From Durkheim to Game Day: Sports as a Bridge for Introducing Religious Studies
My initial reading of Émile Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life left me neither enlightened nor inspired, but rather profoundly confused. The principal barrier was my own limited understanding of the category of religion, which started and stopped with “a belief in God or gods.” But slowly, the French sociologist’s ideas on religion and society sunk in—that is, with a little help from college football.
I was living in Tallahassee at the time, home of the Florida State Seminoles. In shifting my gaze from Durkheim to game day, I witnessed a community of similarly dressed football devotees, unified in their ritual behaviors, and intensely loyal to their symbolic universe. From players and coaches to fans and the media, there was a grand sense of “us,” not to mention a dehumanized “them” in the form of visiting teams. I discovered firsthand that critics could also become a “them.” When I started asking impolite questions about the Seminole mascot—or “symbol,” as they prefer to call it—I was met with an assortment of hostile responses. No doubt, I was treading on sacred territory.
As I learned more about the foundation and frontiers of religious studies, I simultaneously continued translating these ideas through the lens of athletics. To be clear, I am not partial to the “sport is a religion” trope. Such arguments, in my mind, stretch the categories of religion and sports to unrecognizable lengths. Instead, to channel David Chidester, I prefer to examine the ways in which sports operate in “characteristically religious ways.” That is, I prefer to apply the tools of religious studies to athletic activities that participants and observers deem to be special, set apart. The Pittsburgh Steelers, for example, are not in my view a religion in western Pennsylvania. But I do notice a history of complex social forces producing an air of sacredness around the “Terrible Towel.” One finds this ordinary piece of yellow cloth waved at games, hung in sports bars, wrapped around newborn infants, and rested atop the coffins of departed fans. For “Steelers Nation,” this ordinary towel is an extraordinary marker of their corporate identity.
So from my earliest exposure to religious studies to the present, athletics has been part of my comprehension process. Drawing directly on this experience, my “Religion and Sports in America” class is also—in an almost surreptitious way—an introduction to the study of religion. First, I lure students in by promising to talk about sports. Then, before they know it, they’re using terms like “collective effervescence” to describe sports fandom.
Rammer, Jammer, Yellow Hammer!
On the first day of class, even before I introduce myself or the syllabus, I open with this question: “How does Émile Durkheim’s theory of religion apply to Warren St. John’s (2005) book, Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer?”
I let the mystery hover in the air before explaining that we will be spending the next three weeks pursuing this question, which is also the prompt for their first essay. Durkheim, I tell them, broke new ground in his time by giving a social explanation for the phenomenon of religion. St. John, meanwhile, is a contemporary author and journalist who followed the Alabama Crimson Tide football team for a season. Students are, to say the least, unimpressed with Durkheim. But the promise of Rammer Jammer keeps them from rushing out to drop the class.
Week one focuses on the first half of this question, as we read and discuss Daniel Pals’s (2015) remarkably lucid summary of Durkheim in Nine Theories of Religion. I have considered assigning segments from Elementary Forms, but I worry that the lumpy prose and abstruse references will frustrate students. Additionally, nearly everyone taking my course is not a religious studies major. Instead, they are enrolled to fulfill a general education credit. Pals offers a relatively painless point of entry for this population.
In the second week, we move on to Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer, a title that derives from a popular cheer associated with the Alabama football team. St. John is an Alabama native who was educated at Columbia before becoming a noted journalist. He begins the book by laying bare his irrational passion for the Tide, admitting that there is no good reason for him to be obsessed by the doings of these anonymous young men and their coaches. And yet, wins and losses become a matter of life or death, leading St. John to wonder, “Why do I care?”
To pursue this question, the author purchases a rickety and fuel-inefficient RV and follows the team during its 1999 campaign. While documenting the eccentric followers of “Bama Nation,” he also ponders the visible and invisible contours of this community. In one notable passage, he recounts celebrating with fellow RVers after a win over the University of Florida. Jubilation turned sour when the gathering learned that one of Alabama’s African American players might have committed an NCAA violation that could lead to a forfeiture of wins. Suddenly, fans who were previously overflowing with praise for the players deployed the vilest racial slurs. A horrified St. John then reflected that shouting “Roll Tide” and celebrating a victory might give him a comforting feeling of “us.” But the presence of racism left him saddened and bewildered, “struggling to understand who exactly ‘we’ are.”
Passages like these make Rammer Jammer fertile ground for Durkheimian analysis. But I have found that the connections between these two are not as self-evident as I think they are. Fan mania might be something that all or most of my students can relate with. But Durkheim? Not so much. Bridging this gap means offering multiple entry points for students to think through their assignment long before they begin writing.
“The Relentless Work to Bend the Body to Necessary Habits”
“The most frequent mode of exercising intelligence…is repetition,” writes philosopher Jacques Rancière. A new task, skill, or theory might be seen or experienced in its initial stages. But to have ownership of any new idea requires doing something over and over again, even when it’s boring and monotonous. As Rancière observes, the “secret” of those who we call “geniuses” is “the relentless work to bend the body to necessary habits.”
Most athletes intuitively understand the relationship between body-bending repetition and mastery. Throwing a football, swinging a golf club, or running a fast mile takes practice. And for practice to be effective, the athlete must be invested in the task, he or she must act with deep intention. Repetition is similarly necessary for classroom learning. I can say something in a lecture, or assign a reading. But if this idea is new and complicated, it will take time and effort to digest. With that in mind, I offer many ways for students to think through Durkheim and Alabama football.
