Religion of Sports: Exploring Parallels between American Institutions

This November, NFL quarterback Tom Brady and Hall-of-Famer Michael Strahan will bring a new television series into your home. The show, Religion of Sports, aims to celebrate the profound spiritual influence of sports within our society. The six-episode series will premiere on November 15 on Audience (a television network owned by AT&T).

It is unclear at this time just what angle the series will take, but the statements from its representatives are telling:

“To be a part of this project, Religion of Sports, brings full circle the things that I have learned as a child without even knowing that in some ways, I was having a religious experience. Religion of Sports will be the bridge that connects the passion of religion with the passion of sports,” said Strahan.

“Now, playing on the same stage as my childhood idols, I’m fortunate to have a pretty unique perspective on football and the sports world. I can think of no better vehicle than Religion of Sports to share some of what I’ve learned and dig a little deeper into that feeling, the sort of spiritual experience that sports creates for players and fans alike,” said Brady, who is currently under suspension for his involvement in Deflategate, a controversy involving allegations that the New England Patriots tampered with footballs.

The NFL is hard to ignore. So when two well-known representatives of the professional sports establishment announce their involvement in a venture that seeks to connect and promote the NFL and religion, I’m a little wary.

Like religion, the NFL is an institution that significantly influences our nation’s culture. It reaches millions of Americans on a daily basis, seeping in through our television screens, personal lives, commutes, and the news. For those disinterested in it, the NFL represents the reinforcement of certain cultural trends: barbeques and meat consumption, alcohol consumption, gender roles, masculinity, the objectification of women, the wage gap, prayer, and violence.

It also has a problematic relationship with its athletes. A number of individuals in its employ have been arrested for sexual assault, domestic violence, animal abuse, and murder. Although it cannot solely be responsible for the actions of its athletes, the NFL can certainly be held accountable for encouraging and endorsing a culture of violence. This violence even puts its own employees at risk: the NFL has been accused of lacking proper safety precautions, resulting in the deaths of eight former players. Due to the brutal nature of the game, current players are constantly at risk of concussions, which studies show lead to the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia, along with other life-altering bodily injuries.

There is little doubt of sports’ connection to religion. Religion, too, enforces strict cultural norms, among other things. I hope that Religion of Sports can examine the relationship between religion and sports critically, and that must mean acknowledging how they are negatively intertwined. However, it seems that this series won’t be a critical one and instead may seek to uplift and inspire viewers seeking the spiritual, rather than realism. Scholars have long recognized the parallels between religion and sports in America and perhaps these parallels are meant to be critiqued, rather than encouraged.