June 15, 2015 / Theology
As technological advance sells users on increasing personal power and protection from trauma, Christians must consider the idolatrous potential of buying in.
During the 2014 season, college football drew over 49 million fans to stadiums across the country. That same year, the NFL hosted well over 34 million fans, a number that does not account for the throngs of viewers who also watched games from bar stools and living room couches. These statistics evince the enormous amount of attention that the American public dedicates to big-times sports each year. Yet according to theologian Marcia W. Mount Shoop, there is a great deal that most of us miss as we root for our favorite teams. Shoop’s book, Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of the Apocalypse, is a work of apocalypse, of revelation, because it unveils those theological truths that we often overlook while we’re watching the game.1 What she exposes are the redemptive dimensions of collegiate and professional athletics as well as “demonic” structures of power that can be hard to see. Shoop explores the realities of race, gender, and capitalism that reveal themselves when we take a closer look at big-time sports today.
Shoop brings unique expertise in theology and sports to the project. In addition to her work as a theologian and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA), she is the 1991 NCAA Woman of the Year award winner for the state of Kentucky and one of ten national finalists that year for the national award, and she is the wife of football coach John Shoop, who’s worked in both the NFL and at the Division I collegiate level. Until November 29, 2015, John Shoop was the offensive coordinator at Purdue University; the New York Times reports that Shoop’s book and ongoing advocacy for athlete rights appears to be one impetus for her husband’s firing.2
The Other Journal (TOJ): It’s difficult to imagine an author whose experiences better suit him or her to write a book on theology and sports. Based on your experiences as a sports insider, what are some common misconceptions that people have about big-time sports?
Marcia W. Mount Shoop (MWMS): There are many misconceptions about big-time sports, just as there are about any cultural phenomenon that has so much traction in our society. The inside scoop always reveals some startling dynamics. The interesting thing about these misconceptions when it comes to big-time sports is what they reveal about the human condition in general, not just about the world of sports. Sports harness so much passion, so much physical commitment, so much communal affirmation and scrutiny that they display these marks of who we are with pronounced potency. And this same passion makes sports a tool of retrenching some of our worst distortions. The areas where these misconceptions are the most telling and the most important for us to focus our attention are around fanaticism, race, gender, and power, and these areas also encompass intersections with religion and other aspects of culture that embody and instill life with ultimate meaning.
If we use race, for instance, as a lens for examining the power dynamics of big-time sports, we see these dynamics at work. There are widespread and familiar assumptions about sports being a space in our society in which racial identity creates advantages for people of color. Yet underneath these familiar assumptions are misconceptions and distorted views about the very nature of race as a biological reality. And even for those who do not hold a biologically determinant view of race, many assume—and often resent—that people of color are the ones who benefit the most from the streams of wealth that flow through the world of revenue sports. These misconceptions have helped to build a whole system of enforcement and abuse of power that actually helps to entrench racialized disadvantage in such a way that people of color especially bear the brunt of that disadvantage. Big-time sports revenue streams and power streams flow most often into white hands, white families, and white-dominant institutions. Sports both mirror our distortions and help to retrench and reify them.
We can excavate similar dynamics for gender performance, especially when we use football as a template for exploring gender. A misconception that startles people when it comes to masculinity and football is that the misogyny we pin on football can actually distract us from attending to the troubling layers of gender performance that erase the complexity of men’s lived realities. For those of us who are critical of football, our eyes have been trained to see sexism. But it is harder to see the bewildering ways that men are commodified and constrained by this conformist system. We need to attend to gender in a more expansive way if we really want to understand the contours of football and gender. John and I have known players through the years who didn’t fit the stereotypes of masculinity that American culture likes to project onto football players, and many of them struggled to feel free to be themselves, both on teams and in the larger culture. These struggles can manifest in serious challenges like depression, anxiety, and even suicidal ideation. Another example of the cost of these gender constraints is at work in the tightly choreographed lives of coaches. The hours that football coaches (an all-male guild) work and the strict gender delineations that such a pattern of work requires for a family to work, often paint men into pretty one-dimensional people. Football coaches can struggle mightily to find affirmation for the realities of being involved fathers, equal spouses, and constructive citizens in the world of football.
