On Being with Krista Tippett

Joseph L. Price

In Praise of Play

Last Updated

June 30, 2005

Original Air Date

August 12, 2004

If sport is an American religion, is that bad for us? What is the metaphysic of baseball? In this show, we’ll speak with a theologian and sports fan who has spent much of his career studying the religious character of rituals in sporting events and the spiritual significance of fans’ attention to sports.


Image of Joseph L. Price

Joseph L. Price is C. Milo Connick Professor of Religious Studies at Whittier College in California. His books include From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion.


June 30, 2005

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Today we’ll playfully explore the sacrament of sports and the metaphysic of baseball with Joe Price, a theologian and a passionate sports fan. Susan Sarandon, Michael Novak and Nat King Cole will also chime in. From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about belief, meaning, ethics and ideas. Today, In Praise of Play.

SPORTS ANNOUNCER: Here’s a swing and a high fly ball going deep left. This may do it. Back to the wall goes Berra! It is over the fence. Home run! The pirates win!

MS. TIPPETT: When we reflect on sports in moral terms these days, we’re likely to focus on drug abuse or excessive commercialization. My guest today, Joe Price, doesn’t dismiss those problems, but he does provide a more generous — one might even say soulful — perspective for considering them. He’s spent much of his career as a theologian exploring the religious character of sporting events and the holy endeavor of loving sports as a fan. His personal devotion began early.

JOE PRICE: On I believe it was October of 1956 I had a conversion experience. I became a Yankee fan. I grew up in a preacher’s household, so basically I was always inundated with religious language and expectations about what was a religious, pious lifestyle. One of those emphases was perfection. So when I read in the newspaper that Don Larsen had pitched a perfect game in the World Series, I figured that since I had been called to be a baseball fan, I must be a Yankee fan. And my devotion has been uninterrupted now for more than 40 years.

MS. TIPPETT: At Whittier College in California, Joe Price teaches an undergraduate course called Sport, Play and Ritual, which includes some fascinating historical perspective. Baseball, football and basketball may have been invented in America, but as late as the turn of the 20th century, our Puritan Protestant culture widely held leisure activity, especially sports, to be sinful, certainly prohibited on Sabbath days. The corner was turned by innovators like Amos Alonzo Stagg who sought to reconcile his passion for sports with his sense of vocation to Christian ministry.

DR. PRICE: As that kind of fusion took place, football got quite a bit of prominence, especially from Amos Alonzo Stagg, who was himself a devout Christian even though he invented things like the deceptive plays of the Statue of Liberty and the hidden ball trick. And those were thought to be somewhat sinful coming from this very pious man. James Naismith invented the game of basketball in the late 19th century.

MS. TIPPETT: I’ve got this recommendation, I believe, that Stagg gave to Naismith.


MS. TIPPETT: Let me find it. He called him, “inventor of basketball, medical doctor, Presbyterian minister, teetotaler, all-around athlete, nonsmoker and owner of vocabulary without cuss words.”

DR. PRICE: And that was to recommend him for a position, I believe, as athletic director at the University of Kansas.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right. And is this the origins of what — this phrase “muscular Christianity”?

DR. PRICE: James Mathisen, a sociologist at Wheaton College, has a very fine book that he’s written with Tony Ladd called Muscular Christianity. In that book, they trace the origin of the phrase to a book review I believe published in Britain in about 1855, 1860, somewhere in there. The phrase was initially a denigrating term but gradually became applied to Christians who wanted to use a kind of manliness and to appeal to an otherwise disaffected group of men who might find meaning in faith.

MS. TIPPETT: So it was sort of using sports as a way to bring people into the Christian fold?


MS. TIPPETT: As a possible form of gaining converts?

DR. PRICE: And things like — was it Jacob who wrestled…

MS. TIPPETT: Oh, wrestled with the angel.

DR. PRICE: Angel, yes.


DR. PRICE: Biblical images like that and…

MS. TIPPETT: Wrestling.

DR. PRICE: …and running the race…

MS. TIPPETT: From the apostle Paul, yeah.

DR. PRICE: …Saint Paul’s metaphor, were used as ways of saying, `Look, sports have always been a part of the triumphal possibilities of Christianity, and so too men can aspire to win by being faithful in this way.’

