Monday morning, the 24th of February, tens of thousands of fans are set to gather at LA’s Staples Center to mourn the passing of all-time NBA great Kobe Bryant who, along with his daughter Gianna Bryant and seven others, died tragically in a helicopter crash on the 26th of January.
This is, in fact, the official version of a spontaneous response that took place just days after Bryant’s untimely death, when thousands of fans gathered at the Staples Center to pay homage to the 18-time all-star. Flowers, photos, and candles were transported immediately by fans wearing Kobe’s jersey to create a memorialized space and share in the tragedy. Around the league, NBA games held moments of silence to recognize Kobe’s contribution to the sport, while individual players found ways to honor Bryant’s legacy. Some took symbolic penalties like a 24-second shot clock violation (Kobe wore number 24 for a significant portion of his career) while others broke down on the bench. Tributes emerged online as well as globally, including a court-sized mural depicting Bryant and his daughter in the Philippines. A man in North Carolina even made a custom casket in honor of Bryant that’s currently on display at the Staples Center.
During this year’s All-Star game, one team wore Kobe’s number 24, while the other wore number 2, Gianna’s uniform number. The MVP award, given this year to Los Angeles Clippers’ star forward Kawhi Leonard, was renamed permanently for Kobe Bryant. Pregame and half-time shows centered on Kobe, his family, and his impact on the sport of basketball and society.
The collective grief and bereavement displayed by fans and players alike not only demonstrate the power of sports in American society, they’re indications of the sacrality of sports and sporting figures that mirror traditional forms of religious expression.
With no shared single religious identity in the United States, sporting tragedies and the responses transcend religious divisions and illustrate sports’ power to unite. Over the last decades, several scholars have argued that sports offer an opportunity for human expression like that of religion. Eric Bain-Selbo and Gregory Sapp’s work proposes that sports are religious in the contemporary world. The collective gatherings, team mascots, chants, and superstitions mirror, in a contemporary way, what religion does.
Fans mourning at the Staples Center over the loss of a sporting icon demonstrates, to many observers, that there’s a universal human need during these moments to express their grief and shock publicly and collectively. Although Bryant was a practicing Catholic, the ritual mourning and collective expressions center around a sports stadium and a sporting icon. Every day in other contexts religious people around the globe gather, offer prayers, light candles, and pay homage to lost loved ones at religious buildings, similar to the mourning of Bryant’s passing.
American society is heavily influenced by Protestant Christian ideas. An important move of the Protestant tradition—a reform movement of Catholicism—is the elimination of formal sainthood processes. Protestants argued that saints were not needed as mediators between humans and the divine, and that saints bordered on idolatry.
With no formalized ways of declaring sainthood in American society, broadly speaking, there are moments when society’s actions simply declare a member a saint. Their contribution, character, and abilities embody aspects that many identify as reflecting our collective values and objectives as individuals. In this way, we as a society together proclaim who are significant members with our mourning energies.
Clearly, for a significant number of people, Kobe Bryant exemplified the ethos of America with his Mamba mentality that was centered on being better, stronger, more dominant, and ruthless at competing. Even fans of opposing teams recognize something tremendous about Bryant’s abilities, including in his last game when he led the Lakers comeback victory over the Utah Jazz, becoming in the process the oldest player in NBA history to score 60 points in a single game.
Like saints, Kobe Bryant wasn’t perfect. The charges of rape and violence against a young woman in 2003 are truly horrific. The incident certainly scarred his victim, and the accusations left a blight on Bryant’s reputation. Bryant never admitted that he raped the young woman, but he did issue a public apology both to the victim and his family.
As America is heavily influenced by religious notions, redemption accounts—where one transgresses, confesses, and works to restore one’s reputation—are significantly valued. When these accounts are public, they carry even more weight.
After the rape allegations, Bryant turned his attention to rebuilding his reputation by investing money into youth basketball programs. The image of Bryant traveling with his daughter to coach and teach her basketball is the image broadly circulating since his death. Most fans were willing to forgive, not simply because Bryant was a tremendous athlete, but because he symbolized public redemption.
In a nation like the United States where religious affiliation and commitments are in decline, many people look for other places to create meaning-making opportunities. Fans gathering in sporting stadiums enjoy the thrill and athleticism of our nation’s best, events that reduce our political differences, if only momentarily, and provide an opportunity to just be sporting fans. My research indicates that sport can even help remedy familial conflict when one member changes religious affiliation or commitments.
These experiences, sacred and filled with meaning-making, are sincere opportunities to be present and share in the moment with other fans, friends, and family members. My son and I, for example, watched Kobe through the years and, particularly, watched Bryant’s last game. Kobe was a key component of our shared experience and memory.
With the passing of Bryant, fans across the world have to admit that these shared specific moments of fandom are gone. Shared sports spectating in homes, bars, and at arenas, are memories that fade. Although we get instant replays of last-minute or acrobatic shots, we don’t have the advantage of recalling all the details of our shared fandom or duplicating our emotional experiences. Yet the inability to duplicate these moments is part of what makes them sacred.
In a nation with few places to find social cohesion, and even fewer to find political agreement, sport and Bryant’s death offer the opportunity to reflect on what we collectively hold dear, who we are as a nation, and how we can improve ourselves. And that, after all, is essentially the role that religion has historically performed for societies.