And one more set of misconceptions I should name as a coach’s wife are the faulty assumptions people have about what our lives must be like as a football family. “Cool,” “exciting,” “neat,” and “you’re so lucky” are many of the descriptions people want to offer to me about my life when they find out what my husband does. These descriptors mask a complicated way of life that is rife with some absurd realities like the hours that coaches work, the frequency of relocations, the pressure of being scrutinized by every person who has a Twitter handle and a TV remote, the aggressive ways that people lash out when they are angry about a play call or a loss, the tenuous communities we occupy when our connections to a place are tied to wins and losses, the injustices and vagaries of the collegiate and professional sports system, and the vulnerability of relationships when so much is stake, to name a few. These dynamics are not foreign to other vocations, but they are on steroids in the world of big-time football.
TOJ: Your attention to the ways that sports unveil the broader sinful tendencies of our society is a compelling reason to take them up for theological reflection, I think, especially for those of us, like me, who are not big sports fans and do not have an inclination toward this topic. Yet I wonder if there are qualities that notably distinguish sports from other phenomena in the United States—could you elaborate more on what sets sports apart?
MWMS: This is the question that really informs the heart of my book. What is unique about sports and why do people care so much? You are absolutely correct that other phenomena display similar dynamics, but sports capture our attention, our passion, our energy, and our devotion with a unique kind of tenacity. Just look at all the money, time, energy, devotion, and emotion that billions of people pour into sports across the globe. As a theologian, I believe sports have a unique hold on us because of who we are and how we are made. I can sum it up with four words: embodiment, escape, eschatology, and existence.
First, embodiment. Sports invite the body into full participation whether we are fans, players, or coaches. In many contexts, sports authorize physical proximity, touching, and affection in ways that are often taboo, especially for male bodies, in other contexts. Emotions are authorized to be robustly expressed, to flow into performance, and to connect to team, effort, and success. This full-bodied experience hooks us because that is the way we are made—and being able to use our bodies in this way feels good, and so we come back for more.
Interestingly, sports engage us on this primal, physical level, but they are often seen as an escape from so-called real life. “It’s only a game” is a phrase we all hear, for example. This concept of sports being an alternative space, or a space for play that doesn’t really count, also makes it a space ripe for experimentation, expression, and practice that are constrained or prohibited in other spaces. We get to play at primal desires like identity, community, justice, and redemption through sports.
I use the next term, eschatology, for semantic symmetry and not for precision here. What I am specifically eliciting with this term is the experience, the aspiration, of redemption. We want to believe and practice experiences in which things turn out the way we hope they will. We want to believe redemption is possible and true. Sports give us a way to experience redemption and to practice our own skills at living with disappointment, hope, perseverance, and, if we’re lucky, at least some success and good fortune—or in the sports world, more winning!
Finally, the existential hook is the deepest one that sports have in human life. That is, sports tap into our most primal existential needs for vitality, for purpose, for creativity, for connection and community, and for work and play. There are not many other human phenomena that package these potent layers of human life in such an inviting and affective mode.
TOJ: You paint a rich depiction of sports tapping into the best and the worst of the human condition. This is a tension that runs throughout your book, too. When you explored the sinful dimensions of sports in Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of the Apocalypse, I was surprised to find that you didn’t focus on the negative issues that tend to get a lot of attention from the media. Instead of focusing on the irresponsible behavior of individual athletes, you shined a light on structural sins like racism, sexism, and economic exploitation. Athletes are often the victims of these sins and not the perpetrators. What compelled you to explore sin and sports in this way?
MWMS: This question also gets to the core message of my book. There are a few dynamics at play here that I will point toward.
First, I made this choice as a theologian. I intentionally do not use sin as the theological category for exploring the problems because I do not generally depend on that category in my work as much as others in the Western Christian theological tradition. As I explain in my first book, Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ, sin is an inadequate category for exploring the depth and breadth of human experience.3 And Christian theology, especially in Western Christianity, has leaned heavily on the category to flesh out the human condition. So, my move away from using sin as the theological architecture for Touchdowns for Jesus was intentional. Instead, I use the category of the demonic. As I explain in the book, the demonic is not an external source of evil but a capacity for distortion that exists in the connective tissue and in the habits and dispositions of human life. It is a shared reality, and it can be stealthy and lethal. Using the category of the demonic gives me a framework for rich explorations of systems, institutions, cultures, and habits of mind that take the focus off of willfulness and off of individuals as the sole loci of morality. This more relational, connectional look at moral problems in sports unveils—and hence my use of the category of “apocalypse”—the things that are harder for us to see, harder for us to disentangle from human communities. And these spaces, in my theological framework, are where we locate both our most tenacious demons and our best hopes for exorcising them.
