Perhaps its blasphemy to say that sports is the predominant 21st Century religion, but it just may be true. Whether you attend church services, a synagogue or a mosque each week, you may have noticed that the pews are relatively empty and that weekly church going seems to be passé. If you have kids between the ages of five to 18 you probably spend many a Sunday morning in the stands with all the other parents cheering your child on in whatever sport they happen to be playing. So whether we want to admit it or not, sports has slowly emerged as our favorite religion of choice.
And before you attack me, let me try to defend my position. Religions always have a variety of moral practices which are meant to denounce the seven deadly sins. These sins are mentioned in most religious texts and include sloth, lust, greed, gluttony, wrath, envy and pride. A fourth-century monk named Evagrius Ponticus outlined these seven sins and Dante made them famous in his Divine Comedy. You also may recall that the film “Seven,” which starred Brad Pitt, also elaborated on these sins.
Here are the seven deadly sins that through the ages religions have been concerned about:
►Sloth: Religions often encourage us to avoid laziness and to be active mentally, spiritually and physically. In sports, one has no choice but to work hard and to be focused if you want to win anything.
►Lust: Religion teaches us to control sexual urges and to remain faithful to one’s spouse. This is a foundational for any society and has been practiced since Cro-magnon man emerged from the forests of Europe 20,000 years ago. This sexual restraint relates to sports in the following way: Anyone who plays a sport competitively, or who watches their team in a playoff game, must notice how exciting, heart skipping and mesmerizing the competition is. It can envelope you and your body and mind for hours and hours. Sigmund Freud calls this a sublimation of the sexual urge and one of the primary reasons culture develops sports is to allow these biological urges to be sublimated in socially acceptable ways and thus avoid sexual infidelity.
►Greed: Greed or avarice is the extreme obsessive desire for material possessions, or money, and most men and women of the clergy take a vow of poverty. And even a cursory look at sports reveals that the primary motive in sports is mental and physical self-development and has very little to do with material possessions. A friend of mine was criticizing Michael Jordan’s gambling habits while playing golf and remarked, “Why can’t he just play for the joy of self-improvement?” I thought that was a good point.
►Gluttony: In religious terms gluttony refers to the over consumption of anything to the point of waste. Thomas Aquinas suggested that eating too much, too soon, too expensively or too eagerly was a sin and the practice of fasting is universal in all religions. And if you know anyone who is a serious athlete, you understand that they are aware of what they put in their body at all times. Tiger Woods is a good example of this and practices great restraint. He would reward himself by eating a McDonald’s burger only if he won a tournament.
►Wrath: Wrath is the uncontrolled feeling of anger, rage or hatred and is emphasized by the commandment “Thou shall not kill.” And one of the primary challenges that all athletes must learn is how to control their wrath. Double-fault and you feel wrath. And if you then decide to yell at the umpire to take out your frustration be prepared to get a fine. In golf, if a pro breaks a club he can expect a $25,000 fine. So you could say the PGA is one tough religion.
►Envy: Envy is the insatiable, covetous desire for someone else’s possessions and severs ties to one’s neighbor. In the Divine Comedy, Dante showed how the envious had their eyes sewn shut in hell. Tennis has a wonderful way of handling envy by having the ritual of coming to the net and graciously shaking the hand of the victor, thereby undoing ones tendency to be envious of the victor.
►Pride: Pride or hubris is often considered the most serious of the sins and is displayed by showing contempt or selfishness. And I can think of no better method to temper pride than to be a competitive athlete because no matter who you are, you will eventually lose to many opponents and thus will inevitably learn how to temper your pride.
So you see, sports have a way of responding to all the deadly sins in ways that work. Sports have a moral gravity to it. Alas, you may say “Yes , but what about God? Sports does not have a Godhead!” That is quite right. I could tell you that Friedrich Nietzsche pronounced that “God is dead” back in 1882 and this idea still seems to get play. But I do admit that the idea of God does give solace to many, and the promise of an afterlife does have its appeal. Who could argue that winning a measly little trophy and putting it on your mantel can compete with dying, going to heaven and living eternally in happiness.
And calling sports a new religion would require one to give this religion a name like “Sportism” or some such nonsense. So let’s forget the whole argument and go back to playing sports on Sundays and making sure to stop in our house of worship during one of the late Saturday services which only take about 20 minutes anyway.
If I contributed as much to church as I do to my golf game, the church may be so overjoyed they would erect a statue of me somewhere on grounds. That may be nice, but I probably would still have more pride in my little trophy that says I won the member-member net division. Oops! I think pride is one of those deadly sins.
Dr. Tom Ferraro
For consultations, treatment or on-site visits, contact Dr. Tom Ferraro Ph.D., Sport Psychologist, by phone at (516) 248-7189, e-mail DrTFerraro@aol.com or visit DrTomFerraro.com.