Sports Fandom: A Religion of its Own

Fans cheering at the opening of the FIFA Confederations Cup 2009

“Faith, devotion, worship, ritual, sacrifice, commitment, suffering, celebration”— these are all words associated with both religion and sports. Bart Giamatti’s book, “Take Time for Paradise” made many religious references to sport which got me thinking about the reasons behind sports fanaticism. Why do people dedicate so much of their time and emotion to something as futile as sporting events- an irrelevant game?

Sports fanatics are devoted to and worship their teams just as religious individuals worship their respective deities. They partake in rituals such as painting their faces, wearing elaborate costumes and dying their hair. They come together and cheer and chant in unison which can be looked at much the same way as collective prayers. They have strange superstitions that provide them with hope and allow them to believe that they have some sort of control over the outcome of the game. They sacrifice their time, money, and energy in order to support their teams. Star athletes, even on the collegiate level, have thousands of followers on social networking sites. Sometimes fans get angry or upset when their favorite star does not respond to their tweet, which is comparable to the feeling that religious people can have when their god or other deity does not answer their prayers.

The difference between religion and sport, however, is that sport fandom does not have any long term effects on one’s life. Many people look toward religion as a saving grace, a way to ensure that something better is to come. But in sports, the focus is the present, the now. There is no future except the result of the game, the road to the championship, the end of a season.

According to Giamatti, sport “is a drug to keep people docile or at least diverted from real problems.” The rituals, the devotion, the cheering- they all become an escape from everyday life. It allows spectators, for a brief time, to have no worries except for the outcome of that one simple game, that ultimately will not change anything about their lives. In life, “to have no ‘real’ consequence or sequel is such a rare event” (Giamatti), yet in sports, this is possible.  Once one season ends, there is always restored hope for the next season. Nothing is official, everything can change. It is this very principle of sport that allows people to become so dedicated- knowing that no matter what is going on in their life outside of their team, there is still hope somewhere.

It is true that at times fans do overreact and put too much of an emotional investment into their teams. A loss is not the end of the world, and their superstitions may be a tad bit ridiculous. They may act a little insane. But identifying with a specific team has its benefits. It makes one feel like they are a part of something bigger. That sport, that team becomes a part of you. It is not just a logo you wear on a t-shirt every Saturday or Sunday. It is what makes you feel alive, feel like you have a place in the world.

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3 thoughts on “Sports Fandom: A Religion of its Own

  1. I do agree with most of your post and the idea that sports fandom is in a sense a religion of its own. However, one point you make that I respectfully disagree with is when you said that sports fandom has no long term effect on peoples life. There is in fact numerous examples of sports having long term effects on people’s life. Every year, at least once a year, it seems as if there is death or riot that starts after or because of a sporting event result. Take for instance, Brian Stow a San Francisco Giants fan who three years ago made a trip down to Los Angeles to watch the Giants vs Dodgers Opening Day game. In the fierceness of the Giants, Dodgers rivalry he was mugged by multiple Dodgers fan and left in a Coma for 6 months and is no living in a vegetative state. To say that Stow’s fandom did not have long term effects on his life is blatantly false. And this is just one example, every year their are deaths or even life changing events that happen through sports and sports fandom.

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  2. I agree with you that a large part of the appeal of sports is that they are in the moment and have few long term consequences. This is something very unique to fandom There are few if any other things in the world that have no long term effects. Even the players who play the sports that people are fans of, have many long term effects associated with the game they play. In face i believe that is part of the appeal to the fan. That they know the people they are watching have so much riding on every game while they have nothing to lose. Of course people will say that are just as much a part of the team as the players but this is of course not true. After a terrible season, a fan is embarrassed and looks to next year, a player fears for his job and wonders what his family will do if they have to move again or worse if he is not hired to play anywhere else. This may seem ridiculous as we see the ultra rich, glamorous athletes, but people don’t realize how many athletes struggle financially. You must think about the fact that this is there career and it could end at any moment. This is i believe possibly the biggest difference between fans and players.

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  3. I agree with you completely! Especially with the idea that sometimes fandom can get a little out of hand, and that sports are truly just sports. When people “idolize” or “worship” athletes, I wish they would just step back and realize that these are not DEITIES. People definitely invest too much sometimes into athletics and fandom, which can cause devastation at the end of a season. I wish athletics and religion were not so similar to each other in our culture.

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