Second, I made this choice as someone who has lived in close proximity to football players and coaches for most of my life now. Frankly, the abundance of media attention on entitled athletes bears little resemblance to almost every single player I have known during John’s twenty-six years of coaching. I think the easy caricatures of players are fed by some racialized biases that many people are unconscious of carrying. And I think the gender binaries that have largely defined American culture helped to give birth to football. These same binaries help to create a dissonant set of realities, expectations, and constraints or opportunities for the young men who excel at football. These are the dynamics that need our collective attention. The hyper-focus on individuals has fueled an absurd obsession with regulation, scandal, cheating, and punishment. In writing the book, I wanted to move us into more honest and more constructive territory.
Third, this move can also be instructive for American society at large. Common individualized approaches have blinded us to systemic issues that truly handicap our society’s ability to solve problems and create more just systems and institutions. I also am curious about why justice-minded Christians, many of whom are sports fans, are not more concerned about the exploitation and commodification of athletes, most of whom are black and brown bodies, who have too easily been commodified in American culture since this country was born. This different way of looking at the problems in athletics is jarring for some, but I think it is profoundly necessary if we want to create a more just society.
TOJ: You mention the connection between racism and the economic exploitation of college athletes here; admittedly, this was a scandalous revelation for me when I read your book. Could you tell our readers more about the commodification of NCAA athletes and the racialized dimensions of this exploitation?
MWMS: This question has a simple answer, and it also has a more complicated one. I hope your readers will pick up Touchdowns for Jesus and read the chapters that deal with race especially (“White Lines” and “Higher Learning”) in order to explore the more complicated answer.
The simple answer is that since this country was born, black and brown bodies have been habitually commodified in order to generate white wealth in America. Slavery is the most obvious example of this dehumanizing American habit. For-profit prisons and mass incarceration are a contemporary example. White supremacy culture has embedded these habits of commodification deep into our mentalities, our markets, and our streams of wealth accumulation.
Big-time college sports have become another container for these habits, largely because revenue college sports are a profound profit generator. Where there is big money, there is almost always exploitation of a labor force. College revenue sports are no different. The unique layers of this phenomenon in college sports rest in how the commodification is veiled by the entanglement of big-time collegiate sports with higher education.
Our experience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill put us on a steep learning curve about these dynamics. Justice-minded people, people who want to consider themselves antiracist, must open their eyes, their minds, and their hearts to these dynamics. For my husband and me, everything changed for us once the veil was lifted on the realities of how college athletes are commodified and how players of color are the ones who bear the brunt of this commodification.
TOJ: When we recognize the significant structural problems that constitute big-times sports today, how should we respond as Christians? Have any particular responses given you hope for addressing these demonic systems?
MWMS: There are days when hope can be hard to come by for me as far as Christianity’s response to race, gender, and abuse of power in general, not just in big-time sports. In those difficult moments, it is often the rhythm and relationships that sports generate in my life that get me to a more hopeful place. Particular responses that have given me hope center around the rhythm of vitality that sports give me and the relationships that sports give me. More specifically, when I witness players finding their voice and figuring out who they are, I feel a surge of hope. The University of Missouri players using their power to stand up against racism was a very hopeful moment for me. Working with the Student-Athletes Human Rights Project and interacting with other scholars, activists, and people in the sports world who care about justice cultivates hope for me.
Institutions will most often retrench when their brand is in danger, but when people find their moral courage in a collective, things can happen that serve God’s highest good in a mighty way. I invite all Christians to explore big-time sports from a prophetic and Christ-centered perspective.
And as I say toward the end of Touchdowns for Jesus, “We might be amazed by what we can become when we habituate fearless wisdom with a work ethic that won’t quit and a cast of millions of people who care with a passion that seems unbound. If the world of big-time sports sets its mind to playing with society’s most tenacious problems with healing in mind, you better believe things can change for the better.”4
Jessica Coblentz is an assistant theology editor at The Other Journal and a PhD candidate in systematic theology at Boston College. Her dissertation explores theologies of salvation and the human person in view of depression.
Marcia Mount Shoop
The Rev. Marcia Mount Shoop, PhD, is a theologian, minister, and author. Her books include Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ (2010), Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports (2014), and A Body Broken, A Body Betrayed: Race, Memory, and Eucharist in White-Dominant Churches (coauthored with Mary McClintock Fulkerson; 2015). She blogs at www.marciamountshoop.com and hosts a podcast called Going Deep: Sports in the Twenty-First Century with her husband, coach John Shoop.