MS. TIPPETT: Theologian Joe Price. Here’s a scene from the award-winning movie “Chariots of Fire” about the British running team for the 1924 Olympics, which included a Scottish divinity student.

ERIC LIDDELL [PLAYED BY IAN CHARLESON]: I believe that God made me for a purpose, and when I run, I feel his pleasure. To give it up would be to hold him in contempt. You were right, it’s not just fun. To win is to honor him.

MS. TIPPETT: You also describe a whole genre of American literature that I didn’t know about celebrating the virtue of sports and activity. Talk about that.

DR. PRICE: And play.


DR. PRICE: The Joy of Sports by Michael Novak. Robert Neale’s book is, I believe, In Praise of Play. And Harvey Cox…

MS. TIPPETT: Harvey Cox…

DR. PRICE: …has Feast of Fools.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. And were they all writing around the same time? This is sort of… DR. PRICE: They were writing in the late 1960s.

MS. TIPPETT: Sixties, yeah.

DR. PRICE: At the point at which there was the cultural revolution taking place interestingly enough in Europe 15, 20 years earlier. Homo Ludenshad been written by Johan Huizinga, who had provided basically conceptual foundation, a philosophical foundation for understanding how play can be understood as being serious.

MS. TIPPETT: Now did you, as a follower of the Yankees at that time, were you reading those books when they came out?

DR. PRICE: I had no idea that these books existed. I didn’t know that they existed until I started teaching the course. And there’s no better reason to do research than to have to teach. Then you get invested. And so I got invested at that point. Before then, it was all just trying to make sense out of my own experience. As a child, my mother said that I loved the Yankees, God, and my father, and she wasn’t sure in which order. And for a preacher’s kid, that could have been somewhat condemning. Thankfully, she was very embracing in her way of saying that.

MS. TIPPETT: So whether or not everyone read these books, do you think they expressed a way in which Americans thought about the virtue of sports that is sort of foundational in our culture?

DR. PRICE: I understand that what Novak did was off the charts. What he does in The Joy of Sports is basically to write about the spirituality of sports, and he celebrates that kind of mystical experience. There’s a chapter that he writes on the jazz of basketball. It almost anticipates Michael Jordan or Kevin Garnett just playing off the charts. So that he’s doing something other than basically celebrating the discipline, the hard work, the kind of rule adherence that many parents appreciate about young children getting involved in sports.

MS. TIPPETT: Theologian and sports fan Joe Price. We’re talking about the spiritual aspects of America’s great love of sports. Along similar lines, theologian and author Michael Novak wrote his book, The Joy of Sports, in 1976. He had just turned 40 and thought it might be time to put sports aside for loftier pursuits. In the end, he concluded, “Sports have metaphysical significance. Play is the goal of life. Work is a necessary diversion.” Here’s a reading from Michael Novak’s book.

READER: “If I had to give one single reason for my love of sports, it would be this: I love the tests of the human spirit. I love to see defeated teams refuse to die. I love to see impossible odds confronted. I love to see impossible dares accepted. I love to see the incredible grace lavished on simple plays — the simple flashing beauty of perfect form — but, even more, I love to see the heart that refuses to give in, refuses to panic, seizes opportunity, slips through defenses, exerts itself far beyond capacity, forges momentarily of its bodily habitat an instrument of almost perfect will. Perhaps it is a form of Slavic masochism (we should never discount it), but all my life, I have never known such thoroughly penetrating joys as playing with an inspired team against a team we recognized from the beginning had every reason to beat us. I love it when the other side is winning and there are only moments left; I love it when it would be reasonable to be reconciled to defeat, but one will not, cannot; I love it when a last set of calculated, reckless, free and impassioned efforts is crowned with success. When I see others play that way, I am full of admiration, of gratitude. That is the way I believe the human race should live. When human beings actually accomplish it, it is for me as if the intentions of the Creator were suddenly limpid before our eyes: as though into the fiery heart of the Creator we had momentary insight.”

MS. TIPPETT: From Michael Novak’s book The Joy of Sports. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today we’re considering the fusion of sports and religious impulses in American life. My guest, theologian Joe Price, is describing his lifelong conviction that sports have a spiritual quality for fans as well as athletes.

