Friday, November 20, 2009

Sport as a Polytheistic Religion in Australia

By Michael R. Astle

This essay aims to detail how there is popular polytheistic religion in Australia named Sport. Whilst focussing upon the case study of Australian Football, and at times narrowly upon the Geelong Football Club, it touches upon numerous other sports in order to support the theory that this religion of Sport is not confined to only one specific code, nor is it limited to the geographical area of Australia, but rather has devotees around the world. The argument begins by debunking the fallacy that traditional religions are more popular than sport in Australia by drawing to the attention of the reader the significance of television broadcasts. Afterwards it discusses the role of symbolism within faithful communities. The concept of the Sporting Pantheon is then introduced with a few notes on the role of the feminine. The essay subsequently validates the possibility of poly-religious devotees prior to expounding some of the answers Sport provides to ultimate questions.

It is erroneous to presume that Australians are more interested in traditional religions than sport. Bouma (2000) asserts that Australians are more likely to attend traditional religious places of worship than major sporting venues (pp. 386-387). However he readily admits the importance of time in relation to how people order their priorities (Bouma, 2000, p. 394). So it is worth remembering that most traditional religious services are shorter in duration than the majority of sporting events and few people pray more hours each week than they spend engaged in informal sports (Bouma & Lennon, 2003, p. 111). Indeed, studies show that Australians engage in excerise, informal sport and walking activities roughly six times as frequently as all religious activity combined (Bouma & Lennon, 2003, p. 111). A more significant statistic though is that watching television is the forth most frequently reported activity in the everyday lives of Australians after attending to personal hygiene, eating and sleeping (Bouma & Lennon, 2003, p. 110). This begs the question, are Australians more likely to watch programmes related to sports or traditional religions?

Clearly Australians prefer to watch sports on televison rather than programmes related to traditional religions. The Australian Broadcasting Corperation transmits more than three times as many hours of sports programmes as it does religious ones (Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, 2009, pp. 10-28). During the 2005 ratings season, four of the top five most watched television programmes were sporting events (Dale, 2005). To begin the case study, notably, the Grand Final of the Australian Football League that year was by far the highest rating event and yet it was between two teams based outside of Victoria, where the majority of the most avid fans of the code reside (Dale, 2005). In 2008, 19 of the 20 highest rating television programmes were related to sports (Free TV Australia, 2008, p. 27). Returning to the case study, that year the Victorian team of Hawthorn defeated Geelong, another Victorian team, in the Grand Final which had slipped to being only the sixth most popularly viewed television event of the year (Free TV Australia, 2008, p. 27). Yet the code appears to have since recovered a few thousand viewers as ratings for the first 40 weeks of 2009 ranked the Grand Final of this year, where Geelong returned to defeat St Kilda, as the third most popular programme of the year to date (Free TV Australia, 2009, p. 1). So far this year, seven of the top ten and 11 of the top 20 highest rating free to air programmes in Australia have been sporting events (Free TV Australia, 2009, p. 1). Conversely, religious programmes are considered so insignificant by Australians that there appears to be no collection of statistical data related to them. But how do these figures compare with those of Australians who watch pay to view television?

Australians who subscribe to cable and satellite television networks are even more likely to watch sports than traditional religious programmes than their free to view watching conterparts. Although the highest rating free to air televsion programmes in 2008 were ten times more popular than those on pay to view networks, it is not insignificant that all 20 of the highest rating pay to view television events were sports of one kind of football code or another (Free TV Australia, 2008, p. 28). Sporting events comprise over 8% of what Australians watch on satellite television stations whilst traditional religious programmes rate so poorly they are not even reported in a category of their own (OzTAM, 2009, pp. 1-2). Surely though there is more evidence than just television statistics to support the belief that Sport is a legitmate religion.

