Review of Religion and Sports: An Introduction and Case Studies

Alpert, Rebecca T. Religion and Sports: An Introduction and Case Studies. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2015. Pp. x+209. Illustrations, notes, and index. $28.00 paperback.

Reviewed by Hunter M. Hampton

It is fellowship application season, and that means that over the past couple of weeks I have written a lot of syllabi. Some are easy to write. Others are a struggle. Several questions reappear year after year. Do I stick with my tried and true course structure? What about that one blog post I read about this fun new assignments and lecture style? Is this too much reading or too little? Will anyone enroll in this course? What kind of evaluations should I expect at the end of the semester? Answering each of these questions requires a lot of reflection, forethought, and work.

It is within this myriad of questions that Alpert Cover PhotoRebecca T. Alpert’s Religion and Sports: An Introduction and Case Studies is best reviewed. She wants the book to serve as “a primary or complementary text for courses in religion and sports” (vii). As a scholar and teacher, Alpert is more than qualified to help you on your course-creating journey. She published her award winning book Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball in 2011, and has won multiple teaching awards throughout her career. Personally, I have never taught a course on religion and sports, but both are themes in my survey of American history courses. So this review will analyze how I view this book as a teacher looking to create a course.

Alpert provides an excellent reader for a course. The book is broken into fifteen case studies. Including the introduction, the text outlines each of the sixteen weeks to fill a semester. Her introduction sets the stage for the entire course. She summarizes and lists off numerous religion scholars (Otto, Tillich, Whitehead, Durkheim, Geertz, and Smart, to name a few), wrestling with what qualifies as religion. Ultimately, Alpert encourages students to follow Ninian Smart’s approach that religion is delineated by “ritual, narrative and mythic, doctrinal and philosophical, and material.” She declares, “Smart’s tool is useful for mapping religions and understanding them as living, breathing, changing phenomena that may share characteristics but use and express them quite differently” (7). She dedicates less time on defining sports, but again encourages reader to follow a Smartian definition. Ultimately, she wants the definition of sports to encourage students “to think about sports in a more creative and inclusive way” (9). The remainder of her introduction is divided into four parts that follow the same divisions as the body of the text. Part one focuses on why people believe sports are a religion. Part two investigates the role of religion in sports and vice versa. Part three probes the consequences of conflict between religion and sports. Part four examines some of the ethical questions in sports and religion’s potential answers. She covers a lot of ground in the introduction, but it serves as a good source of information for students to return to as the course goes on.

The remainder of the book is broken into the same four parts mentioned above, and includes multiple case studies within each part. You can see a list of each case study in the table of contents. The scope of Religion and Sports extends beyond the major three sports in America to include archery, sumo wrestling, and bullfighting. I am going to use the case study on Friday Night Lights (because I am a Texan that studies football, and it is my review so I can). Each case study follows a similar format. It begins with a clearly stated goal for the week and the required outside reading. She then provides an overview of Friday Night Lights, the week’s assigned reading, and the assignment. The next part includes a list of potential activities. These range from at home assignments of finding examples in Friday Night Lights that use religious language to discussion questions to writing a research paper. In this specific case study, the goal is to teach students how to ask good questions about the relationship between religion and sports. For example, one activity asks students to find quotes from the book that exemplify a possible connection between religion and sports, and then write a paragraph explaining their selection based on the theories outlined in the introduction. Most sections end with a list of resources that could be used for assigned reading if the instructor so chooses. Each section ranges from five to ten pages and clearly walks students through the topic and how it relates to the intersection of religion and sports.

Overall, Religion and Sports succeeds in its goal of offering a structured and accessible course reader. The question that remains is would it work for your class? Alpert summarizes the desired student learning outcome, “The ultimate goal is for you to find your place among those who have given serious thought to how religion and sports interconnect in society today and how both religion and sports provide meaningful ways for humans to find our place in the scheme of things” (35). By using it throughout the course, the book provides students ample opportunities to accomplish this goal.

As a historian, there are two changes to Religion and Sport that would make the book a better fit for my teaching style. First, the readings in each case study and in the resources section are almost exclusively secondary sources. I prefer to assign students read primary sources, but students would leave the class familiar with scholars like Joseph Price, Allen Guttmann, Arthur Remillard, and Annie Blazer. Second, the questions and assignments focus more on defining religion and its place in sports than a historical perspective on the relationship between the two. Historical elements are not absent from the book, but it is not the primary focus. Nevertheless, if you are interested in teaching a course on religion and sports, Alpert’s book provides an excellent one-stop-shop for lectures, readings, assignments, and discussion questions.

Hunter M. Hampton is a PhD Candidate in history at the University of Missouri. His research is focused on religion, sports, and Christian masculinity. He is writing a dissertation on the muscular Christianity and the making of Christian manhood in 20th-century America. You can follow him on Twitter @hhampton44.

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