Popular Religion and Participatory Culture Conversation: Daniel T Durbin and Joseph L. Price (Part 2)


Joe Price: In liturgical ceremonies an acolyte is an assistant who must perform the ritual in correct ways in order to respect the process and to validate the meaning that lies beyond the function of the action itself.  Like the chess player who abides by the arbitrary—but customary—rule of moving a pawn only one space at a time, the acolyte also follows established guidelines whose origins were similarly subjective.  And while a liturgical acolyte might be oriented by goodness and the pursuit (or affirmation) of salvation, he or she, like the superstitious sports fan, might be acting also with the mixed motives of hope (for spiritual fulfillment) and fear of death or anxiety about one’s existential predicament, unspecified concerns arising out of the strictures of finitude (as Paul Tillich distinguished in The Courage to Be).  

Although sports fans might have jobs that provide the economic resources to secure food, shelter, and (perhaps) comfort, it’s possible that a sense of being called—the root of vocation—motivates them to find meaning in identifying with players or teams whose pursuit of victory can stimulate hope.  For the uncertain outcome of a sports competition provides athletes and fans with an event or a circumstance that cultivates hope: with two outs and none on the ninth inning and down by a run or more, or with fourth down and seconds remaining while losing by five, or down by two with two seconds remaining to inbound the ball at the baseline, a devout fan maintains hope that baserunners will get on to bring the winning run to the plate, or that a Hail Mary pass will miraculously be caught for a winning touchdown, or that a half-court heave will deliver a winning three-point buzzer beater.  Theologian Michael Novak maintains that an athlete or devout sports fan who achieves a victory is able to experience briefly in an anticipatory way a kind of spiritual fulfilment that is sought by acolytes and other religious devotees.

While hope might be sustained (even against all odds) throughout competition, defeat rather than victory might be realized.  In such cases, Novak avers, an athlete or fan is challenged in a nominal way to rehearse one’s possible response to the ultimate defeat—death.   Yet because of the seasonal nature of sports, it’s possible to reinvigorate hope following a defeat.  Tomorrow or next week there’s another game, and with a new season there’s fresh hope for a championship.  In Wait Till Next Year, her memoir of childhood fandom for the Dodgers, Doris Kearns Goodwin dealt with a season’s unsuccessful end by anticipating a new start the next year, much like her Jewish friend who sustained hope during High Holy Days by envisioning “next year in Jerusalem.”


Daniel Durbin: I appreciate your ode to hope in a sports fan’s life, but, let’s face it (ad hominem argument coming up here) that’s pretty easy for a lifelong Yankees fan.  For a Yankees fan, there is always hope (if only the hope of the wealthiest team in the game).

What about your typical, say, Sacramento Kings fan or, until recently, Chicago Cubs fan or (speaking of lives buried in existential despair) Cleveland Browns fans?  Many fans stay committed to teams they know have no chance of winning a championship. At times, being a fan of “lovable losers” or “snake-bit” franchises or the “non-one-percenters” can become an important point of identification for fans.

Some fans know they are not ever going to be pseudo-sophisticates living lives of regal luxury in Louis Vuitton and obscenely priced apartments in downtown Manhattan.  They are proudly “nobodies from nowhere” and the struggles of their often underfunded teams (relative to the big dogs in Los Angeles and New York) embody their own sense of underpaid-but-fighting-the-good-fight-for-family-hearth-and-home self.  They have no hope of winning in this season or next.  But, they continue to fight against a system that, from their perspective, may be stacked against them.  Why?  Perhaps because, on some level, they find a certain heroism in giving their lives for a lost cause.

As you note, the end of the season does mark a moment of death for them.  But, I would like to suggest that it also marks a moment of death for the championship team and that team’s fans.  I think this point is important for understanding the similarities and differences between a sports fan’s and a religious acolyte’s experience.  I will have to take a slightly circuitous route to get there.

To begin, as sports philosopher Bernard Suits and many others have noted, a key factor that distinguishes sports from games is that sports are a purely public affair.  I can play tiddlywinks all day by myself.  I can challenge myself to perform 100 push-ups in five minutes. But, these are not sports.  Sports exist when a sufficient number of followers (a public body) follow the sport as sport.  As with the athletic festivals that defined sport in ancient Greece, sport exists when a public recognizes a competition as creating a significant social narrative.