Baker (2007) states that sport and religion are “the image of each other” (p. 2). After all, it is the role of religion to bind society together and link the fleeting with the enduring (Bouma, 2000, p. 388). As such religion requires “structure, organisation” and “differentiated roles” (Bouma, 2000, p. 397). Mewett (2000) confirms that sport has “specialised roles”, “organisation” and “structure” (p. 406-421). (How Sport links the fleeting with the enduring shall be addressed towards the end of this work.) Social arrangements provide the masses with the feeling of belonging they desire (Atkin, 2004, p. 95). But in order to belong, the individual must share in the experiences of the group (Atkin, 2004, p. 81ff.). As such, it may be observed that sport directs behaviour in the same way traditional religions do.

This statement is not intended simply to refer to the honourific behaviours which occur at a place of worship. Obviously there is “patterned behaviour” within sporting events (Mewett, 2000, p. 406). Bouma (2000) states in the realm of religion “it is impossible to be regularly spontaneous” and so patterns must exist in any form of regularly occuring worship (p. 389). Whether it is a whole crowd bowing or performing a Mexican wave; facing towards the east, Mecca, Jerusalem or centre field; silencing itself for communion or a vital kick, there are most definitely actions in the religion of Sport which mirror those of other religions. But it is in the behaviour of devotees beyond their respective places of worship where more salient examples can be found.

Religion and sport both influence the way people dress. Often members of a clergy and umpires wear set apparel to perform their duties but the discussion must extend far beyond this point. It is not uncommon for religions to have some form of acceptable standard for attire (Bouma, 2000, p. 397). Some cults have been known to employ uniforms (Atkin, 2004, p. 28). To paraphrase Atkin (2004), what a shiver there would be if “Tom wore the wrong clothes” to Kardinia Park, home stadium of the Geelong Football Club (p. 65). When attending a place of worship, it is most necessary to be correctly attired. More sincere devotees often choose to wear religious symbols elsewhere as well. Rather than a cross, hijab or skull cap, a sporting devotee may wear a scarf of the team colours, a replica of the jersey of a favourite player or a cap decorated with the logo of a team (Atkin, 2004, p. 28; Bouma, 2000, p. 397).

As with traditional religions, most sporting teams have a symbol or logo of one kind or another. Sikhism has the symbol of a khanda. Geelong Football Club has the symbol of a cat. Ironically, this symbol was adopted in 1923 when a satirist suggested a black cat would improve the luck of the then frequently defeated club (Geelong Football Club, 2009b). Nonetheless, today icons of “The Cats” adorn practically every form of memorabilia sold by the club (Geelong Football Club, 2009c). Why is it that followers of all religions seem drawn to use of symbolism?

Atkin (2004) believes that people love symbols because of what they represent (p. 111). Symbols represent a shared understanding. The ability to identify other followers within a likeminded community who will corroborate the truth of the beliefs of the individual provides a sense of certainty (Atkin, 2004, pp. 102-126). They may also assist in the process of marketing to converts for whenever a potentional devotee sees a symbol he or she is immediately reminded of all that is stands for (Atkin, 2004, p. 72). The ability to identify those of other persuasions “who have to be reached… who have to be saved” from another brand, religion or club is valuable to current practioners as well (Atkin, 2004, p. 200). Not unsurprisingly, the precise intent of these sorts of expressions varies depending on who is talking and who is listening.

Religion forms the language of a devotee, not only in regards to music but also ordinary, everyday speech. Sport does the same thing. Certain words or phrases are either promoted or discouraged by both. For example, at the majority of Australian Football matches, it would be unadvisable to declare the superiority of Rugby League over the event which the crowd has come to see. It would be akin to swearing in a chapel, totally unappreciated and viewed as a contemptuous sign of disrespect. From another angle, how a person speaks conveys his or her prior experiences and the influence of religion within the sphere of socialisation of that person. Does one speak of a David and Goliath battle or of a “level playing field” (Mewett, 2000, p. 404)? Such adages are also obtained from the materials one reads. Just as only a minority of professing Christians have read The Holy Bible, so too few sporting devotees have read the official rule book of any branch of their religion. The necessary knowledge is instead provided by the community and through the explanations and interpretations of priests or referees with study guides or magazines assisting those who seek a less superficial understanding of the way things are or should be and what all the grandeur means (Atkins, 2004, p. 192).