DR. PRICE: When Michael Jordan, for instance, would get into the flow of a game and let the game come to him, he would seem to be so at one with the game that there was a kind of spiritual fusion between himself and the game. I think that that happens not only in basketball; I think it happens when a quarterback completes 23 out of 25 passes in a game or when a pitcher pitches a no-hitter. There seems to be some kind of just intense spiritual experience that is not necessarily connected to God. It is instead connected to that kind of spirit of the game and a feeling of that oneness with the game.

MS. TIPPETT: And I think that what you’re describing there is different from an idea that you’ve also written about, which is that sports functions as a religion to some extent in American culture. I mean, that’s really have — it having a spiritual content. So what does that have to do with the way we treat sports religiously in our culture?

DR. PRICE: We’re torn. In part, our Puritan heritage for many Americans identifies a kind of monotheistic obsession that there can be the worship of only one deity, that there can be the full allegiance to only one kind of faith. But what we find is that it might be possible to be a member of a political party, to be a sports fanatic, to be a faithful participant in a religious community, to be a parent deeply involved in a child’s schooling, all of which would shape the way that one sees the world. And that’s really what religion is. It’s a way of shaping the way that one sees and engages the world.

MS. TIPPETT: And what is it — describe to me what you are thinking of when you talk about sports as having a sort of religious character in terms of the way it’s experienced and participated in.

DR. PRICE: Well, I’m a fan. During basketball season, I’m a passionate college hoops junkie. During the NBA finals, I watch it religiously. I am a devout believer in the Yankees. I also follow NFL football and collegiate football and, heaven help us, even the BCS — Bowl Championship Series — for the New Year’s Day festivities. So much of the religious character of sports is identified with the way that fans regard and respond to sports. I think that sports play a major role for many Americans because the rituals that are enacted somehow reveal something about their identity and their aspirations.

MS. TIPPETT: I think the statistic that I’ve read most recently that struck me was something like 75 percent of Americans say they are very interested in sports, are fans. I mean, that does suggest that there’s something going on that has to do with our largest possible culture.

DR. PRICE: And that would be approximately the same number who would indicate that they would pray on various occasions.

MS. TIPPETT: And that’s right. That’s true.

DR. PRICE: So maybe praying and playing has some kind of statistical fusion as well.

[Audio clip of woman singing]

MS. TIPPETT: Here’s a famous prayerful ode to baseball from the 1989 movie “Bull Durham” with actress Susan Sarandon.

ANNIE SAVOY [PLAYED BY SUSAN SARANDON]: I believe in the church of baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, trees, mushrooms and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary, and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I learned that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn’t work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see there’s no guilt in baseball, and it’s never boring. I’ve tried them all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul day in, day out is the church of baseball.

MS. TIPPETT: From the movie “Bull Durham.” Now back to my conversation with theologian and sports fan Joe Price. But then we have to talk about how these lovely — you know, this spiritual thing that can happen between an athlete and a ball, or on a playing field, how there’s another layer to the experience of sports in our culture. I mean, there are many layers of that and some of them are not pretty and not virtuous.

DR. PRICE: And neither are a number of the elements in religious traditions that are identified as religions. The abuses by clerics in various traditions, whether it’s televangelist ministries or Roman Catholic archdiocese, is a reality. So that the abuses that we see that might take place either with the collaboration of the owners in a sport to lock out players, or the use of drugs by players to enhance their playing experience or to dull the pain that has been caused by their playing experience, those are what we would call abuses, yet they also are not distinct from the kinds of abuses that might be also taking place in communities of faith.

MS. TIPPETT: Now, some people are going to be offended by that analogy.

DR. PRICE: That’s correct.

MS. TIPPETT: And isn’t that a bit extreme. Isn’t it taking it a bit too far or not? I mean, are you really suggesting that — OK, and you could say this probably about religion as well — that we hear all the terrible stories, we don’t hear about the day-to-day good that happens quietly? Is that the comparison you’re making?

DR. PRICE: That’s a great deal of the comparison. Indeed, I would not have been able to be the kind of compassionate teacher that I am — I think some students might have some qualms about that, but I like to think that I’m a compassionate professor — and I would not be that compassionate person were it not for the nurture that I had experienced in a very healthy community of faith throughout my childhood and adolescent years.

