How coronavirus pandemic could change America’s religion of sports

George W. Truett Seminary, Baylor University

Sports in America, John Tunis declared in 1928, are “a kind of national religion.”

Scholars can debate whether or not this is true, but sports are certainly like a religion. And much of their influence, as Sheldon observed, comes from their ability to bring people and communities together in shared spaces and shared experiences.

So what happens now that sports — even the Tokyo Olympics — have been canceled? What will the “religion” of sports look like in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Most people understand — or at least say they understand — that games are a minor concern compared to the life-and-death gravity of a pandemic. But that does not mean the loss of sports is inconsequential.

The cancellations of games, seasons and tournaments are painful for athletes and coaches who have devoted their lives to pursue athletic excellence.

That loss matters. It is all right to express grief and sadness for Olympic dreams that have been dashed, for hopes that have vanished, for routines that have been upended, for identities that now seem fragmented.

As those in the sports community express sadness and share in each other’s grief, they can continue to build and strengthen the emotional bonds that give sports so much meaning.

There is hope for the future — the promise that one day, sports will return to our lives.

Of course, the return of sports is not the important thing.

The important thing is that at some point the pandemic will subside, hospitals will no longer be in danger of being overcrowded and people will have less of a chance of being exposed to the novel coronavirus.

The return of sports won’t solve any of those problems. But it will signify that those problems have been solved. And so sports fans can dream of what might happen in the future; they can hope for the return of the games they love.

Power of sports

Perhaps we can also hope that the power of sports might be diminished.

Will those of us who love sports take this moment to reflect? Will we affirm the good in sports while also pausing to consider the ways that sports can warp and distort our priorities — from our time and money to our willingness to overlook ethical concerns?

Will we make an effort to change our patterns of behavior and also the systems and structures that we have built up over the years?

The historian in me is not very optimistic. But at least in my own life, I’m going to try.

With my fellow sports fans, I’ll be lamenting lost games and dreams. I’ll be looking back at old seasons and remembering players from the past. And I’ll be envisioning the moments of joy and celebration to come when sports do return.

But I’ll also be reminding myself — once again, and louder this time — that while sports are important, they should not be my ultimate concern.