- Religion and Sports: An Introduction and Case Studies by Rebecca Alpert
In the past decade, a number of sport studies scholars have published texts focused on the relationship between the sacred and sport—works like Sport and Spirituality: An Introduction by Jim Parry, Simon Robinson, Nick J. Watson, and Mark Nesti (2007); and [End Page 105] Sport and Christianity: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Nick J. Watson and Andrew Parker (2013). With her book, Religion and Sports: An Introduction and Case Studies, Temple University professor of religion Rebecca Alpert adds to the disciplinary knowledge while publishing a book accessible to the general public and highly useful for pedagogical goals. Alpert demonstrates a vast familiarity with the disciplinary landscape related to both religion and sport. This knowledge, and also interest, cuts across a variety of pursuits. She addresses issues not merely associated with the “holy trinity” of American football, basketball, and baseball but includes sports such as archery and judo as well. Similarly, the range of religious traditions includes not only issues related to Judeo-Christian beliefs, but also the manner in which sport intersects with the nature of Zen Buddhism, African witchcraft, and Native American faith traditions.
Following an introduction that asks “Why study religion and sports, anyway?” Alpert divides the book into four parts, each of which focuses on particular case studies relevant to the topic. Part 1, “Why Do People Think Sports Are Religion?” includes cases related to high school football in the United States, as well as the Oscar Pistorius story related to technology and performance aids. Part 2, “Does Religion Have a Place in Sports, or Sports in Religion?” includes four separate cases: Eastern religion in the context of archery; prayer and sport; witchcraft and African football; and baseball chapels and the impact on Jewish umpires. Part 3, titled “What Happens When Religion and Sports Come into Conflict?,” includes an additional four cases: the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin and the impact on American Jews; the case of the Belleville Grays, a team of black Jewish baseball players in the Negro League; a National Basketball Association (NBA) player with Muslim religious beliefs and the national anthem; and Islamic values related to gender with regard to competitive judo. Finally, Part 4 deals with issues of “Religion and Ethical Dilemmas in Sports.” This final part includes five cases: gender restrictions in Catholic Youth Organization American football; the responsibility of the Catholic Church to address bullfighting; the use of Native American mascots or symbols; the issue of “running up the score” as it relates to Christianity; and the religious expression described by NBA coach Phil Jackson.
One of the strengths of this book, particularly for undergraduate students, is the use of current events as a hook to explore academic topics. For example, the case study regarding Oscar Pistorius provides an example of how difficult it may be to determine human embodiment and this relationship to both ethical and theological issues. Pistorius, a double amputee runner, famously competed in the 2012 Olympics, able to do so through his technologically designed “cheetah legs,” which became controversial. Additionally, case 11 examines the plight of Caroline Pla, a young girl with a passion for American football who is refused entry into the Catholic Youth Organization–sponsored league based on gender. In activity 3, Alpert poses the following question: “Does the Catholic Church have a responsibility to speak out about safety issues in [American] football?” This is similar to Shirl Hoffman’s (1992) critique of evangelical Christianity in his book Sport and Religion. Hoffman berated Christian institutions (for example, churches, schools) for using sport to spread the Gospel but refusing to address issues of violence in sport or help reform sport.
At the same time, the book also introduces lesser-known cases, which may be intriguing and serve as learning opportunities for students. Case in point here, at least for those in North America, is the role of witchcraft related to African football (soccer). Another [End Page 106] interesting feature the book provides is attention...