MS. TIPPETT: But what about the worry that many people have that sports, in fact, have become so prominent that they’ve filled in the space in which religion used to take place in families, for individuals and communities, you know, even, in fact, the time on Sunday or on Friday night. The kids would be in synagogue or in church, they’re on the playing field. And so that it’s supplanting that.

DR. PRICE: I recall that in my childhood, the church softball league was not allowed to practice on Sunday afternoons, and Sunday church attendance at some kind of service, either a Sunday school service or a worship service, was required in order for a person to play in the game that week. That’s quite different than now adjusting the worship schedule for a church in Dallas or a church in Virginia to be able to accommodate the men’s desire to see their favorite football team play at either noon or 6 PM.

MS. TIPPETT: And you’re a theologian. Does that bother you? Does that worry you?

DR. PRICE: The thing that bothers me the most about the accommodation of religious traditions in communities of worship to sports rhythms is turning away from interacting with the community with a prophetic voice. And so if, indeed, by accommodating a time of worship, there is an opportunity to work more closely with various members of the community throughout the week, then that’s wonderful and healthy. If instead it is a turning back on basically just an opportunity for extension of the pursuit of justice, then I really get worried at that point.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. And do you think that’s happening? Is that a trend?

DR. PRICE: It’s always a threat because we’re human. And, as Reinhold Niebuhr said, there’s one empirically verifiable dogma, and that’s sin.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. That original sin is the only empirically verifiable dogma.

DR. PRICE: I think so.

MS. TIPPETT: Yes. All right, let me ask you about something else. Your writing, especially the chapters in this book, From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion, is full of examples that are funny. You know, of religious language on the corridor, on the fields, or even Jerry Falwell saying he wanted the Liberty University Eagles to `knock the bejabbers out of Notre Dame in the name of the Lord,’ and then the coach from Notre Dame saying, `I know you’re going to say God doesn’t care who wins, and I say that’s true. But his mother does,’ right?


MS. TIPPETT: I mean, those are two different games they were talking about. But there’s a way in which I think it’s very easy to make fun or become cynical, either as a religious person or a nonreligious person, to become cynical about the kind of religious expression and symbolism that takes place in the framework of American athletics. And, I mean, how much do you see that as a problem or a challenge to this good that you see being embodied in sports?

DR. PRICE: It’s possible to take play seriously, and it’s possible for faith to be an act of play. And play is an exercise basically of the spirit. Watch children in a playground at a park, their spirits soar. And isn’t that what we aspire to cultivate in faith communities, to have the adult’s spirits soar? Perhaps maybe we need elements of play in worship, in sport. And that the humor that Jerry Falwell and…

MS. TIPPETT: Although I think he was serious when he said that, right?

DR. PRICE: Oh, I’m certain that he was serious.

MS. TIPPETT: But you’re saying that if it’s funny, that’s all right because that’s in the spirit of the game.

DR. PRICE: That’s all right. It’s in the spirit of the game, and it also might be in the best of the spirit of faith.

MS. TIPPETT: Theologian and sports enthusiast Joe Price. He’s the author of From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion. We’re exploring the connections between America’s love for sports and their religious fervor. Here’s Nat King Cole singing a song entitled “The First Baseball Game.”

NAT KING COLE: [Singing] `My sermon today,’ said the Reverend Jones, `is baseball and whence it came. If you take the good book and you take a good look, you will find the first baseball game. It says Eve stole first and Adam second. Solomon umpired the game. Rebecca went to the well with the pitcher, and Ruth in the field made a name.’

MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. After a short break, more conversation with theologian and sports fan Joe Price. We’ll talk about prayer on the playing field and the Super Bowl as pilgrimage.

MR. COLE: [Singing] `And the prodigal son made a great home run. Brother Noah gave checks out for rain. Now, Ole St. Pete was checking errors, also had charge of the gate. Salome sacrificed Big John the Baptist, who wound up ahead on the plate.’

