The game’s popularity — which so mimicked the battles of the Civil War — coincided with the growth of “Muscular Christianity.” The belief, at the time, was that this philosophical and evangelistic movement that originated in England included discipline as well as moral and physical athleticism.
Football, with its military metaphors, has become a game that Balmer writes “overcame its white Protestant Northeastern origins to become a national game by expanding to the South, by including Catholics, and by becoming the first of the four sports to be racially integrated. Football, in short, confronted the three Rs: region, religion and race.”
Football had initially drawn the ire of America’s religious communities. For example, Balmer notes, some deemed football a “source of evil” once it did become a thing in the South.
Over time, it grew in acceptance because of its connections to military imagery — and specifically the Civil War — whenever Southern schools played those from the North in the early decades of the 20th century.
At the same time, Notre Dame became a football power. It remains among the few Catholic universities to be competitive at football. The Fighting Irish have won 11 national titles. The first, in 1924, set the school on a course for pigskin success.
In general, Balmer’s interest in the cross-section of sports and religion has a focus on Catholicism. He makes the following astute observation: “Both in substance and symbolism, the Catholic influence in sports extends far beyond football. For example, I’ve come to see sports radio as a form of auricular confession, the Catholic sacrament of penance when the parishioner enters the confessional to recount his transgressions.”
Balmer continues with this these as he examines baseball, basketball and hockey. In chapter 3, dedicated to ice hockey, Balmer informs the reader that the arrival of European immigrants, most of them Catholic, at the turn of the 20th century coincided with the introduction of the penalty box for players who had committed infractions.
Interestingly, Balmer equates the rule change with the “Roman Catholic doctrine of penitence and absolution. He has a point. After all, penalty boxes are nicknamed “sin bins” for that very reason.
It’s tidbits such as this that make this book an interesting read. It does what no other sports book has ever done — that is, connect the rituals of modern sport and trace them back to American society’s religious roots.
Whether you prefer home runs, touchdowns, goals or baskets, Balmer definitely scores with this book. Many readers — and hopefully journalists — will take the time to read it.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was adapted from the Clemente Lisi post “Sports, Passion And How North American Team Games Connect To Religion” published at Religion Unplugged.
FIRST IMAGE: The famous “touchdown Jesus” mural on the Hesburgh Library, looming over the football stadium at the University of Notre Dame. From the Wikipedia page about the history of the stadium.