A Religious Experience
Every week, millions of people come together for a common cause. They hope. They chant. They pray. They believe that there is something out there that is bigger than them.
But there are also the skeptics who ridicule these beliefs. They say that there is no scientific evidence that hope and prayer make a difference. And that faith does not matter.
And they may even say: “You know, it’s just a game!”
For the millions of people that congregate together to watch sports, it is clearly more than just a game. It is a religious experience.
It is a time when people from different faiths, races, cultures, political affiliations, socioeconomic statuses, and haircuts can come together and support the same cause. There is no proof that fans (especially those watching on TV) have an effect on the game. But this doesn’t keep people from yelling at the TV, knocking on wood, holding hands, and finally just hoping and praying. Sports is their religion.
When people ask me about ethnicity and religion, I usually reply like this. “My ethnicity is Judaism and my religion is Boston sports.” The truth is that I spend more time praying when I’m watching a game then when I’m in synagogue. I think of Fenway Park as my sanctuary; not Temple Sinai. My family occasionally gets together for the high holidays, but we always come together for the Red Sox, Patriots, and Celtics.
“When I was about 18 and my Dad and I couldn’t communicate about anything at all, we could still about baseball. Now that was real.”
-Daniel Stern in City Slickers
Boston sports have a rich history, but it does not stand alone. In fact, most sporting teams (just like religions) have rich traditions whether it’s professional, college, or even high school (see Friday Night Lights.)
“Take Me Out to the Ball Game” is a staple of Major League Baseball. Adults and kids alike happily ask for peanuts and cracker jacks every single game. It’s like the equivalent of the songs you sing in church/temple/your sanctuary every single week.
At Fenway Park, 35,000+ people sing “Sweet Caroline” in the middle of the eighth inning. The tradition is somewhat new, but those who have taken part can explain it’s quite an experience.
At the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, 110,000 people fill the stadium every home game. 110,000! Fans wear their colors and chant their fight song with pride. Even though the team sucks now, fans still attend because it’s tradition. It’s a part of them.
While I lived in LA, I went to UCLA games and learned the 8 clap; the traditional cheer all the fans know. Unfortunately, I went to a D-III school so this was new to me. But almost every D-1 university takes pride in their rituals, traditions, cheers, and fight songs. And everyone performs them together as one.
Almost all of the stadiums have nuances that make them special. They may not have stained glass windows and altars, but there are green monsters, ivy walls, Lambeau Leaps, perfect blades of grass, parquet floors, banners, statues, and that special feeling in the air.
And those that cannot attend the games find their own sanctuary; their own place where everyone knows the fight song, the chants, the rituals, and the superstitions.
"And David put his hand in the bag and took out a stone and slung it. And it struck the Philistine on the head and he fell to the ground. Amen."
-Preacher Purl in Hoosiers
Their teams can become a symbol of hope. The underdog overcoming adversity is the equivalent of the biblical tale of David versus Goliath. These teams inspire people. They make them think twice about saying that something is impossible. These teams also account for 2/3 of all Disney movies.
Sports have even adapted religious terms and expressions. When an athlete makes a lucky play, it’s called a “prayer.” In football, a “Hail Mary” is a last-ditch bomb at the end of a game, where a completion is pretty much impossible. After a fan witnesses their first momentous sports event, they are “baptized” into the game.
Sports fans often mutter expressions about God and Jesus Christ although they are not always in the kindest tone. And of course, there are the athletes who merge sports and religion together by thanking their savior for the help.
Sports are also connected to a number of holidays both religious and secular. Easter dinner goes hand in hand with the Elite 8. Christmas Day features the two best NBA match-ups. People fast on Yom Kippur, but also tune it for the MLB playoffs. New Year’s Day is about hangover recovery and the college football bowls. Thanksgiving wouldn’t be the same without the NFL. In fact, the only day without a major televised sport is the day before and after the Major League Baseball All-Star Game.
Religious fanatics spend much of their time trying to convert us. Well, so do sports' fans. As a Boston fan, I have actively tried to convert others to join my cause. When I worked at an elementary school in California, I gave kids candy if they wore Boston gear. But the most common conversion usually happens with women.
How to Convert a Girl
Before you try this, you must remember some girls are lost causes. If she is a Daddy’s girl, it means she has already been converted by her father. Her beliefs are deeply implanted and it will take too much time to change them. Another challenge is presented if she actually knows the players and stats of the team she supports. It is also very difficult to convert a girl who roots for your opposite team (i.e. Yankee fan to Red Sox fan.) For me, a Yankee Fan is an immediate deal breaker. (See Deal Breakers for more: http://thecorner33.blogspot.com/2008/06/deal-breakers.html)
But the majority of the female population is convertible. It usually works like this. Once the girl likes you, she becomes curious about your passions. Since you love the _______ (fill in the blank), she wants to know more about them. You watch a game together. You explain the rules, the tradition, and the history. You even throw in a few stories how you and your father/brothers/friends bonded over sports, and how much it means to you.
As she learns more, she gets excited. Next, comes the sports gear. You buy her a T-shirt, jersey and/or hat. Now she feels a part of something. She wears her new hat with pride, and without realizing it, may even try converting her friends to join the cause.
Then, you take her to your sanctuary (it could be the stadium, your neighborhood bar, and even a friend’s place where you watch games) to expose her to the excitement. Seeing other people cheer for the same thing is pretty hard to resist. She is now becoming a part of the tradition. If she sees a special game, (a walk-off, a comeback, a no- hitter, etc.) she becomes “baptized” as a fan.
The girl finds herself following the team even when the guy isn’t around. She may not watch the whole game, but she checks the scores, and consciously hopes that her new team does well. She picks a favorite player. Usually it’s based on good looks, and she becomes locked in. When that player is featured in the game, she gets really excited.
Remember: Initially, she only rooted on the team to support her boyfriend, but now it’s a part of her. She is getting into it.
The final step of conversion revolves around “family.” If the girl meets your father/brothers/childhood friends and sees the tradition, history, and bonding, she is officially in. There is now a substantial connection. There is no going back.
The only way to lose a converted fan is after a bad break-up. Men must be careful how they end things if they don’t want their team to lose a fan. If it ends rocky, the girl will resent the man and all of his beliefs. Thus, her passion for the new team will turn into rage. But if the man follows all of the steps above, it might be so ingrained that she still must root for the new team.
“Clearly, it's not just a game! If it was, then obviously I wouldn't care about it this much.”
-Jimmy Fallon in Fever Pitch
So the next time you hear someone say: “It’s just a game,” remember that it is far more than that. It is a religious experience; it’s about history, tradition, and family.
If you don’t agree with this, I guess that’s OK. But all I ask is that you try to understand. This is why we go crazy for sports. This is why sports have been around forever. This is why sports are important to us.
“And they'll watch the game and it'll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they'll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh... people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.”
-James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams