Review of Winning the Race? Religion, Hope, and Reshaping the Sport Enhancement Debate

Trothen, Tracy J. Winning the Race? Religion, Hope, and Reshaping the Sport Enhancement Debate. Sports and Religion Series, ed. by Joseph L. Price. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2015. Pp. xiv+209. Bibliography and index. $30 paperback.  

Reviewed by Alex Parrish

After LeBron James’ career-defining block in the dwindling moments of Game 7 of the NBA Finals, pundits began to focus on what are presumed to be the final years of James’ basketball prime. He turns 32 on December 30th, and is currently in his 14th season. He has led his team to the NBA Finals each of the last 6 seasons, compiling a staggering 567 games and 21,664 minutes during that stretch, both including playoffs, per basketball-reference.com.[1] To put these numbers in perspective, Toronto Raptors All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry has played (including playoffs) 699 games and 21,236 minutes during his 11 complete seasons. James has managed to eclipse Lowry’s minutes in 132 fewer games. To once again add further perspective, consider the stats over the same 6-season arch for LeBron rivals (and now teammates) Steph Curry and Kevin Durant. Curry has played (including playoffs) 473 games and compiled 16,596 minutes, while Durant has (including playoffs) 490 games and 18,901. Knowledgeable fans will be quick to point out that both Curry and Durant had significant injuries during that stretch (ankles and feet, respectively). Those injuries, however, point to an even more incredible fact: LeBron James has played more games and more minutes than any other player over the past 6 seasons and has done so without sustaining a major injury or seeing a significant drop in statistics. Add into this the Olympic run in 2012 and USA National Team requirements in preparation, and James’ injury-free play over the past 6 years becomes nearly inconceivable. How does a player continue to perform at one of the highest levels in NBA history without major injury or drop-off, while playing longer and possibly harder than his peers?

The answer, some contend, is in James’ obsession over his body’s health. Jonathan Tjarks of The Ringer recently wrote a piece called “The Final Stretch of LeBron’s Race Toward Greatness”, in which he argues, through comparisons with comparable players in league history, that James is an enigma: “He’s a walking science experiment, quantifying how much high-level professional basketball the human body can withstand before it starts to break down.” He posits that James benefits from advances in medicine and technology to which NBA players of the past did not have access. He also points to an earlier piece by Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell, in which Simmons mentions James’ business partner Maverick Carter explaining that James spends $1.5 million directly on his body or on equipment and personnel for training.

The amount of money that LeBron James has made through NBA contracts and brand endorsements has allowed him to allocate considerable funds toward enhancing his body. While James has never been found guilty of or, to my knowledge, accused of using banned substances or steroids to enhance his body, he has engaged in sport enhancement. Sports enhancement is the activity of athletes, trainers, and coaches to sustain and improve the performance of the athlete through physical training, treatment, and augmentation, or through equipment advances. Such activity is considered and problematized by Tracy J. Trothen in her book, Winning the Race? Religion, Hope, and the Sport Enhancement Debate.

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Image courtesy of Mercer University Press

Trothen, a theologian and ethicist, examines sport enhancement in light of religion. She contends that “sport is like a religion in many ways and may even be called a secular religion.”[2] Many scholars have noted the connections between sport and religion. Yet, as the debate over sport enhancement and techno-science continues, examination of these issues in light of religion are virtually non-existent. Trothen asserts that the debate is incomplete and deficient without considering these issues through the lens of religion. She is particularly interested in the category of hope, as she asks at the end of the preface, “… if hope is important in elite sports, we need to ask how the increasing use of techno-science in sport might affect hope. And, as importantly, if we approach the enhancement debate beginning with the understanding that sport is a secular religion that is built around hope, how might this valuing of hope reshape the enhancement debate?”[3]

She begins by “complicating” the debate. Chapter 1, “Introduction: It’s Time to Complicate Things”, Trothen argues for an understanding of sport as a secular religion that pursues the sacred through the spiritual quality of hope.[4] A secular religion is a religion that has no formal institutionalization, dogmas, or clergy, but nonetheless pursues the sacred. In the case of sport, hope is the key spiritual means of pursuing the sacred. Trothen uses Pamela R. McCarroll’s definition of hope: “Hope is the experience of the opening of horizons of meaning and participation in relationship to time, other human and nonhuman being, and/or the transcendent.”[5] This is important for the sport enhancement debate because hope and the meaning derived from the pursuit of the sacred in sport are directly affected by sport enhancement. Sport enhancement can place an ultimate value on winning or, in the case of elite sports in particular, productive longevity in one’s sport, limiting the ways hope may be expressed or meaning derived by both the athletes and the fans. The contemporary debate over sport enhancement tends to focus on these values and center the argument over a normative experience of “fairness”. Thus, arguments over Trothen’s three case studies – super swimsuits, Oscar Pistorius, and Caster Semenya – do not consider fully the implications of sport enhancement on questions such as What does it mean to be human? What are the values and goods drawn from sport? How do normative values influence the debate and are these values problematic? Trothen attempts to reshape the debate by demonstrating that sport as a secular religion necessarily requires consideration of sport’s spiritual dimension in the enhancement debate. She offers her arguments “from a feminist Reformed Protestant perspective”, contending that the values and themes derived from her perspective are critical to problematizing and reshaping the current debate.[6]