MS. TIPPETT: Go to our Web site at speakingoffaith.org where you’ll find an annotated guide to today’s program. The particulars section presents images and details about all the references, readings and music you’ve just heard. While you’re there, learn how to purchase MP3 downloads of each week’s program and sign up for our free e-mail newsletter, which includes my journal on each topic as well as previews and exclusive extras. This week, listen to Joan Chandler, author of Sport Is Not a Religion, discussing the virtue of amateur sports and the role of religion in the contemporary arena. That’s speakingoffaith.org. I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.


MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about belief, meaning, ethics and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “In Praise of Play. “I’m speaking with theologian Joe Price, a longtime observer of the American obsession with sports. He’s the author of From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion. Since he decided to follow Jesus and the Yankees as a boy, he’s made a career of tracing the religious rituals and fans’ love of sports. The history of American cinema, of course, is full of classic films that treat sports with a reverence otherwise reserved for God. Here’s a scene from one of the most mystical sports movies every made, “Field of Dreams,” which starred Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones.

TERENCE MANN [PLAYED BY JAMES EARL JONES]: The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.

MS. TIPPETT: From the movie “Field of Dreams.” But even as Americans indulge in such cinematic language, they sometimes express ambivalence about overt religious gestures on playing fields. I asked Joe Price about this. What would you say to someone who said that watching a quarterback pray after a touchdown for them discredited the very idea of prayer or the very idea of a God who would be on one side — the side of one team or another. How would you respond to that?

DR. PRICE: I loved the phrase that Martin Marty had about the only true atheist is someone who doesn’t care about the outcome between the SMU and Notre Dame football game.

MS. TIPPETT: But, you know, what if you’re watching a game and…

DR. PRICE: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: …Emmitt Smith or — I don’t know who they are.

DR. PRICE: Yeah, Emmitt Smith kneels in the end zone.

MS. TIPPETT: He’s a Dallas Cowboy?

DR. PRICE: He was, but he’ll always be remembered as a Cowboy.

MS. TIPPETT: He’s one of the famous, famous religious football players, right? And if they said, you know, `That, for me, belittles and discredits the idea of what prayer is about,’ or `Who is this God you’re praying to who’s rooting for one team and not the other?’

DR. PRICE: Prayer need not be considered a petition. It can also be an expression of thanksgiving. As Emmitt Smith indicates, he’s not trying to impose his beliefs on others. He’s not running up and tackling them and then praying on top of them, which would be an imposition. Instead, he is expressing his thankfulness for having been focused and for having executed plays to the best of his ability. Yes, it will be offensive to some to see that there’s a public expression of faith in that way. I’m much more impressed by seeing someone in a losing locker room have a testimony of faith than to see someone who has just won attribute success to God because, frankly, I don’t think that even God cares whether the field goal’s good at Notre Dame Stadium or not, with Touchdown Jesus signaling that it is good.

MS. TIPPETT: In your work, you’ve talked about the different kinds of religious symbolism and ideas that might be attached to different sports. And you have a particular love of baseball, I believe, or you had a particular epiphany also? The pitcher’s mound as Cosmic Mountain.


MS. TIPPETT: Tell me about that.

DR. PRICE: Shortly after I had begun teaching the course on sport, play and ritual, I went with my colleague, Glenn Yocum, to a Dodger game. And we were seated in the fifth deck in Dodger Stadium behind home plate as we watched then the Philadelphia Phillies, his favorite team, play the Dodgers. As we talked about the course that I was teaching and about the kinds of rules and rituals that were at work on the field, we started identifying the foul poles as basically heavenly bodies with the spears at the top of them, and that the outfield fence was the edge of the world. All of a sudden then I started thinking about things that I’d read about the omphalos myth, or the navel, the center of the earth. And one of my mentors, Mercea Eliade, had written about the cosmic mountain as the center of the earth. And lo and behold, there at the center of the infield was this cosmic mountain. It was higher than any other point, it seemed to revolve, and the pitcher had to be in touch with it almost as though it was like an altar. So Glenn Yocum and I started talking about this incredible layout of the field and the way that the rules and rituals of baseball might resemble the ancient Greek omphalos myth. The fans around us thought that we were not in our right senses, but we had a wonderful time, and then I wrote about it. So it created a stir and created a lot of fun, but it primarily gave people a way of seeing how the playing out of a sport might reflect a story in addition to basically just trying to…

MS. TIPPETT: And a sense of order is another term you use.

