Sports and Redemption Narratives
By Seth Dowland
As a fan of both sports and good long-form journalism, I have been delighted by the emergence of websites like Grantland and Sports on Earth, both of which aspire to something greater than the mindless patter of sports television or the drudgery of game recaps. Grantland, in particular, has assembled a staff of top-notch writers who indulge all sorts of sports fans, from the stats geeks to the pop culture aficionados. A couple Grantland writers, Charles Pierce and Bryan Curtis, have even ventured into the territory covered on this blog: religion.
Pierce, the lead writer for Esquire’s politics blog, periodically offers his sharp take on American sports for Grantland. Some of his most pointed columns in the last year have focused on religion, including the only Tebow column I’ve read that invoked James Madison, Christopher Hitchens, and the Gospel of Mark. Pierce also skewered Penn State during the Sandusky crisis, making the oft-repeated comparison between the coverup there and the coverup in the Catholic Church with a theological reading informed by Neibuhrian thinking on institutional immorality. Pierce’s Catholic upbringing and attention to the details of religious belief has made him a great read when it comes to the intersection of religion and sports.
Curtis, whose work typically focuses on college football or movie sequels, recently offered a fascinating look at Josh Hamilton, the Texas Rangers star who won the 2010 American League MVP award. Hamilton’s story is well known to baseball fans: picked first overall in the 1999 amateur draft, Hamilton drank, smoked, and injected almost every illegal drug imaginable. He found himself out of baseball by 2004, his life wrecked by addiction. Rehab and a religious conversion helped Hamilton find his way back to baseball. He published his story in the autobiography Beyond Belief and has made plans for a biopic starring Casey Affleck. Hamilton has spoken to countless Christian groups, often with the introduction of his pastor, religious right activist James Robison. But the script of his story does not have a neat “happily ever after” ending: Hamilton had some well-publicized falls off the wagon, and he ended his 2012 season to a torrent of boos from Texas fans. In his smartly argued essay, Curtis sees Hamilton as a prisoner of his own conversion story, which allows for three acts only: rise, fall, and redemption. What happens after redemption – that messy fourth act of living one’s life – doesn’t fit neatly into the evangelical conversion narrative Hamilton has adopted. As a result, it's hard for evangelicals - and for Hamilton himself - to make sense of his recent mishaps.
In articles like this, as well as in the smart scholarship produced by Clifford Putney, Julie Byrne, Bill Baker, and blog contributor Art Remillard, the messy boundary between sports and the sacred becomes a place of rich intellectual inquiry. As the subfield of religion and sports matures, I hope scholars and journalists alike will continue to probe the rituals, narratives, and bodily experiences of sports in order to see the religious valences covering the games we play.