As a public activity, sport is a rhetorical exercise. From the creation of rules (which are used to persuade a sufficient public of the value of the sports competition) to the promotion of the sport to the performances of athletes as exemplifications of the values encoded in the sports rules to the broadcasting and discussion of the sports event itself, sport exists within the public sphere and functions as a form of public discourse that creates value promoting messages of praise and blame.  These messages use the performances of athletes as examples or proofs of the values expressed in the rules.  Their actions demonstrate the “rightness” of those rules and what is “right” or praiseworthy action within the world created by those rules.  

These ideas are not new.  Plato recognized the goal of sport as creating public discourses of praise and blame in his “Laws” and Aristotle recognized sports discourse as epideictic rhetoric in his “Rhetoric.”

As ritualistic rhetoric, sports can create messages of success and failure in tournaments and competitions.  But, once we create sports seasons as part of the sports ritual, we create a terminal point for the sport.  The sports season ends in death, symbolic death for all those involved in the sport.

The 1960 baseball season had a terminal point when Bill Mazeroski hit a home run to win the World Series for the Pittsburgh Pirates over the New York Yankees.  At that moment, the Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series and the New York Yankees ended the 1960 season in failure.  Yet, even as Mazeroski’s hit dropped over the left field fence in Forbes Field, the Pittsburgh Pirates of 1960 no longer existed.  The second that game ended, the Pirates of 1960 were, in sports ritual, dead.  They had finished their lives in victory.  But, they were as dead as the 1960 Yankees.

The moment Mazeroski jumped on home plate, the 1960 Pirates were dead and the city of Pittsburgh awaited the birth of the 1961 Pirates.  The victory meant that there was nothing greater for Pittsburgh fans to hope for from 1961.  Their team could not possibly do better in 1961 than they did in 1960.  Moreover, the 1961 Pittsburgh Pirates would not even be the same team.  Age, trades, injuries and circumstance would change the team (as happens with all teams in new seasons).

A fan might hope for a better season from a team “next year.”  But, the rhetorical ritual of death that ends each sports season creates a terminal point in meaning for the team as it exists within the fan’s experience.  And that point, I would argue, gives meaning to fans as it embodies their own rhetorical response to death.\

I may accept my team’s lot in life as an also-ran, a team that has no championship hopes.  It’s annual ritual of failure in public competition may express my own sense of failure at not competing with the “haves” in society.  But, as my team continues to fight to the last out or the final buzzer, even when it has long been eliminated from the postseason, even in the face of ultimate failure and loss, it may embody for me my own struggle, my own courage in fighting to the end of my life though I may end life with only the most modest of accomplishments.

So, even without hope for another season, because, in a very real sense, there is no other season for my 2018 Lakers or Warriors or Dodgers or Rams (or Yankees), sports can create rhetorical meaning for us as we face the most fundamental problem of our existence, our own termination. Our teams can embody our own success and failure, courage and fear as we face our end.  And, as they embody values we praise in facing their seasonal termination, they may create identification with those values within us as fans. With them, we stand courageous in the face of the end.  No hope, yet, no despair.

As Plato said in discussing leading a life of philosophical inquiry, perhaps, in this way, sports can help us “at the end of life cast off the burdens of the flesh [and] stand victorious in the first bout of a truly Olympian victory.” 


Joe Price: I’m always engaged and stimulated by your reflections on rhetoric, especially since (as the son of Southern minister) I have always been fascinated by language, its structure and its use.  Does experience itself create meaning, or is the meaning created in the reflection on the experience per se and the use or rhetoric to tell the story?  Although Mazeroski’s home run—I still cringe when I write those words and taste the tears that I shed that October afternoon—was an event that ended the game and the season, it created a deep sense of joy and meaning for fans and folks in Pittsburgh.  One of my present colleagues, a native of Pittsburgh who deigns to hear me talk about baseball, will gladly tell of joining the celebration in the downtown streets following the Pirates win.  For her like so many Pirates and Yankees fans, the meaning of that event did not die with Maz touching home plate nor with the end of the city’s immediate celebration nor with the drying of my own tears.  The significance and meaning of that game endures in memory, especially in its retelling, for which she uses she and Pittsburgh fans use a different rhetoric than the one that I employ.


