Panelists examine ties between sports and religion
USC Spectrum hosted a panel called “Are Sports a Religion?” in the USC Caruso Catholic Center on Monday night.
The panel was introduced by Shawn Sorenson, director of the Spirituality and Sports Program at USC, and consisted of Gotham Chopra, co-founder of Graphic India and Liquid Comics; Dan Durbin, professor and director of the Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society and Marcellus Wiley, a former football player and current ESPN co-host. Varun Soni, the USC dean of religious life, moderated the talk.
According to Sorenson, interest in religion is at an all-time low while interest in sports is at an all-time high.
Twenty percent of Americans are now formally disaffiliated with religion. In 1950, it was 2 percent. Among the younger generation (those who are under 30 years old), it is closer to 40 percent, according to Soni.
“People are finding the answers to the ultimate questions in different ways, and one of those ways is popular culture,” Soni said.
Chopra said he agreed and found a way to tie sports to religion. He is a fan of the Boston Red Sox, Boston Celtics and New England Patriots.
“I’m definitely a devotee of the religion of sports,” Chopra said.
He compared sports to religion in the sense that both require participation and belief. Chopra said sports are also considered spiritual because people in the audience really have no power over what happens in the game, regardless of the superstitions that they have.
“It’s a very salient topic in terms of how sports themselves function within our society and how we identify ourselves with athletes and with teams,” said Patricia Silva, a junior majoring in communication. “It makes them become very religious in that sense.”
Durbin, who has published articles about sports, popular culture and sports media studies, said that sports and religion are not always thought of as similar.
“I don’t think that most people look at USC football as a religion per se, but there are ritualistic and social elements to it,” Durbin said. “Shared community is the core identifying point between sports and religion.”
Silva said, however, there is a contrast between what people are looking for in terms of ultimate answers, which makes it impossible for sports to be truly considered a religion.
“I don’t think that people are looking to sports for an answer to the higher questions such as the meaning of life, but I do think [sports] function in a similar way to religion since we worship different teams and players,” Silva said.
Durbin also brought up the issue of lack of participation from sports fans. Often, fans watch from their home television screens, since their televisions often have a better view and they are still able to interact with their favorite teams.
“It is less of the community relationship it once was, just as with religion,” Durbin said.
Wiley, who co-hosts ESPN2’s SportsNation, as well as Max & Marcellus on 710AM ESPN Radio in Los Angeles, said society should not look up to sports players as idols since they are only human and they also make mistakes. He said people only know one aspect of these athletes and don’t know them at a personal level.
Wiley also talked about the lack of life plans in some football players, especially since he saw that many of them identified themselves as “football players” and had no real sense of identity.
The panelists did not come to a unanimous conclusion about whether or not sports can truly be considered a religion.
“Although both sports and religion can be paralleled, there will always be controversy about whether sports can truly be considered religion,” Austin Lee, a junior majoring in human biology, said. “That was seen throughout the discussion.”
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