DR. PRICE: Yes. I believe the poet Donald Hall finishes one of his essays on baseball with that `baseball gives us a momentary — provides a momentary grace of order.”

MS. TIPPETT: “The diamonds and rituals of baseball create an elegant, trivial, enchanted grid on which our suffering, shapeless, sinful day leans for the momentary grace of order.” That is beautiful. But is it easier to talk in this lofty way and to speak about spirit and religion when it’s baseball, this gentle sport of baseball? I mean, can you do this as equally with ice hockey?

DR. PRICE: My good friend Tom Faulkner, then at Dallas University, wrote about ice hockey as Canada’s civil religion or it’s national religion. Certainly, religions express themselves often in violent ways. So the violence of hockey or the violence of football need not be an indictment that they cannot be religious.

MS. TIPPETT: But is it a religion that’s bad for us, especially if it’s at the center of our culture?

DR. PRICE: Violence need not be seen as an end. It might be an intermediary stage, in some instances the momentary grace of order that might succeed it.

MS. TIPPETT: Oh, now, come on. That’s a very careful answer. Do you-do you have children? You have students.

DR. PRICE: Yes, I have two sons.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. You know, come on. We do go overboard with this, and this commercialization and this overly competitive spirit that’s part of our culture in general does seep in even at the youngest ages to our children’s sports.

DR. PRICE: When my sons played in their Little League, I was criticized for cheering for the opponent players. When my son’s team finished with a perfect record in T-ball, although records were not supposed to be kept, the parents on my son’s team wanted to hold up a banner about having beaten everybody for the season, and I tried to discourage them from doing so. Yes, the kind of triumphal spirit seeps into the earliest stages of organized sport. I read an essay several years ago about what would be best for Little League baseball and especially after the fiasco of overage competitors having played in the Little League World Series a couple of years ago. The essay made very good sense, and that would be that a parent or an adult would unlock a field, provide gloves and bats and balls, and open the field and then depart so that the kids could play baseball rather than learn to compete in order to win, and win only, at such an early age.

MS. TIPPETT: So that really comes back to your thesis that celebrating play is a good, and that that’s at the heart of it, and all the rest of this is a corruption of that.

DR. PRICE: Yes. If we can celebrate play, we can also probably learn ways to move toward justice.

MS. TIPPETT: Say some more about that. How do you get there?

DR. PRICE: Because play gives us a chance to assume a different role. And in assuming a different role, we can try whether something works or not. And in the spirit of following rules, we can find out whether we can adhere to the norms of order. That provides us with models for how to pursue justice.

MS. TIPPETT: Theologian and sports fan Joe Price. In an interview for Ken Burn’s documentary celebration of baseball, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo echoes Joe Price’s comparisons between biblical justice and the playing of sports.

MARIO CUOMO: It is a community activity. You need all nine people helping one another. I love bunt plays. I love the idea of the bunt. I love the idea of the sacrifice. Even the word is good, giving yourself up for the good of the whole. That’s Jeremiah. That’s thousands of years of wisdom. You find your own good in the good of the whole. You find your own individual fulfillment in the success of the community. The Bible tried to do that and didn’t teach you. Baseball did.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, In Praise of Play. At the height of Michael Jordan’s basketball career, one Associated Press survey of African-American children showed him tied with God as the person the children most admired after their parents. Jordan’s coach during his glory years with the Chicago Bulls was Phil Jackson, one of the most successful coaches in basketball history. Phil Jackson has won nine championships, six with the Chicago Bulls and three with the Los Angeles Lakers. Jackson recently rejoined the Lakers less than a year after he left the team to take time off from coaching. He’s known for his unorthodox approach to coaching, weaving ritual, meditation and reading with intense physical training. In 1995, Phil Jackson wrote an unusual book called Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior. Here’s a reading from it.