Chapter 2, “Sport and Techno-science: Setting the Stage”, argues that techno-science, while useful, is also problematic in its relationship with sport. A key concern for Trothen is the assumption that science is value-free and by its very nature objective. The concern is amplified when science is joined with technology, which is value-laden. Trothen examines some contemporary developments in sport techno-science to demonstrate that the present fascination with technology and the stifling of virtue ethics in scientific research have limited to sport enhancement debate to a focus on augmented advantages. Trothen considers an evaluation of innate advantages in certain athletes, such as Michael Phelps, just as important to the conversation. Understanding where innate human advantage ends and augmentation begins is central to the debate, but also opens up a further controversy over what it means to be human.

Chapter 3, “Theological Reflection on Sport and Techno-science: Creation, Fall, and Redemption”, uses Christian theology to consider the virtues of sport and techno-science. It is important to note that Trothen does not see Christian theology as a wholly unique system of values that offers the only alternative to the contemporary debate. Rather, she proposes that Christian theology is a perspective on the issues and her evaluation may be seen as a case study of how the application of an institutional religion’s perspective can highlight important facets missing from the contemporary debate over sport and techno-science.[7]

Chapter 4, “Sport and Religion: Why the Relationship Matters”, surveys the arguments for the relationship between sport and religion. This includes evaluations of sport’s religiosity in light of religious theory and institutionalized religion, resulting in a nuanced assessment of the virtues and values laden in sport and play. Trothen maintains that hope is one of the most important values of sport, and therefore religion must have a place at the table in the sports enhancement debate.

Chapter 5, “The Spiritual Dimension of Sport: Flow”, analyzes flow (colloquially known as “the zone”) in expressly spiritual terms. Trothen uses the ideas of transcendence and immanence to suggest that flow can be understood as a spiritual moment, though not every instance of flow ought to be understood this way.[8] She asserts that techno-science has the ability to interrupt or even end experiences of flow, since the continual enhancement of athletes can make these occurrences either commonplace or insurmountably detached from the common fan’s experience and hopes.

In chapter 6, “Hope in the Secular Religion of Sport”, Trothen introduces the harm techno-science and sport enhancement may bring to sport, which is the “erosion of hope”.[9] Advancements in enhancement pose the threat of destroying the meaningfulness of sport and its appeal to the common person, damaging hope as expressed in the spirituality of sport. Techno-science and enhancement run the risk of manufacturing star athletes and perfect moments, turning wins and losses into scientific formulas, fracturing the relatability of elite athletes to common fans, harming anticipation and hope in the process.

Chapter 7, “Approaches to the Enhancement Debate in Sport”, introduces and analyzes the four main approaches to the sport enhancement debate. These are, “… 1. individual rights and potential physical harms; 2. conceptions of fairness in athletic competitions; 3. the internal goods of each particular sport or sports more generally; and 4. a distinction between therapy and enhancement.”[10] Trothen’s analysis involves the key arguments of each position as well as the opposition to each approach from the advocates of the others. She suggests that these approaches are both helpful and problematic, and proposes that they each be restructured to address the values implicit in each and to recognize the spirituality of sport.

The final chapter, “Hope and Reshaping the Enhancement Debate: A Christian Theological Reflection”, restructures the contemporary approaches to the enhancement debate through the lens of Christian theology. Her reasoning for using Christianity as a valuable perspective is poignant:

To understand something of the function of [sport’s] spiritual dimension, sport proponents, teacher, policy makers, administrators, and other leaders can gain insights into the meaning and value of sport from traditional institutional religions that do wrestle with [the larger questions of meaning and value]…. Not only can established religious traditions shed light on alternative constructions of hope and meaning, they also demonstrate the persistence of the human desire for something more than material goods or winning alone.[11]

Trothen then constructs a “hope-centered approach to the sport enhancement debate”,[12] which considers 1. relational autonomy and well-being;[13] 2. fairness, diversity, and justice;[14] 3. goods and the nature of sport;[15] and 4. a therapy-restoration-enhancement spectrum.[16]

Trothen’s work is stunning for several reasons. The breadth of interwoven subjects and the depth at which they are explored is impressive. From religious theory to medicine, forthcoming technology to Christian theology, Trothen is knowledgeable and eloquent. Footnotes are extensive and insightful. Trothen is forward and frank about her perspectives as a theologian, and skillfully explains and demonstrates why the theologian’s perspective is needed in the sports enhancement debate, while also inviting and celebrating other perspectives.