Clearly then there are many ways in which sport can fulfil the social roles of religion even without touching upon roles of food, drinks, smells and their respective senses. However Milton (1972) believes that the ability of sport to act as “a functional equivalent of religion does not imply that sport is religion” for in his view that “would be stretching the analogy too far” (pp. 126-127). Nonetheless, he admits that his study was a “functional examination” rather than a “phenomenological analysis” and as such it is “limited in its scope” (Milton, 1972, p. 127). If then the world of sport were to be viewed phenomenologically, as this essay has already begun to do, how would it compare to established traditional religions? Well, all major extant and historical religions attest to the existence of some form of supernatural, divine or hallowed being or beings, and so does Sport.

It has been incorrectly asserted that the issue of theology in the religion of Sport could be troublesome (Prebish, 1992, p. 52). Novak (1992) contends that sport provides a “pagan sense of godliness” (p. 36). This may be similar to what Prebish (1992) describes as “primitive polytheism” (p. 52). Indeed, this essay makes quite a comparison between the pantheon of the ancient Greek mythology and the zealous devotion directed towards sports, codes, teams and players. The exact correlation between the Greek Pantheon and the Sporting Pantheon is most easily understood with the assistance of a visual guide (see charts 1 and 2); however it may also be comprehended by analysis, beginning with the individual deity.

An individual sporting figure may be a deity. Meares (2003) discusses the lives of many sporting dignitaries who are deemed “legends” by their fans. A fan may habitually direct his or her devotion towards such a renowned icon. Prebish (1992) describes how “legends offer the faithful… a leader… to worship” (p. 50). Although this worship may be transiant and directed towards different deities at different times, it is no less sincere than that of the Hindu who may attend to the shrines of multiple deities in the course of his or her life (British Broadcasting Corporation, 2005). In some cases people are even worshipped against their own will. The most striking example of such a figure in Australian Football is the original Gary Robert Ablett who is otherwise known as “God” (Haigh, 2003, p. 2). His first begotten son, who has also played for Geelong Football Club, was named in the image of his father. Consequently, Gary Ablett, Junior is called by his most ardent admirers the “Son of God” (Stevens, 2009, p. 30). The elder Ablett also has two brothers, a younger son, three nephews and a brother-in-law who have all played Australian Football professionally and were all recently united in grief at the passing of another nephew of Ablett, who had been listed as rookie, after the young man died from a heart condition (Horan, 2009). Clearly, multiple divines may form a sporting dynasty such as the Ablett Dynasty which, through marriage, extended itself to include members of the Tuck family (Hinds, 2005). In ancient Egypt each king in a Pharaonic dynasty was added to their pantheon and in modern North Korea the worship once directed towards their late head of state is now being directed towards his son also (Asia News, 2005). Whether there are devotees who direct their love towards such family dynasties in the religion of Sport is unknown. Nonetheless, there is another kind of dynasty to which fans do offer their allegiance.

