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Roll ‘Bama Roll Reading Room: “Passion Plays — How Religion Shaped Sports in North America”

Not a bad book, just not the book we were promised.

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Passion Plays: How Religion Shaped Sports in North America (2022) Balmer, Randall. University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 9781469670065 (Ferris & Ferris imprint). Available at all major retailers, hardcover ed. $25.

Dr. Randall Balmer is one of America’s foremost contemporary theologians and historians. And, as an ordained priest, has had frequent criticism of the politicization of faith. Most of his popular works have been in that area, in fact.

When I got wind that he had a new tome out that veered completely away from mainline Protestantism vs evangelical dominionism and the intertwining of the latter into major political parties, I was very intrigued. I didn’t want to read another religion and politics book (Christopher Hedges among others has done this same premise before). But, sports and religion? I’m interested. Even casual sports fans know the centrality that faith plays in the lives of many (perhaps most) athletes — if you’ve played a snap of pee wee football, watched a player kneel after breaking the plane, or seen a Dominican cross himself after crushing one over right-center, then you have seen it.

Acts of religion and professions of faith are so ubiquitous that you may honestly not even be aware of the frequency at this point. And I wanted to know what role religion played in shaping the sports themselves, not the role of religion in players’ lives.

And, frankly, it sounded like it would be fantastic for you guys and Alabama readers in general, it being a state with high religiosity. But that was not the book we got. The book we got was a different one, though not necessarily a bad one.

Before I begin our review, let me share with you how it was marketed to us:

Randall Balmer was a late convert to sports talk radio, but he quickly became addicted, just like millions of other devoted American sports fans. As a historian of religion, the more he listened, Balmer couldn’t help but wonder how the fervor he heard related to religious practice. Houses of worship once railed against Sabbath-busting sports events, but today most willingly accommodate Super Bowl Sunday. On the other hand, basketball’s inventor, James Naismith, was an ardent follower of Muscular Christianity and believed the game would help develop religious character. But today those religious roots are largely forgotten.

Here one of our most insightful writers on American religion trains his focus on that other great passion—team sports—to reveal their surprising connections. From baseball to basketball and football to ice hockey, Balmer explores the origins and histories of big-time sports from the late nineteenth century to the present, with entertaining anecdotes and fresh insights into their ties to religious life. Referring to Notre Dame football, the Catholic Sun called its fandom “a kind of sacramental.” Legions of sports fans reading Passion Plays will recognize exactly what that means.

If only the book really were about that.

Passion Plays is not about religion in sports; it would be more proper to say that it is about the three Rs that formed the foundation of sports in North America and that have shaped their adoption and their evolution: region, race and — very distantly — religion; all viewed through an historical lens. Because of the three core themes in Passion Plays, religion actually plays less of a role than you’d expect and far less of one than I had hoped.

It is understandable why Dr. Balmer would go this direction. I think those in the south are acutely aware that you cannot really discuss the racial demographics or religion of a people without also knowing where you’re at and where you came from. It’s not a phenomenon particular to the South either. What is defined as “mainline Protestantism” — non-evangelical sects that are almost alien to this region, is a peculiar product of predominately-white, well-to-do Northeastern society: the prototypical WASP. Catholicism is inextricably interwoven with the Upper Midwest and its Germans and Poles and other Central European immigrants. Lutheranism is almost laughably a stereotype of the Northern Plains: a humble, modest faith for a people that reflect the same parsimony.

So, those cultural and religious bonds should unite to shape sports, right? Unfortunately, very little of the book actually addresses it.

There are some interesting hooks here: For instance. the Montreal Canadiens as an early set-aside in the NHL for the nation’s French Catholics. Of course, we get the rise of Notre Dame and how northern Catholicism figured prominently in the history of college football.

But, you’re far more apt to read a chapter on the integration of college football, how New England’s muscular martial spirit actively encouraged the adoption of football, how the Canadian national sport of hockey was as much a rejection of American and British leisure as it was an adoption of the nation’s native lacrosse.

There are tons of interesting moments and anecdotes regarding the explicit use of football as both a metaphor for war and as a supplemental training exercise by American military academies. How participation in sports was used to both adjudge moral character as well develop it among the nation’s future elites. How owners in baseball had pushed back on integration in ways that would make George Wallace blush. How baseball was as much an immigrant experience as anything. That seminal (if not apocryphal) USC-Alabama game at Legion Field.

Notice what’s missing?

In toto, it is an interesting sociocultural look at the history of sport. And, yes, religion is part of that equation. But it’s only a part, and it’s certainly not the central part of Passion Plays. If anything, we are left with the notion that where a sport evolved, the types of people responsible for its innovation, and the history of US racial dynamics figure into the story far more prominently. With Dr. Balmer, I have a hard time arguing that. But, in that case, this is far too glib an exploration of such complex, fertile grounds. That is a story that requires far more than 130 pages. Yet, even for its relatively short length, Passion Plays never lives up to its promise as an exploration of religion in sports — and certainly not its billing.

That’s a shame.