READER: “When I was named head coach of the Chicago Bulls in 1989, my dream was not just to win championships, but to do it in a way that wove together my two greatest passions, basketball and spiritual exploration. On the surface this may sound like a crazy idea, but intuitively I sensed that there was a link between spirit and sport. Besides, winning at any cost didn’t interest me. From my years as a member of the championship New York Knicks, I’d already learned that winning is ephemeral. Yes, victory is sweet, but it doesn’t necessarily make life any easier the next season or even the next day. After the cheering crowds disperse and the last bottle of champagne is drained, you have to return to the battlefield and start all over again. “In basketball, as in life, true joy comes from being fully present in each and every moment, not just when things are going your way. Of course, it’s no accident that things are more likely to go your way when you stop worrying about whether you’re going to win or lose and focus your full attention on what’s happening right this moment. “The day I took over the Bulls I vowed to create an environment based on the principles of selflessness and compassion I’d learned as a Christian in my parents’ home; sitting on a cushion practicing Zen; and studying the teachings of the Lakota Sioux. I knew that the only way to win consistently was to give everybody — from the stars to the number 12 player on the bench — a vital role on the team and inspire them to be acutely aware of what was happening even when the spotlight was on somebody else. More than anything, I wanted to build a team that would blend individual talent with a heightened group consciousness. A team that could win big without becoming small in the process.”

MS. TIPPETT: From the book Sacred Hoops by basketball’s legendary coach Phil Jackson. Now for the rest of my conversation with Joe Price, who’s both a theologian and, in his own words, a religiously devoted sports fan. He develops his ideas as he works with undergraduates teaching a course called Sport, Play and Ritual. And he’s written essays with titles like “The Final Four as Final Judgment” and “The Super Bowl as Religious Festival.”

ANNOUNCER RAY SCOTT: [From 1967 National Football League championship] A sellout crowd has braved the coldest New Year’s Eve in the history of Green Bay, Wisconsin, to witness the 1967 NFL championship game between the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers. The mercury has dipped to minus-15 degrees, winds gusting at 18 miles per hour as we approach kickoff.

MS. TIPPETT: This is such a lofty place we’ve to come to I almost don’t want to ask this question now. But I need to ask you about the Super Bowl. If sports are an American religion, what does the way the Super Bowl has evolved say about Americans and religion in sports?

DR. PRICE: The Super Bowl is no longer merely a football game. As I was doing some research several years ago, I got a chance to ask John Madden, former coach of the Oakland Raiders, he’s telecast a number of the Super Bowl games. I asked John Madden about whether or not the Super Bowl was really a cultural event, and he said, `For the players, it’s still a football game, and that’s where its heart lies.’ But for most Americans, it’s really the fusion of three symbol systems that make sense out of our culture. One is the sports system. Unlike the NBA or the major league baseball or the NCAA, for the Super Bowl, you know the date and the time for a single game to decide the world champion of American football. That’s distinct.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. And it leads to other events.

DR. PRICE: It leads to other things. But that’s why the Super Bowl is basically the crown of the sports championships.

MS. TIPPETT: So it becomes this extravaganza of this American mix of entertainment and commercialization.

DR. PRICE: And the commercialization’s the third symbol system. So sports, entertainment and economic get fused in this one event that takes on a kind of triumphalistic character.

MS. TIPPETT: So you’re saying actually it doesn’t say nearly as much about sports, about the heart of sports, as it does about, what? Our culture.

DR. PRICE: Our culture.

ANNOUNCER SCOTT: Seven seconds left. Meredith will have to throw deep and pray. He’s going for Stokes who’s covered tightly by Adderly. It falls incomplete. The clock has run out and the Green Bay Packers, in one of the most thrilling comebacks of all time, have beaten the Dallas Cowboys to win the 1967 NFL Championship.

DR. PRICE: Second year that I taught the course, in January — this course is Sport, Play and Ritual — the Super Bowl was taking place in Palo Alto, California. So I didn’t know what to do, but I had relatives in the Bay Area, so I borrowed a camera, I bought 10 rolls of film, and I went up to the Super Bowl site, and there I found the corporate hospitality tents that I had not known about previously. I found the fans maneuvering in various ways, and I took all 10 rolls of film and didn’t really know what I had done until I got back. And Glenn Yocum, my colleague with whom I had talked about baseball rituals, had just returned from a trip to India where he had photographed the pilgrimages of locals to their various shrines. And as he showed me the photographs that he had taken of the Indians to their shrines, I said, `Those are the same movements, the same attitudes of expression, the same respect for center that I have taken at Palo Alto.’ And so I’ve now developed a project on the Super Bowl as the center of American pilgrimage.