Aside from her reshaping of the debate, I found the most thrilling portion of the book to be chapter 5. Trothen is not simply an academic. She is an ardent fan, and the ways she describes flow wonderfully synthesize her perspectives as a theologian and sports fan. When she writes of the effervescence experienced between fans and athletes during instances of flow, her passion for sport were evident and inviting. There was a warmth and joyfulness in her arguments – a fan inviting other fans to consider new vistas in the sport enhancement debate.

There were minor weak points in this work, however. The structure of the book is confusing. While she introduces key ideas and arguments throughout, the arguments surrounding the enhancement debate are really reserved for the final two chapters. Perhaps moving the content of chapter 7 to an earlier portion would be more beneficial to the reader, as the four approaches are not obvious to many who will be interested in this book. A somewhat ambivalent critique is the repetitive nature of some points. On one hand, the continued restatement of the meaning of hope and the religiosity of sport were tiring. On the other hand, the book covers so many ideas and introduces so many new terms that some readers may find the repetition helpful. A final critique is with the editing. An academic publisher like Mercer University Press cannot have silly grammatical mistakes such as “elven” for “eleven”,[17] “to” for “too”,[18] phantom or missing brackets,[19] periods for question marks,[20] and missing words.[21]

While the Trothen’s book is excellent, the question of its value for courses on the history of sport is challenging. It is explicitly a work of Christian theology, helpful for the conversation but not necessarily the best choice for a course discussing the sport enhancement and techno-science question. However, I would suggest that Trothen’s self-awareness in the presentation, the invitations to other perspectives and the celebration of those perspectives, and the overall quality of analysis warrant strong consideration for including chapters or the entire work in courses on sport and religion, ethics and sport, or discussions on the history of sport enhancement. Such addition would truly honor the spirit of Trothen’s work: disrupting the current debate with fresh and unique perspectives.

Alex is a PhD student at the Nazarene Theological College and the University of Manchester in Manchester, England. His academic interests include American religious history, Alaskan religion and culture, pop culture and religion, and sports and religion. You can contact him at algparrish91@gmail.com.

[1] For those unfamiliar with basketball-reference.com, it is quite a valuable tool. To see the numbers I have presented, scroll first to the “Totals” statistics, click “26” under “Age”, and then click “31”. This will highlight the six-year stretch and will cause a small window to pop-up, displaying the stats from 2011-2016 (including 439 games and 16,370 minutes). Do the same with the “Playoffs Totals” statistics (128 games and 5294 minutes).

[2] Tracy J. Trothen, Winning the Race? Religion, Hope, and Reshaping the Sport Enhancement Debate, Sports and Religion Series, ed. by Joseph L. Price (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2015), xi.

[3] Trothen, Winning the Race?, xiv.

[4] Trothen, Winning the Race?,1.

[5] Pamela R. McCarroll, The End of Hope—The Beginning: Narratives of Hope in the Face of Death and Trauma (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 48, quoted with emphasis in Trothen, Winning the Race?, 2.

[6] Trothen, Winning the Race?, 17.

[7] Trothen, Winning the Race?, 45.

[8] Trothen, Winning the Race?, 108.

[9] Trothen, Winning the Race?, 115.

[10] Trothen, Winning the Race?, 134.

[11] Trothen, Winning the Race?, 165.

[12] Trothen, Winning the Race?, 180.

[13] Trothen, Winning the Race?, 181.

[14] Trothen, Winning the Race?, 184.

[15] Trothen, Winning the Race?, 186.

[16] Trothen, Winning the Race?, 188.

[17] Trothen, Winning the Race?, 7.

[18] Trothen, Winning the Race?, 67.

[19] Trothen, Winning the Race?, 124.

[20] Trothen, Winning the Race?, 125.

[21] Trothen, Winning the Race?, 171.

2 thoughts on “Review of Winning the Race? Religion, Hope, and Reshaping the Sport Enhancement Debate

    • Thanks for your comment, Jeffrey. I agree that this is a very unique and controversial stance. However, Trothen spends a significant amount of time describing how sport is a secular religion and how hope is perhaps the key value relayed in the secular religion of sport. I suggest that her points are much more than assumptions, as she describes extensively the debate’s current perspectives and incorporates other scholarly literature pointing to the hopefulness present in sport. The space of a 1500 word review does not do her full argument justice, so I heartily recommend her book to you! Thanks for you input, and I welcome more!

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