Thursday, July 3, 2008

"Bring Out Your Dead": Sport as Ritual

People used to be buried in churches. Turns out now they are being buried in stadiums. A professional football club in Hamburg, Germany is selling plots in a stadium-shaped cemetery just outside the real stadium (read about it in Spiegel Online). And a company named Eternal Image allows you to peacefully rest in your favorite Major League Baseball team urn or casket (urns run $799; caskets for as little as $4,499... what a deal!).

With teams and leagues now selling eternal bliss, the "strait and narrow path" just got a whole lot easier. Instead of prayers and good works, in order to get into Detroit Tiger paradise you just need to be able to afford season tickets, be able to sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" (in or out of tune), and knock back six packs of Schlitz at each home game.

In this case the cliché (sports = church) is true: sports have become the secular means to transcendent experience, a modern replacement for the divine thrill of religious exuberance of centuries past.

This is in part because sporting events are acted out very much like a ritual experience. The athletes take on the role of our surrogates, confronting evil in its Yankee pinstripes or University of Utah red.

In his book Quest for Excitement, Norbert Elias writes, “Imaginary danger, mimetic fear and pleasure, sadness and joy are produced and perhaps resolved by the setting of pastimes . . . . Thus the feelings aroused in the imaginary situation of a human leisure activity are the siblings of those aroused in real-life situations" (42).

In other words, the anxieties of life are transferred onto the athletes who overcome obstacles (or fail to) on our behalf. The stakes are low, athletes are rarely killed and only occasionally lose their jobs, but sport operates as a cathartic tonic for the spectator who identifies closely with his favorite athlete or team.

As a result, I don't actually have to beat up my neighbor, I let my favorite team beat his favorite team. Or if I lose my job, instead of taking my anger out on my boss, I find solace in the fact that my team won the championship or, if in fact they lost, I am comforted to know that I am not the only one suffering, and--like my athletic surrogates--I go on with life, confident I can do better next time. In addition, in the modern world, my wife may leave me, my job may be taken from me, but my team will always be there. Markovits and Hellerman in their book Offside metion that the team may indeed be, for many men, the only constant in their lives. The hymn "I've Got a Friend in Jesus" has been replaced by, "You'll Never Walk Alone" (Liverpool's football anthem).

Anciently, the disconnect between sports and religion was nonexistent. Winners of games were seen to have divine right on their side. Instead of chance, it was believed that the hand of god(s) intervened to determine the outcome. René Girard (in his book The Scapegoat) writes about an ancient tribe (the Canuelos) who rolled dice over a corpse as part of the burial ritual. This was done, Girard explains, to invoke the presence of deity, since they, not chance, determined what face of the die would face heavenward.

When I die, in addition to being placed in a Seattle Mariners' urn, perhaps I should ask my children to play backgammon over my remains. Who knows, maybe they'll roll a lot of double sixes and cause divine chariots to carry my soul to the great Safeco field in the sky.


marc said...

How 'bout a cryogenic burial under an ice rink?

Derek said...

I think you hit a little on the topic of transference. Basically, people like to bring themselves closer to success or further from failure. When the M's lose, Corry says that "they" lost the game. If I ask who won, he would say, "we" did. I think this has a lot to do with bragging rights after big rivalry games - the fact that by random chance, the team I cheer for beat yours this time. I have success and I can laugh at you for another year.

One another note, you must've missed Austin Collie's comments after the latest BYU-Utah game. (See

Corry Cropper said...

I did miss that. Amazing. Not much different than so many athletes who thank God or Jesus after they have a good performance. I prefer to think of the baseball "gods" intervening... and anyone who has played golf is familiar with the "gods of golf."