Popular Religion and Participatory Culture (Round 3): Daniel T. Durbin and Joseph L. Price (Part 1)



Joe Price: I was born with the DNA of a sports fan. I teethed on Major League Baseball and gnawed shortly thereafter on SEC football and basketball.  Like the rhythms of a liturgical cycle, the seasons of these three major sports oriented my childhood and have shaped my life.  Although I have been rooting for favorite teams since my earliest school days, I simply enjoy watching games of players of any age between teams with which I have little, if any, affiliation.  I began to think about the ritual significance of sports fandom, including my own, in conjunction with my studies related to religious devotion, especially the acts and attitudes of worship and the sense and strength of community established among like-minded (or confessing) devotees. 

Initially, my scholarly work aligning sports with religious practices and perspectives focused on the mythic significance of baseball and football. My turn to examine sports fandom grew out of field work that I undertook at several Super Bowls in the 1980s and 1990s.  At the Super Bowl sites I observed fans who frequently displayed their fervor for their favorite team by means of masking—by wearing team colors, by displaying an icon of the team name or mascot, or by sporting the jerseys of a prominent player.  As I interviewed scores of fans who had journeyed to the stadium, they frequently told of sacrifices that they had made and major difficulties that they had encountered in order to attend the game.  Their demeanor and behavior resembled those of religious pilgrims.  And they often revealed the depth of their devotion by indicating that they had invested in their team’s anticipated success by placing bets.  


Daniel Durbin: Over my career, much of my research has focused on first religious discourse and then sports discourse and the ways in which both create communities of acolytes. My focus has been on both as forms of performative public discourse; performative in that each creates meaning through public rituals, rituals that embody discursive narratives of praise or blame for specific actions.  As I am not a true acolyte of any sports team or athlete (a sports agnostic), I am most curious about the ways in which sports can create meaningful public rituals that engender fanaticism, passion, and the reenactment of those rituals as evocations of personal commitment to the athlete, team, sport and/or league.


Joe Price: Although you characterize yourself as a sports agnostic while I unabashedly embrace the identity of a sports fan, we concur in our appreciative use of religious language to provide a conceptual tool for exploring the ways in which sports commitment confirms a fan’s individual identity while it also establishes a sense of community with like-minded and similarly motivated devotees.  

In addition to the masking attire that fans often wear to identify with their favorite team (as I observed with Super Bowl fans), I’m also interested in how sports fans behave superstitiously in an effort to establish and maintain solidarity with their favorite teams.  In general, superstitions often begin by equating coincidence with cause, and in the case of fans, superstitions frequently develop by associating the outcome of games with specific patterns of behavior.  In preparation for watching a game of their favorite team, for instance, superstitious fans seek to repeat specific actions that they recall from a previous, significant victory.  Perhaps they correlate a pregame barbecue and a particular sauce with the outcome, or what mid-game snacks they consume.  Or they might connect the location of their seat in the stands or in front of a TV with their team’s success, or they might think of the clothing that they wore before a loss and thereafter make sure not to wear it again on game day.  In short, although superstitious fans seem to think that their accurate performance of pregame or in-game rituals might influence the game’s outcome, at a profound level they confirm their identity with their team by repeating their superstitious behavior.

Daniel Durbin:I empathize with your interest in fans’ use of “superstitious” rituals to help their teams win.  Though, I think those rituals may have as much to do with deterministic fears as with hope.  In November of 1974, my father watched the first half of the annual USC-Notre Dame football game.  Notre Dame ran up an early 24-0 lead and my dad slammed off the tv set in disgust and went outside to work in the backyard.  A couple hours later, my grandmother called up asking why my dad wasn’t watching the game. USC had roared back to a 55-24 lead. My dad ran into the house and turned the tv back on.  By the time he got the set warmed up, USC had finished its scoring.  He saw only the failure, not the success of one of his team’s greatest victories.  

Having been born barely a few feet from the University of Southern California campus, my dad has been a diehard Trojans fan from, literally, his first memories in life.  But, since that fateful afternoon in 1974, my dad, for 44 years, has refused to watch a Trojans game unless they were so far out in front with so little time left that it would be impossible for their opponents to catch them.  His rationale has been that he cannot be the cause of their losing if he is not watching the game.  And, (in a self-fulfilling prophecy) when he does allow him to watch a game (clean-up time for the Trojans, desperation time for their opponents), their opponents often end up scoring.

Despite some of my siblings’ stated beliefs, my father is a relatively rational man who knows his viewing has no impact on the Trojan’s fortunes.  But, in his team’s best interests, he has held himself to that practice for nearly half a century.

This illustration points out something I think distinguishes sports fandom from religious “fandom”.  As Johan Huizinga and others have noted, sports evolve from games and both are ritualistic practices in which we place unnecessary obstacles between ourselves and a set of goals to give value and meaning to those goals (we place a distance of five kilometers between ourselves and the finish line to give meaning to running a 5K race).  Those obstacles and the rituals that grow from them must, on some level be arbitrary. 5K is the distance solely because we define this as a 5K race.  The pawn only moves one space because it's a pawn.  The rules are arbitrary and this very arbitrariness keeps the games/sports from becoming vocational, that is, from becoming the most efficient means to a necessary or desirable goal, as we would have our vocational choices be.  

The ritualistic experience of the game is distinct from religious “fan” experience in that, for the rituals to remain valuable in the play setting of sports, we must rationally understand that they don’t really have an impact on the game, that they don’t literally make the path to the desired goal easier for our athletes or teams.  In order to take part in the play-activity of sports, fans knowingly engage in (if you will) irrational rituals, rituals that, by definition, have no bearing on the game.  If they did have a bearing on the game, the fans actions would lose the play element that defines games and sports.

This doesn’t work in the same way for the religious acolyte.  The rituals in which a religious acolyte takes part must, from their perspective, have some bearing on their goodness, rightness, salvation, being in order to have any meaning.  The rituals must lead to a definite goal.  Whether they hope the rituals make them better citizens or better people or lead to a final salvation in which they enter into an eternal peace, the religious fan experience must see rituals as embodying meaning.  Sports fans must see rituals as, on some level, being arbitrary and having no real meaning.  Religious acolytes must see their rituals as, on some level, carrying real meaning.  On this level, religious fandom is vocational. Religion, for committed fans, is not a game.

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.