A club or team may be a deity. Statements such as those of club president Frank Costa who exclaimed, “I worship the Geelong Football Club” are not unique (Sporting Pulse Pty Ltd., 2008, p. 7). Whereas papal dynasties are known to a certain religion, in the religion of Sport a club may fulfil the role of a dynasty. Some traditional Christian worshippers have been known to sing of the glory of their enduring church (Net Hymnal, 2007). Likewise from one generation to the next other faithful souls sing, “We are Geelong, the greatest team of all” as an expression of their solidarity and confident unwavering loyalty though players change with the seasons (Geelong Football Club, 2009a). But wherever there is solidarity, there will undoubtedly also be rivalry. Some rivalries are more intense than others. The 1989 Victorian Football League Grand Final provides an example of such rivalry. That year Gary Ablett was playing for Geelong against his former club of Hawthorn and almost won the match after kicking nine goals; however unfortunately for Geelong that was one too few and so Hawthorn finally revenged their Grand Final loss to Geelong 26 years earlier (Clark, 2009). Similar rivalries existed between the ancient Greek deities and are not unknown in Indian religions either (Gupt, 2009). Then of course there is the god who is simply despised by all expect his own worshippers. In Australia that position must undoubtably be awarded to the Rugby League club named the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles. Although the bitterness directed towards this club may have subsided during their periods of poor performance, the antagonism of many remains and is expressed most poignantly in the secondary support many fans offer to whichever team is playing against the one called Manly (Maxwell, 2008). Still, some sporting parishioners seek a more overarching divinity.

A particular sporting code may be a deity, although others might consider such to be a divine household. Some devotees truly “worship at the altar of Aussie Rules” (Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2000, p. 1). This endearing reference to Australian Football is not uncommon amongst sporting fanatics. Gittins (2009) states, “my love of rugby league is either worship… or merely a blatant form of idolatry” (p. 7). Masters (2007) lauds the preference of Australian pay to view television watchers for the National Rugby League over Australian Football in a model example of rivalry between these two houses within the Sporting Pantheon. Rudd (2003) declares plainly, “football is a religion” (p. 1). Although he intended his statement in relation to soccer, it is nonetheless an apt sentiment which would explain the contention felt across the various codes of football towards the others. So whilst Byrnes (2009) is also amongst those who might like to think that the Grand Final of the National Rugby League outrated that of the Australian Football League this year, the final statistics appear to have proved otherwise (Free TV Australia, 2009). However there is still a greater divinity than the code in the minds of some diciples of the religion of Sport.

A particular sporting game or activity may be a deity. When the Roman Catholic Pope encouraged followers of like faith to attend Mass rather than attend sport on Sunday, one newspaper columnist outrightly condemned this “attack on the only true religion” of football (Clarke, 2004, p. 5). Likewise a columnist for the Indiana Daily Student has openly stated, “Basketball is a religion in this state” (Chen, 2009, p. 27). One religious studies lecturer has authored a book about his devotion to the religion of Motor Car Racing (Russell, 2007). There is even an internet website where devoted hikers can buy shirts for their dogs emblazoned with the words “Hiking Is My Religion” (Zazzle, 2009). These latter examples should assist the reader to realise how vast a diagramme would be required to display the full breath of the Sporting Pantheon.

Nonetheless, there are those worshipful fans who are not particularly devoted to any lesser deity but simply choose to honour a multitude of deities within the Sporting Pantheon. Patterns may be found in the choices of some devotees. One such faithful believer has even composed a song about his adoration of all sporting deities related to the city of Boston (Ingber, 2009). Curiously, in an example of how the religon of Sport perpetuates social inequity, just as Marx (as cited in Bouma, 2000) claimed religion does, Ingber ignores the significance of females in his song.

Yet just as in the ancient Greek pantheon there were many roles for females, so too there are in the religion of Sport. There are female sporting goddesses who are worshipped in a similar way to their male counterparts although often by fewer devotees (Murry, 2008). In regards to the case study, there have been parralell competitions for female players of Australian Football since 1981 (SportingPulse Pty Ltd, 2007). But when television coverage only comes with a charity game against a male team there is clearly still an attitude of male superiority being conveyed at least by the media if not the Australian public in general (McClure, 2007). Former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett has expressed his desire to see females play generally on mixed gender teams in a combined competition with males (News Ltd, 2009). However Mewett (2000) suggests that because society does not expect females in sport to reach the same standards as males, they in turn feel unmotivated to achieve lofty goals which society then perceives as a general disinterest and so spends little time concentrating on female sporting figures. Essentially this is in keeping with the timeless economic law of supply and demand, the cycle of which can not be broken until the public mind determines that it is ready for change. In other words, the goddesses of Sport may remain in the arenas of netball, volleyball and may even be permitted in the realms of golf and tennis but they should not attempt to encrouch upon the more mascular sports lest the wrath of their gods fall upon them. Still, a woman who is not considered divine may nonetheless satisfy herself as the wife of a sporting god (Cox, 2008). However should such a relationship sour, the bitterness which may result on either side usually leads the Sporting Pantheon to eject the outsider who had been received only because of marriage (Cox, 2008). Again the role of female cheerleaders may also be likened to that of the beautiful nymphs and sirens of the ancient Greek mythology. Whilst never considered divine, even so they fulfil an important function within the religion of Sport just as the lowly and sometimes despised male figures of umpires and sponsors fulfil theirs. Yet can a person be a devotee of the Sporting deities if he or she is already a practitioner of a traditonal religion?