MS. TIPPETT: In a sense this is what we’ve been talking about the whole time, but the blunt question: Is that a good thing or a bad thing if the Super Bowl is the center of American pilgrimage?

DR. PRICE: It can be a good thing for us to analyze it because it can give us a handle on understanding who we are or who we are becoming. Is it a good thing that the Super Bowl is a pilgrimage center? It’s not good if that’s the only pilgrimage center. But Graceland is also a pilgrimage center. Arlington Cemetery is also a pilgrimage center. The White House is also a pilgrimage center. Are those necessarily not good? Well, if they help to show the degree to which competing symbol systems contribute to the definition of who we are, then it can be constructive. If we want to identify them solely as a single symbol, nah, it’s not good.

MS. TIPPETT: When you talk about this subject — which I know you do at meetings of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature which happens every year; it’s thousands and thousands of theologians and Biblical scholars — what kind of response do you get from other religious thinkers?

DR. PRICE: Most of the religious scholars receive my analysis well, in part because it helps to make sense out of their own experience. At an AAR meeting in Washington, DC, several years ago, Boston College was in the final seconds of playing football against Notre Dame and, indeed, that was the famous Eagles kick that defeated Notre Dame that afternoon. There were about 35 scholars of religion, many of whom where theologians and biblical scholars, surrounding a TV in the lobby of the hotel. Many of them were kneeling during the time of the preparation for the kick.

MS. TIPPETT: In prayer?

DR. PRICE: They weren’t really praying about the outcome. They were expressing their innermost feelings at that point which had taken the posture of prayer.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. OK. All right.

DR. PRICE: They weren’t praying if the kick was good or bad…

MS. TIPPETT: They were kneeling.

DR. PRICE: …they were hopeful. And they were hopeful in the way that they expressed hope most often, which was through prayer. The fact that I was able to identify that event to many of them helped them then to see that, indeed, sports had, in fact, become a kind of religious ritual for them.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. And what was the chemistry between the religious thinkers whose team won and those whose team lost? How did that play itself out?

DR. PRICE: Well, I guess it was sort of like Elijah and the priests of Ba’al. The one was defeated, and the other mourned and wailed.

MS. TIPPETT: So that ritual, that played itself out again as well in modern American?

DR. PRICE: To a great extent. The prayers went from a uniformed kind of pleading or hopeful petition to those of thanksgiving and lamentation, so that the polarity then became one of `Yes!’ or `Ahh!’ the agony of defeat.

SPORTS ANNOUNCER: Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

MS. TIPPETT: Joe Price is C. Milo Connick professor of religious studies at Whittier College in California. He’s the author of From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion. His new book, Rounding the Bases: Baseball and Religion in America, will be out next spring from Mercer University Press. On the surface, sports in this country, especially major league sports, represent a purely secular world. But it’s also undeniable that many of us turn to the spectacles of football, basketball or baseball for the opportunity to witness moral and spiritual values, our culture prizes. As Joe Price admits, scandals and excess mark every endeavor of American life, including religion. But for him and all the voices, both fictional and real in this hour, criticism of the culture surrounding sports cannot become our sole focus. We can still imagine play, true play, as a high and holy calling, one we can still witness and even participate in whether we are players or fans.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on this program. Please contact us through our Web site at speakingoffaith.org. There you’ll find an annotated guide to today’s program. The particulars section presents images and details about all the references, readings and music you’ve just heard. While you’re there, learn how to purchase MP3 downloads of each week’s program and sign up for our free e-mail newsletter, which includes my journal on each program as well as previews and exclusive extras. That’s speakingoffaith.org.

Special thanks this week to Elizabeth Child and St. Olaf College for their 2004 conference, Sport and Religion: An Inquiry into American Cultural Values. This program was produced by Kate Moos, Mitch Hanley, Colleen Scheck and Jody Abramson. Our web producer is Trent Gilliss. The executive producer of Speaking of Faith is Bill Buzenberg. And I’m Krista Tippett.

Next week, South African quaker cosmologist George Ellis. He argues that ethics, like mathematics, is part of the universe that we discover rather than invent. Please join us.

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