America's One True Religion
"Tell old God that the last man you saw on earth was Quantrill."
America is a Christian nation, or so some would like to believe. But, just as in Europe, traditional religion is losing its sway in America, and a substitute religion is taking hold. This new religion, however, doesn't have much to do with God.
Nowadays, America's real faith is the "religion of self." As the late poet R. P. Dickey once observed, "[p]eople walk around acting immortal." They sashay about as though they were gods. If fewer folks celebrate Mass, then they certainly celebrate themselves.
But if they don't celebrate themselves, they celebrate other mortals. We call these other mortals "celebrities." Indeed, America has a culture of celebrity. Some of our celebrities are celebrated for nothing more than their celebrity; they're "famous for being famous," and they seem to have no redeeming qualities. We're celebrating the wrong celebrities. There've been only twelve men who have trod the Moon. Yet we ignore them and celebrate Eminem and Snoop Dog.
There is one sphere of contemporary America that celebrates the religion of self with the fervid mania of zealotry. The hold of sports on the American psyche and imagination is so complete, so absolute, that for some poor souls, it's their one true religion. And if fans worship certain athletes, those athletes join in their adoration, exulting, gloating, and prancing in the end zone. In a tribute to the boxer Joe Frazier upon his recent death, Fox News reporter James Rosen writes:
"Don't you know I'm God?" taunted Muhammad Ali, in the first of the epic trilogy of heavyweight prizefights with Joe Frazier that defined the early 1970s. Ali even took to accompanying each word - Don't - you - know - I'm - God? --- with a swing of his fists, unleashing another flurry of his lightning-fast punches. Frazier, undaunted, singularly unaffected by Ali's sophomoric doggerel and sophisticated psy-ops, kept boring in on his opponent, a steady, bobbing, weaving machine, and spat back through his bloodied mouthpiece: "Well, God, you gonna get whupped tonight!"
To cater to our new religion, most major metropolitan newspapers devote an entire section to sports. And if something big happens to a city's team, like a championship, not only is the news reported in the sports pages, but it's splashed across the front page as well, above the fold. Sports news covers scores, stats, newly broken records, significant feats (such as triple-plays), trades, and firings. There's the coverage of honors, such as the Cy Young Award, the America's Cup, and inductions into halls of fame. And then if some local sports god dies, the news coverage of that can go on long after his relatives have stopped grieving.
Most local TV newscasters devote much of their nightly half-hour to sports. Throw in commercials and the weather forecast, and there's not much time left for real news. Entire cable/satellite TV channels, like ESPN and ESPN Classic, are dedicated to sports. There's even a channel devoted to a single sport: The Golf Channel. Just as with The Weather Channel, sports newscasters do forecasts, where panels of gurus deliver their divinations about who's going to win the next big game.
Sports news devotes a lot of space to covering the impact of a team on the community: parades after championships, riots after championships, fans watching big games in saloons, anxiety about the city's team moving to another city. The hubbub over LeBron James's departure from Cleveland is testament enough that sports really is a religion.
One corner of sports news coverage that gets more and more ink is behavior: brandishing firearms in the locker room, cursing at officials, brawls at ball parks, steroids, pine tar, low blows, asterisks (see steroids), thuggery, abuse of lady friends, abuse of dogs, lying to Congress, marital infidelity, and antics in the end zone. There was a time when such behavior would be considered un-sportsmanly conduct. But that was before athletes ascended to godhood, and gods have their own rules.
Against this backdrop, the rise of Tim Tebow, a man seen as blessed with miracles by some fans, to ratings superstar offers an antithesis to the self-worshipers. The self-effacing advocate of old-time religion stands out by way of his contrast with the mainstream NFL and professional sports as a whole.
Sports is a multi-billion-dollar industry. So naturally, sports journalism spends a lot of time on money issues: salaries, bonuses, contracts, union demands, union strikes, product endorsements, and free agency. (Aren't we all free agents?) Golfer Tiger Woods is now a billionaire, the first in any pro sport. Parade magazine reports that the 2009 income of Mr. Woods was $100 million. A hundred mega-bucks for hitting a ball around with a stick. That's pretty good compensation for a "sport" that doesn't require one to even breathe hard or work up a sweat.
(The scare quotes around "sport" are there because golf isn't really a sport. With players like John Daly, golf can't be a sport. One likes John Daly; he's a good ol' boy, and a helluva golfer. But an athlete he is not.)
Now, Charlton Heston was an athlete -- a natural athlete. Chuck had a classy chassis and even looked good in a loincloth. When he won the chariot race (video) against Rome and the greater world in the epic 1959 film Ben-Hur, Pontius Pilate commended him thus:
A great victory.
You are the people's one true god...
...for the time being.
Permit us to worship.
I crown their god.
Such is the mentality of sports fans to this day; we need our gods. But sports are meant to be more than mere physical contests; they're supposed to demonstrate certain intangibles -- character, will, and grace under pressure. American sports fans would do well to ponder these lines from Tennyson's "Sir Galahad":
My strength is as the strength of ten,
Because my heart is pure.
How many pure hearts do we find in today's sports? And if today's sportsman has the strength of ten, it's because he's juicing, taking steroids. We're reverting back to the pagan days, when it was acceptable to horsewhip your opponent in the middle of race. Today, we root for Messala, not Judah. We've lost our reverence for the aforementioned intangibles. Today, winning is the only thing.
America's secular religion is in dire need of a Reformation. Besides, we need to be celebrating something else.
NOTE: The opening quotation is from Quantrill's War: The Life and Times of William Clarke Quantrill, 1837-1865 by Duane Schultz, page 259. The second quotation is from a poem in Acting Immortal by R.P. Dickey (University of Missouri Press, 1970). Mr. Dickey was an interesting guy, regardless of what one might think about his poetry. (Here's another sports article of mine for your edification.)
Jon N. Hall is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City.