Is it possible to religiously follow Sport whilst remaining devoted to another religion? The Apostle Matthew records Jesus Christ as saying, “No man can serve two masters” (Mat 6:24 King James Version). This may be true in regards to the highest allegiance of an individual yet allegiances may not be fixed from one day to the next. For many believers of traditional religions such an assertion would be idolatrous (Carmody, 1992). However devotees of Abrahamic religions must keep in mind that the command reads, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:3). The use of the word “before” is significant. In one sense everyone who eats is a devotee of the god of food. But who would condemn a fellow believer simply for eating? For gluttony perhaps a person may condemned another yet surely not simply for eating. In this sense all people serve more than one god whether wittingly or unwittingly. The command only prohibits the believer from exalting a lesser deity above the one who gave the command. So long as one is able to serve both without transgression there is no need to live in fear of damnation. As such, Prebish is mistaken in declaring that it is not possible to be faithful to both sport and another religion (p. 52). After all, if a devotee can be polytheistic, why is it not possible to be poly-religious? If not divine commands, what else could prevent a person from faithfully following more than one religion? History shows that the faithful masses have an intuitive understanding of this reasoning. In 1966, when St Kilda defeated Collingwood by one point, the Grand Final of the Victorian Football League was held on the Jewish Day of Atonement; however “many religious Jews forgave Ian Synman for being at centre half back rather than in the synagogue, while the transistor radio allowed the good news to be brought to the doubly faithful” (Alomes, 1994, p. 47). However if devotion to Sport as a religion is not heretical, how might it answer those important religious questions relating to ultimate matters?

To put this question in perspective, it must be remembered that not everyone considers life and death to be the most important questions religion has to answer. Soccer coach Bill Shankly once declared, "Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that" (Liverpool Football Club, 2009, p. 1). The casual observer can easily see the pervasiveness of this sentiment across the various football codes. However surely there are devotees of all religions who consider each present moment to be of the utmost importance and so focus on nothing else. Still, undoubtedly there are people who seek answers to such questions and thus they must be addressed.

Chandler (1992) is incorrect in saying that sport does “not disturb us with questions about our destiny” (p. 59). To begin with, there are people who were “destined to play AFL football” (Pavlich, 2009, p. 3). Then there are clubs whose final result in a season is deemed to have been determined by destiny (Freeman, 2006). So too, many fans of the Australian Football club St Kilda sincerely believed that their club was “fated to lose” the 2009 premiership (Niall, 2009, p. 4). The notion of historical curses in the religion of Sport has been known for many decades (CBC Sports Online, 2004). This is part of how the religion of Sport reminds its devotees of where they came from despite the attempts of Chandler (1992) to deny this fact. Yet for many people, questions of the future and death are more significant than questions about the past and origins.

