Hannah Garvey, a graduate student from the Department of Religious Studies here at Indiana University, joins Mina Denny for a very notable fourth edition of “Clear The Air.”
Denny and Garvey unpack a term coined by Robert N. Bellah in 1967, “American civil religion,” and explain what this concept means in regards to the role that sports play in constructing “the religion of Americans” and how sport is a part of America’s inborn culture as a whole.
They examine the way that spectators consume sports “religiously,” and how sporting establishments like the NFL or MLB are seen as “religious institutions.” For example, Garvey explains that “a lot of people practice certain rituals around sporting events, like not washing jerseys, or making sure that we do certain things in order to set our team up for success.”
The sheer time commitment of being in a group of people that are all committed to the same thing can feel very similar to something that people might more easily identify as a religious institution, Garvey says.
Certain religious ideals and morals stick with us from an early age, and the culture and spirit of a particular team or sport can become ingrained early on in a similar way. American football, specifically, is paramount in American culture and affects how Americans perceive not only themselves, but also the country as a whole.
When athletes dispute these fixed cultural behaviors, they often experience backlash from fans and media. During the playing of the national anthem, former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand erect to the flag, but instead took a knee in dissent regarding African American oppression in America.
“What happened with Kaepernick very quickly spiraled into claims about his American-ness – if he’s a good American, if he’s a bad American,” Garvey said. “When Kaepernick didn’t do that (standing erect to the flag), people wanted to read that as being disrespectful towards the flag and therefore being disrespectful to the U.S.”
Being that the national anthem is a tradition very sacred in the U.S., Kaepernick seems to be challenging one of the habitual ideals of what “American civil religion” is, by not saluting the flag.
As we live in such an activist-driven society, we are seeing professional athletes in this generation such as Kaepernick, Simone Biles and Raven Saunders practicing the very thing we understand to be American: freedom of speech and self-expression.
Though there will always be spectators wanting to keep sports and politics separate, athletes today are taking advantage of the platform they have to show that they can use their voice for positive change and be a proud American athlete at the same time.