Tossing Lines: How great thou art: sports, religion, and the almighty dollar

Sportswriter Sam Miller predicted on ESPN.com in March that baseball player Mike Trout, who signed a contract with the Los Angeles Angels for $35.8 million a year, “might be worth a billion dollars over the next 12 years.”

Our worship of sports gods is surpassing the $30 million-a-year level. That’s $576,923 a week to chase a ball.

Even entry-level gods are ordained multi-millionaires overnight. Former University of Connecticut basketball star Kemba Walker earned $3.2 million dollars as a rookie in the NBA. Walker admittedly read only one book in his entire life, a book about sports.

Society richly rewards athleticism over intelligence, and now I know why.

The worship of sports is an actual religion, according to philosophers and theologians. We have a fanatical urge to reward sports gods because, well, who can put a price on spirituality?

Religion is defined as a belief in a divine or superhuman power, which applies nicely to sports. The holy communion between sports and religion is studied at the Centre for the Study of Sport and Spirituality at St. John University in York, England.

Sport is religion. Even the Bible talks sports, and the Oxford Research Encyclopedia says the word “fan” derives from the Latin fanaticus, meaning “possessed by a deity.”

When quarterback Tim Tebow carved “John 3:16” on his eye black, his congregation responded with over 90 million Google searches in 24 hours.

A 1919 essay by Morris Cohen titled “Baseball as a National Religion” describes how team worship defines fans as individuals, giving their life meaning (like religion) and providing membership in a broader community (like a congregation). Cohen called baseball a “religious ritual,” and it pertains to all sports.

Many books declare sport spectatorship as religion. In “The Joy of Sport — Endzones, Bases, Baskets, Balls, and the Consecration of the American Spirit”, Catholic philosopher, journalist and novelist Michael Novak assures us that “God is a sports fan. Sport is, somehow, a religion.”

The Baseball Hall of Fame righteously calls ballparks sacred ground, and prior to the 2014 Winter Olympics, Pope Francis suggested that “sport unites us, and provides fertile ground for thinking about the spiritual life.” Sport is spiritual, consecrated by the Pope.

Degree-less, entry-level NBA employee Kemba Walker earned eight times the salary of the president of the United States, far more than a neurosurgeon, and way more than a cardiologist performing heart transplants. That surely says something about us.

Have we lost our minds? No, because spirituality has no price, and blind team devotion buries our dignity without a glimmer of guilt in our souls. The faithful turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:38-39), tithing under the shameless but soothing mantras of “it’s entertainment” or “it’s a free market,” or “owners and teams have the money.”

I bet any athlete earning $30 million today would gladly play for $1 million if that was his only choice. Perhaps the millions saved could send inner city kids to college for a real degree, not a professional sports tryout sponsored by a college, at which many fail.

Columnist Barry Saunders wrote that because poor kids and parents ignore education and put all hope on sports as their savior, “too many young black men have the best layup shot in the unemployment line.”

No fan likes such losers, so high salaries are an investment in victory, which validates fans’ winning existence.

Unfortunately, since Pandora’s box has been long opened, there’s no stopping the rising cost for gods who chase balls in pursuit of divine victory.

After all, you can’t argue religion. Nor sports, for that matter.

John Steward lives in Waterford and can be reached at tossinglines@gmail.com, or visit www.johnsteward.online.

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