Within the religion of Sport there are numerous myths regarding death and many ways in which a departed deity may live on. Numerous Australian Football playing “legends” have been “immortalised” into the Halls of Fame of their respective clubs (Carlton Football Club, 2008, p. 1). Alternatively, this sect of the Sporting Religion, as with many other football codes, also permits a former player who is no longer actively worshipped to the same degree as during his or her most glorious years to be “immortalised in song” (Sydney Swans Football Club, 2009, p. 3). Perhaps some fans may believe that only the worthiest of names should live on in forms such as these whilst lesser names vanish into oblivion; however annihilationism shall be discussed shortly. There are numerous other connotations relating to the concept of life after death in the religion of Sport which must first be considered.

In a variety of ways the metaphorical model of reincarnation is perpetuated throughout Sport. Novak (1992) observes how sports “recreate symbols of cosmic struggle, in which human survival and moral courage are not assured” (p. 36). If a team loses a game it may be as disheartening as death for a fan, yet the team may rise again in another game. If a team misses the finals series, there is always another year. If a player is overlooked for an award, perhaps the judges may have a change of heart next season. Then there are former players who take roles such as that of former Australian Football player Wayne Jackson who, although no longer an actively playing hero on the field, reawakened to a new life as a club executive and then after his retirement still returns again and again as a sagely commentator (Vaughan, 2009). Nonetheless, the question still remains as to what the fate of the spirit or soul of the physically deceased devotee of the Sporting Religion might be.

One should bear in mind that it may not be necessary to answer such a question. Aristotle believed that the soul was not immortal and could not exist without the body, arguing as much in his work De Anima. Today, there are bodies of people which believe that the soul is not necessarily immortal (Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, 2002). There have also existed individuals within organisations which do believe in the immortality of the soul who have nonetheless objected to this doctrine personally (Beet, 1901). As such, the simplest answer the religion of Sport could give to the question of what happens to the soul after physical death would be to say that it ceases to exist. This would in no way challenge the status of Sport as a religion. Despite this, some have dreamt of places such as “football heaven” (Fitzpatrick, 2008, p. 7). Perhaps it would not be too dissimilar to the Valhalla of the Vikings where departed legendary warriors could feast and fight in “the final battle” for Odin (Philip, 2007, p. 11). So if there are individuals who choose to sincerely believe in paradises such as football heaven, who is able to disprove the existence of such places? What is more important to the purpose of this essay is how folk who irregularly and perhaps casually enjoy some degree of entertainment through sports but do not consider themselves to be worshippers are to be considered.

One of the purposes of religion is to provide meaning (Bouma, 2000, p. 390). The meaning sport holds for different people varies from person to person (Mewett, 2000, p. 413). So whilst Sport may be the religion of one faithful soul, another who may not have been “baptized into the sport” [sic] may find no religious meaning in the exact same activities (Lert, 1996, p. 35). Not only is this true of traditional religions but indeed of all activities as well, simply because different people find meaning in different ways. Unless meaning is found, it can not be expected that everyone who sets foot in a mosque will become a Muslim anymore than it should be expected that everyone who enters a grandstand will become a disciple within the religion of Sport. Some people choose to convert and some do not.

The purpose of this essay has not been to convert the reader to the religion of Sport. Rather, it seeks to convince the reader that Sport should be acknowledged as a religion equally as valid as any other perspective which may be held. Admittedly there are many aspects of traditional religion which it has not addressed to which further comparisons ought to be made. Nonetheless if it has refuted misguided notions about sport being “trivial in Australia” then it has achieved its first aim (Bouma & Lennon, 2003, p. 111). The second aim of the essay was fulfilled by confirming the ability of Sport to provide social cohension through various means and so act as other religions within the broader community in a functional sense. It is hoped that the novel theoretical model of the Sporting Pantheon may be further developed by future scholars as it greatly strengthens the claim that Sport is a religion. Finally, the brief exploration of how Sport answers ultimate questions within this article has only begun to expound the underlying philosophical concepts present within the religion. Wherefore, should any remain unconvinced that Sport is a religion, there are bound to be many forthcoming treatises on the subject in years to come.

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{The charts are saved in Publisher sorry so not sure how to upload them here.}

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