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ISSUE 119 VOL 6 PUBLISHED 10/28/2005

Sports, religion intermingle

By Ryan Maus
Staff Writer

Friday, October 28, 2005

Upon first glance, the title for this weekend’s Second International Conference on “Sport and Religion: An Inquiry into Cultural Values” may seem strange. How exactly do these two seemingly mutually exclusive disciplines connect?

But as recent events have shown, questions about ethics and morality (key components of religious belief) arise all too frequently in the wide world of sport. The Minnesota Vikings’ recent “love boat” scandal, illegal steroid usage in baseball, criminal brawls in basketball – these are just a few examples where sports and moral issues have collided during the past few years.

The world’s ever-increasing devotion to sports has coincided with the decrease in religious participation in recent decades. During the 2004-2005 season, over 15 million fans attended NFL games (most of which take place on Sunday), while hundreds of millions more watched on television. Major League Baseball also shattered its own attendance record for the second straight year, attracting nearly 74 million customers. Attendance numbers are also stellar for professional basketball, hockey (despite last year’s season-canceling lockout) and most big-time college athletics.

Meanwhile, participation in that other traditional Sunday activity, church services, has been declining in the United States and in nearly every other industrialized nation for the past forty years. Some estimates say that just 20 percent of Americans currently attend church services at least once a week, compared to about 40 percent during the 1960s.

Are sports becoming America’s “new” religion? It is troubling to admit, but current trends point toward just that reality. Some high-profile sports stars even seem intent on combining the two worlds as much as possible: It is common for an athlete to credit a higher power for his or her success on the field of play. This seemingly benign practice raises an interesting question: If God was busy helping one side win the game, what about the other side?

St. Olaf physical education professor Gary Wicks, a key figure in organizing both St. Olaf sport and religion conferences, believes that we sometimes try to draw too many parallels between the games and God.

“I’m definitely the skeptic of the group when it comes to the role we assign religion in sports,” Wicks said. “With all the wars and natural disasters that are taking place in the world today, why should we be praying so much about the outcome of a game? And if we do associate God with sports, shouldn’t we then be more concerned about morality in sport as well?”

If you find this controversial issue intriguing, I encourage you to attend a session or two of this weekend’s conference. You may not find out why your prayers for a Vikings’ Super Bowl victory have gone unanswered for all these years, but you’re sure to pick up a nugget or two to mull over during the team’s next loss.

Sports editor Ryan Maus is a junior from Northfield, Minn. He majors in American studies with a concentration in media studies.

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