Daniel Durbin: Like a funeral, end of season celebrations reflect on a life well-lived, a life that was given in the “heroic” struggle to accomplish the seemingly impible.  The 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates are dead.  But, they died in a glorious victory.

And here, perhaps, as T. S. Eliot once wrote, in our end we find our beginning.  For, tradition says that ancient athletic festivals, the very first sports, the sports that gave Aristotle and Plato the content to describe sport, those athletic festivals grew from funeral celebrations.  Athletic festivals were held to celebrate the life of a fallen hero. The athletes’ performances acted as performative exemplifications of the hero’s great deeds.  The end of the competition spoke of the end of the hero’s struggle with fate, the gods, other human beings.  The winner embodied the hero’s valorous struggle and ultimate victory, even in the face of death.

As the son of a Southern minister, you undoubtedly know Paul’s final summation of his own heroic struggle; “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

Maybe, just maybe, Paul remembered the tradition of athletic festivals, here.  Perhaps, he drew on the tradition of sports as rhetorical summations of a finished life’s struggle as he dictated these final words, final reflections on his life.  Perhaps.


Joe Price:It’s certain that Paul was familiar with sports since by the time of his benediction he had readily aligned the athlete’s pursuit of victory with the faithful Christian’s pursuit of fulfilment.  Even so, he identified a qualitative difference between the victorious athlete’s medal as an impermanent wreath and the faithful believer’s reward, which is the imperishable prize of eternal life (1 Corinthians 9:24ff).  By extension, then, he would probably conclude, like you, that the sports fan celebrates temporal teams and their quests while the religious devotee reveres that which is beyond time and space, that which is indestructible. 


Daniel Durbin: Perhaps appropriately, we may let Paul have the final word, here.  For, in his “qualitative difference” between the impermanent wreath of a victorious athlete and the “imperishable prize” awarded the faithful believer, we have the exemplification of the distinction I made earlier in our conversation regarding the difference between sports and religion. For sports to be a game, an avocation, the victory and the prize must remain impermanent, a mark of a passing moment in time when the athlete achieved victory over opponents and the unnecessary obstacles the game placed in her or his way.  For the religious acolyte, the stakes are permanent, imperishable, serious in a way sports cannot be serious without losing their meaning as sports and games. 

Sports can bring a moment of rapture or despair for the transitory achievement of victory.  Religion must often posit the hope of a rapture that does not fade, a joy that cannot fall into despair---a permanent rapture and joy that we cannot achieve in our ever-changing human state.  Sports, at their best, may give us a brief hint of that joy.  But, as with all evolving human discourse, it can only offer the briefest of hints. 

Thank you, Joe, for a stimulating conversation and we both would like to thank Henry Jenkins for opening his blog to this conversation.

Joseph L. Price is a Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies. With a doctorate in theology and culture, he has taught more than thirty different courses, ranging from “The Life and Teaching of Jesus” to “Latin American Liberation Theologies” and from “Cinema and Religion” to “Sport, Play, and Ritual.” Author and co-editor of several theological works, including Tillich and A New Handbook of Christian Theology, he has also published numerous essays and books on sports and religion, including From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion and Rounding the Bases: Baseball and Religion in America. Combining his interests in sports, ritual studies, and music, he has sung the national anthem for more than 125 professional baseball games in 20 Major League ballparks and 100 minor league stadiums in 42 states.



Daniel T. Durbinis RTCP Professor of Communication and Director of the Institute of Sports, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Dr. Durbin has published numerous articles on sports, popular culture, rhetoric, media, and philosophy.  His current research interests include a rethinking of the entire process of sport as performative public discourse.  He is also writing a book tracing the massive social changes that remade Los Angeles and Hollywood in the summer of 1947.

Dr. Durbin has appeared as an expert in sports, public discourse and popular culture hundreds of times across a wide variety of news media including the CBS Nightly News, the NBC Nightly News, CNN International, BBC-TV, CBC-TV, NPR, the NFL Network, HBO-Sports, KCBS-TV, KCOP-TV, KCAL-TV, KFWB-NewsRadio and BBC Scotland.  Dr. Durbin appears regularly on KCBS-Radio and is often quoted in the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Daily News and many other news outlets.