In the midst of self-isolating and social distancing, many of us have taken the time to evaluate what we miss socially from our pre-pandemic lives. For some, our office spaces, favorite restaurants, or a drink with friends top the list. For me, and numerous sports fans and athletes across the globe, what we exceptionally crave right now are sports.
This might seem obvious: we’re bored and looking for distracting entertainment. But I think there’s something deeper and richer that’s missed in this current moment with the suspension of sport and play for athletes and fans across the globe. Scholars in the subfield of religion and sport, have been arguing for quite some time that, like religion, sport is a creative space for human expression and meaning-making. Perhaps now, during the absence of sports, these more meaningful aspects might become evident in ways most hadn’t imagined.
The list of sport cancellations is exceptionally broad, including the Olympic games, the NBA season and playoffs, numerous marathons, etc. But it’s not simply that professional sports have been canceled; local teams and youth leagues are suspended as well. Local workout facilities, yoga studios, and YMCAs remain, for the most part, closed. For audiences and athletes who are committed to sporting fandoms, game watching, and playing of individual and team sports, this is a huge loss.
In my book, The Prophetic Dimension of Sport, I make the argument that sporting spaces are the spaces for prophetic social justice activity in the modern world. Some suggest the exact opposite, that sport should be an apolitical space. No space is absolutely apolitical, of course (see the NFL’s national anthem controversy, for example), but sports does offer a space where many willingly set aside political commitments and discover shared team commitments (see the continued popularity of the NFL despite the national anthem controversy).
In the United States, with the highest recorded numbers of COVID-19 cases and where the president and some of his more ardent followers have politicized the pandemic, sports offer a necessary distraction. In my most recent research project, I discovered that some people who are deconverting from their family’s religious tradition, which is heavily tied to political commitments, find that sport fandom serves as a shared bond that keeps the family together in spite of those differences.
Sports also supplies an outlet for energy expenditure. This one might be obvious as well, especially to those in metropolitan regions where there’s mandatory isolating. An essential part of being human is the need to release energy (ask anyone isolating with children in small apartments). We do this in all kinds of ways, but sport supplies us individual and collective opportunities to exert physical and emotional energy.
We typically think about this only with regard to younger generations, but adult fans don’t have many spaces where we can use our outside voices, ridiculously dress up in team colors and costumes, or join together in berating those who are trying to officiate the games we watch.
We need places to exert this kind of energy. Yes, there are home exercise routines and, many of us can still go for an outside walk or run, but it’s simply not the same. Sport is a space where we all—athletes and fans alike—get to collectively release. This is an essential part of being human, and for most of us, isolation does not come naturally.
In his book, From Season to Season, Joe Price argues that sports structure our understanding of time, similar to what liturgical calendars did for past societies. Many fans base their personal calendars on opening days, tournaments, and seasons of their teams.
These calendars are shared and anchored in nature. Baseball fans know that winter is nearing an end when Spring Training begins; basketball fans know that summer is approaching when the NBA Finals begin; and high school athletes eagerly reference the academic year through seasons of sports.
In this way, sports provides reference points for society. Without sports, we might lose track of who we are because we don’t know when we are.
Because many fans are so committed to their teams, Eric Bain-Selbo and I argue in a 2016 essay that some sporting institutions serve as preservers of cultural identity. It’s not simply that I’m a (fill in the blank with your team) fan; the accompanying culture of those teams help us know who we are. Team legends (saints), stories (myths), and rituals provide us references for who we want to be and for what we hope to achieve.
Take for instance, the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens team who trace their name to poet and author Edgar Allen Poe. I once witnessed Ravens fans paying homage pre-game at the Poe memorial in the Westminster Burial Grounds. As frigidly cold as it was that Sunday morning, fans, wearing Ravens gear, stopped to offer their time and some change to bring good fortune to their beloved team. To be a Ravens fan is to be connected to the literary genius of Poe and the history of Baltimore. This is a great example of how teams extend well beyond fields or courts into our social lives. Currently, institutional preservers are left uncurated.
Beyond entertainment, sports helps us answer the deep questions of life, like: Who are we? What do we do? How do we mark time? In these times of isolation, we’re missing a piece of our self that sports help cultivate. Sports, fandom, and play are essential elements of being human, and, as we anticipate the future, getting back to the arenas, courts, field, rinks, and tracks, as well as sports bars and live broadcasts, will help us recapture aspects of ourselves that we miss.