Seek out deeper relationship between sports and religion, says athletic priest

L.A. Cicero Rev. Joanne Sanders

Rev. Joanne Sanders, a former tennis coach, said greed is seen too often among some athletes. “In just as many terms as one can speak glowingly about sport, you can criticize it as profoundly corrupt,” she said.

Over the years, the Rev. Joanne Sanders, associate dean for religious life, has been an athlete, a collegiate tennis coach and an Episcopal priest. But one thing has remained the same, Sanders told students and others last Friday during a talk, "One Nation Under Sports: Conviction, Conversion and Corruption," she made at Ethics@ Noon, a weekly discussion series.

"I'm not a very good spectator," Sanders said. "The uniform has changed throughout the course of my life, but I don't consider myself to be a person who likes to remain on the sidelines—particularly on a subject like the role of sports and athletics in our world."

In her remarks, Sanders argued for the benefits of finding a deeper relationship between sports and religion than "seeing players kneeling down in the end zone, thanking some supreme being" for a touchdown.

Such displays make her uncomfortable, she said. In addition to limiting our understanding of the connection between sports and religion, they create the potential to marginalize athletes who are nonreligious or practitioners of religious outside the mainstream, she said.

It's not possible for her to say that sports are "simply and only a game," she said. Sanders likened the primacy of sports in contemporary culture to the central position religion held in the pre-modern age. Both sports and religion are linked to the deep human need for play, she added.

The word "sport" is related to "disport," which means to divert one's self, she said. In ancient and medieval times, virtually all diversion available to human beings—including art and music—came by way of religion, she said. The Olympic games of antiquity were part of a religious festival, she added.

Before the modern age, religion supplied three things: a welcome diversion from daily life, a model of coherence and clarity, and heroic examples to admire and emulate, she said. "Cultures have always had a need to make life make sense for those of us who lead it."

After the Industrial Revolution, things became a little more confusing, Sanders said. Humans found themselves "at the mercy of social and political hurricanes that we couldn't escape or control or understand—and we're still in that space today," she said.

Sports became a way for people to bring back some coherence into their lives and "serve a nuanced sense of a religious or spiritual function, she said. "It's not that you get religion by being an athlete or a sports enthusiast, but in a sense, sport is almost a natural religion in and of itself."

Just as she approaches her religious vocation with skepticism, she is committed to the thoughtful critique of the culture of sports. "As much as I love it, I have some concerns about what is going on," she said, listing among its ills the way that sports are played in middle and high schools and the current scandal about performance-enhancing drugs.

"What's gone wrong with sports? Guess what?" Sanders said. Thousands of years ago, "the same thing was true: The root of many evils is greed."

Along with notions of freedom, the symbolism connected with sports often has been based on subjugation, power and dominance, one discussion participant pointed out: "In just as many terms as one can speak glowingly about sport, you can criticize it as profoundly corrupt."

Fear and anger dominated her high school track meets, an undergraduate student added. "Most athletes at least on the high school level do it out of a sense of fear," she said. "Coaches get very worked up and angry. There isn't a sense of trying to transcend a situation or have it be an expression of your integrity as a human. It's more about getting results."

Sanders agreed with those assertions and pointed to the work of the Stanford-based Positive Coaching Alliance, which works with coaches, parents and sports organizations to transform the "win-at-all-costs" sports culture.

"I'm not sure any one of us can solve the problem of the unraveling of sports," Sanders said. "For me, it's about retrieval, restoration and renewal. I want to keep engaging in conversation about the deeper sense of sport. Part of the human condition is still the need for celebration and the need for play."

Ethics@Noon is a weekly discussion series sponsored by the McCoy Program in Ethics in Society. On May 13, Van Harvey, the George Edwin Burnell Professor of Religious Studies, Emeritus, will speak on "The Ethics of Religious Belief." On May 20, Tom Ehrlich, senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, will talk about "Political Bias in Undergraduate Education." The brown-bag discussions are held from noon to 1 p.m. in Room 101K in Building 100.