I begin by lecturing on Durkheim. While I use quizzes to keep students accountable for reading, I find that they profit from both reading and hearing about the theorist. From there, we move on to St. John’s memoir. Masterfully written and entertaining throughout, I trust that students will have little difficulty discussing the story. In the past, I have led discussions on the book, trying to direct conversations back to Durkheim whenever possible. But recently, I have experimented with allowing students to lead discussions. To do this, students are assigned to groups that will direct discussions on a given day. They are assessed on three criteria: 1) covering the assigned reading; 2) attempting to connect the reading to Durkheim; and 3) reflecting on what was most interesting and unique to them. I assess participants on roughly the same standards. While they might not “get” Durkheim immediately, giving it an honest effort does seem to help.
I also require students to write a blog post before coming to class. For this, I simply ask them to comment on something of interest to them that came out of the reading. This helps the discussion leaders pick up on issues that can be used during class.
Finally, after two weeks of lecture and discussion, we move on to writing the essay. Students first submit a draft, which awards a minimal number of points based on word limit, timeliness, and appearance of effort. Then during our class meeting, students are asked to step to the board and sketch out an outline of their paper. All of us then offer suggestions for improvement, before students submit their final draft.
From the first lecture to the final paper, I give ample opportunities to engage and reengage with Durkheim and Rammer Jammer. Moreover, there is a deliberate effort to create an atmosphere of collaboration, where students work together in different settings. The rest of this course repeats this structure. We apply Mircea Eliade to Stephen Amidon’s (2012) Something Like the Gods; Karl Marx to Anna Krien’s (2014) Night Games; and Clifford Geertz to Christopher McDougall’s (2011) Born to Run. As we go, there are opportunities to compare and contrast the different theorists and books. Then the final project has students applying the theoretical perspectives of the course to a sports item of their choosing.
While the course structure is repetitive, I have found that its varied modes of delivery help to avoid stagnation. By the time students are tired of my lectures, we move on to discussions. And when everyone has stated his or her thoughts on the books, we move on to papers. And once that is finished, we start all over again with something new. In other words, we move from assignment to assignment just like our favorite teams go from one game to the next, hoping to improve with each outing.
Bridging the Gap
As I continue to offer the course, I am also ceaselessly adjusting my syllabus. The book list as it stands could do a better job of including female athletes, as well as minority experiences. I am also open to making use of more contemporary religion theorists. I employ the “classics” because I want students to deal with the foundational ideas in religious studies. But if I found the right contemporary readings, I could be convinced to include some “new classics.”
As for everything else, I am intrigued by bringing student-led discussions into this course. I piloted this technique in another class that I teach on apocalyptic literature and film. This is a “capstone” course for our general education program. While we have license to choose the topic and material, we are also instructed to maximize participation and minimize lecturing. My only problem with this is that I have never been good at leading discussions. Questions that I find provocative meet with empty stares and the deafening sound of crickets chirping. So I decided to let my students lead the conversations. To be sure, there were meandering tangents and superficial observations. And I found it unnerving to cede control in the classroom, a potential threat to my authority. But the overall experience was positive for me and my students. And by grading discussions each week, the regular feedback helped students to become better discussion leaders and participants. Active citizenship at work, I suppose.
Ongoing adjustments and revisions notwithstanding, I have come to value this course and what it can do for introducing my discipline to unsuspecting students. In Wilbert J. McKeachie and Marilla Svinicki’s Teaching Tips, the authors stress that the effective professor develops learning strategies “that help students to build bridges between what they already know or have experienced and what they are trying to learn” (2011, 297). In other words, intellectual transformation happens when students can start from a familiar spot, and migrate to someplace new. But finding common ground with our students is, to say the least, challenging. Television, film, the Internet, and current events exist in a vast and fragmented media landscape. Sports, though, remain something of a shared text. After all, even the hardened sports skeptic can’t escape the ubiquity of Super Bowl Sunday or the Summer Olympics.
Indeed, in this course, we begin in the land of long passes, strikeouts, and endless volleys, and travel to a territory of piacular rites, hierophanies, and thick descriptions. Along the way, we have the opportunity to think anew about religion, sports, and the complicated ways that these human institutions interact.
Bain, Ken. 2004. What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Flynn, Nora K. 2009. “Toward Democratic Discourse: Scaffolding Student-Led Discussions in the Social Studies.” Teachers College Record 111, no. 8: 2021–54.
Pals, Daniel L. 2015. Nine Theories of Religion. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
Rancière, Jacques.1991. The Ignorant Schoolmaster : Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Svinicki, Marilla D., and Wilbert James McKeachie. 2011. Mckeachie’s Teaching Tips : Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers. 13th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Amidon, Stephen. 2012. Something Like the Gods: A Cultural History of the Athlete from Achilles to Lebron. New York, NY: Rodale.
Chidester, David. 2005. Authentic Fakes: Religion and American Popular Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Krien, Anna, 2014. Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport. London: Yellow Jersey.
McDougall, Christopher. (2009) 2011. Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. New York: Random House.
St. John, Warren. 2004. Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer: A Road Trip into the Heart of Fan Mania. New York: Broadway Books.
Arthur Remillard is associate professor of religious studies at Saint Francis University in Loretto, Pennsylvania. His teaching and research focuses on American religious history, civil religion, apocalyptic literature, and religion and sports. He is currently finishing a book entitled Bodies in Motion: A Religious History of Sports in America, as well as a coedited volume called Gods, Games, and Globalization: New Perspectives on Religion and Sports. He blogs at http://arthurremillard.blogspot.com/.
Image: George Wilson, safety for the Buffalo Bills (American football), prays before a game against the New York Jets. By Ed Yourdon (Flickr: NY Jets vs. Buffalo, Oct 2009 - 02), via Wikimedia Commons