Almost precisely a century ago, Emile Durkheim pondered along similar lines. Durkheim, a pioneering sociologist, began digging through accounts of “primitive” cultures like the Arunta tribe of Australia, hoping to excavate the ancient source of ties that bind. His conclusion—as revealed in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life—remains as profound and relevant today as it is elegantly simple: Whenever a society (or, here, sports subculture) worships a divine form, it is, in fact, also simultaneously worshipping itself.
For Durkheim, this all hinged on what he called “the totem.” As he wrote, “On the one hand, [the totem] is the external and tangible form of what we have called the… god. But on the other, it is the symbol of that particular society we call the clan. It is its flag; it is the sign by which each clan distinguishes itself from others, the visible mark of its personality.”…
What totems, therefore, still survive in this culture of ours? The Red Sox. The Packers. The Lakers. And so on. The notion that sports remain our civic religion is truer than we often let on: In fandom, as in religious worship, our social connections are brought to life, in the stands as in the pews. It serves as a reminder of our interconnectedness and dependency; it materially indexes belonging. Like others, I indulge the royal “we” when speaking of my team, though there is little evidence they need me much beyond ticket sales, merchandise, and advertising impressions. Nonetheless, as Durkheim long ago noticed, “Members of each clan try to give themselves the external appearance of their totem … When the totem is a bird, the individuals wear feathers on their heads.” Ravens fans surely understand this.
In short, if you look hard at sports, you can’t help but see contours of religion.
It looks like this researcher recently published a piece in Communication & Sport that involved analyzing some of the Durkheimian features of the behavior of Philadelphia Phillies fans during their 2008 World Series run. However, this is not a new argument. Indeed, from a Durkheimian perspective, lots of social phenomena could take on the functional role of religion in providing people an energy-giving experience, common totems or rituals to rally around, and a sense of cohesion and purpose beyond their individual roles in society. Going back to sports, take, for example, the upcoming spectacle of the Super Bowl. Few other annual events in the United States draw such attention for a short period of time. My undergraduate sociology adviser discussed this back in the 1980s:
The answer, brothers and sisters, appears to be a resounding yes, by the reckoning of James A. Mathisen, a sociologist at Wheaton (Ill.) College. Mathisen, in a scholarly paper presented in Washington at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, argued that the Super Bowl has become “the American spectacle of folk religion . . .the festival of the folk, (celebrating] their faith, their practice and their history.”…
That shift has been accomplished in great measure by the miracle-working power of television and technology, sustaining and spreading the words and deeds of sports figures, Mathisen added. Televised extravaganzas such as the Super Bowl and World Series take on the characteristics of “collective cultic observances,” he said…
“As an American, I simply am expected to be a ‘generic’ sports fan and possibly also have a favorite team or alma mater which becomes a community with which I identify and a clan whose symbols and totems bind me to it,” Mathisen observed. “Being a sports fan is comparable to being religious – it’s a taken-for-granted, American thing to do.”
The attachment or loyalty to a particular team is similar to choosing allegiance to a religious denomination, he continued. Sports also take on the qualities and characteristics of religion in the evocation of tradition and history, Mathisen said.
The halls of fame, for example, “preserve the sacred symbols and memorabilia which encourage us to rehearse the contributions of the saints who have moved on.” Moreover, Mathisen continued, the copiously kept records of sports function in the same manner as the “sacred writings and the historical accounts of any religious group, providing a timeless, normative guide by which later disciples’ accomplishments are judged.”