world, one could come across values that are held dearly in both sport and religion. This leads to their association, even though sports are often considered more of a controlled environment than religion.

Michael Plugh, Ph.D., assistant professor of communication, has taught classes for Temple University’s Tokyo campus on the history of American sports and leisure, and find the ritualization of sport is how it most directly correlates with the idea of religion.

“Sport [are] where we ritualize aspects of the sacred,” Plugh said, “Derek Jeter was never the best player in his generation, but few players have ever been revered because he represented something clean              in an era that was dirty.”

Honesty, heroism, and fair play are just some of the traits in sports that can be held as sacred. What turns the way we ritualize sacred beliefs into a religious entity is when a group or community aligns its sacred beliefs.

Senior Tim Bibaud from Worcester, Mass. grew up in Roman-Catholic family that was also a group of passionate Patriots fan. His Sunday’s became a routine; mass, meal and football with some friends down the street, a process that Bibaud said symbolized his love for the team

“It was the community of it, more so, the Patriots games for me,” Bibaud said.

Whether it was the Patriots, Celtics, or Red Sox, the early part of Bibaud’s life presented tons of adversity towards the fan community. Watching failure year after year is tough, but according to Plugh, it is a process of fandom that is imperative to emphasize when comparing it with religion.

“Fans of teams like the Indians are learning how to stay loyal to their community even though they have experience a long period of failure,” Plugh said, “patience is a virtue, that comes from religious tradition.”

For Plugh, a life-long Knicks fan, he has first-hand experience when it comes to team failure. The Knicks are a well-respected NBA franchise, but they have not won a championship since 1973, and Plugh has observed the faith that has inspired Knicks fans.

“You find those around you that are willing to endure and be patient, that’s what religion did for us… You sit around with failure in the belief a savior will come.”

Though Plugh has not had his salvation yet, Tim Bibaud has experienced winning ways lead by legends like David Ortiz, Paul Pierce, and Tom Brady.

“Paul Pierce was around for the darkest times, like the worst Celtics teams of all time…with guys like that, no matter how many times they let you down, you know they’re on your side,” Bibaud said, “…you can put into words the relationship 17-to-25 year olds have with Tom Brady, he really is a biblical type character.”

Senior Andrew McKee was raised as a Roman-Catholic in Long Island, and attended Catholic school throughout his entire life. Growing up, church was, and still is, a very important part of him and his family’s life– and sports didn’t fall too short of his faith.

McKee was exposed not only to his faith, but also to sports from his family while he was growing up. For him, watching the game, whether it be the Yankees, the Rangers, or the Jets, meant coming together.

“The earliest I can remember is watching the Yankees on Saturday’s with my grandpa and uncle. It’s just something that really brought my family together was to watch the Yankees every night together over time.” McKee said.

The idea of “coming together” is something that McKee finds value in, and an utmost priority for someone who is both a person passionate about their religion, but also just as passionate about a sport.

“I’ve heard over time people referring to being part of  ‘the church of baseball’ and things like that. That’s something I very much agree with. Being from New York, we are incredibly passionate about our sports teams, and I definitely identify myself with that. It’s about being so passionate for something you love; you can treat it like a religion,” McKee said.

As Americans, however, we often criticize, or find others criticizing those who we think put other things before their faith. While the term “faith” seems to be most commonly associated with our religious beliefs, and is deeply rooted in religion, being passionate about something, and having faith can be just as powerful if it is associated with things that aren’t always deemed as “faith-related” or even religious oriented.

“I think there’s definitely a divide in today’s world, where we may be at a point where there are a lot of people that don’t really care about their faith as much as they used to. It’s not so much prioritizing sports, but church and religion just don’t seem to have the same grasp it had even 10 years ago,” McKee said.

Balance is key, and the idea that sports fandom can be looked at as a religion should not be degrading to any religion in particular, or any sport alike.

“If you’re going to believe in a faith, you’re going to believe in your faith. If you’re going watch sports and be a huge fan, you’re going be a huge fan. You can be Catholic, and still watch football on Sundays,” McKee said.