Imagine alien observers filing the following report with the Department of Xenoc Affairs:
“Observers have noticed a peculiar pattern in human behaviour. Every four years, people from all continents (except Antarctica, for obvious reasons) flock to one country, the choice of which seems to be made randomly. They meet in large venues, each of which has a rectangular patch of grass at the centre, decorated with white lines. There, the gathered crowd watches how two groups, dressed in different coloured shirts and shorts, try to kick a ball through a metal framework. Each time one of the players succeeds in doing so, part of the crowd cheers aloud, while the other part expresses dismay and grief. At a given time all activity stops, and everyone leaves the venue. During a whole month, this behaviour is repeated, but not among all groups. It seems that only some are selected for the next rounds. At the last of these peculiar meetings, one group is rewarded with a golden cup.”
Earthlings might recognize the FIFA World Cup, one of the world’s largest sport events, in this report. But how would our imaginary alien observers explain this behaviour? One possibility could be for them to look at economical or political gain. Research would show them that, although there might be economic benefits, the hosting country does not seem to receive taxes or other forms of payment from visiting countries, nor does it gain lasting political power from organising the event, ruling out materialistic gain as a goal for the event. Human evolutionary psychologists have proposed that the groups kicking the ball are actually displaying themselves for potential mates. But even if members of the group that wins the golden cup might have more reproductive success, there is no research available that confirms this for all males in their home country, compared to males from other countries. This might lead some alien researchers, desperate for a rational explanation, to turn to the golden cup itself, proposing the hypothesis that it is a religious object, possibly referring to some kind of supernatural agent. Would such an explanation do justice to the experience of soccer fans? Would it be applicable to other sport events, like the Grand Slam tennis tournaments, the Tour de France, or the Super Bowl?
The suggestion that religion and sports are overlapping cultural fields has indeed been made on different occasions, for instance at the start of the last World Cup in South Africa. Moreover, in his elaborate study of religion, American sociologist Robert Bellah refers to “play” as a fundamental element in the evolution of culture, arguing that play has enabled our species to become a learning species, a species that does not depend on selected instincts, but on “plasticity and openness to learning” (Bellah 2011, 81). For Bellah, play is thus more than just a game or sports, even though he discusses Greek Olympiads. Play is part of what he calls a “relaxed field”, a space that is not subject to the pressures of the struggle for life. In the conclusion to his book, Bellah returns to this early reference to play, showing how play has always been influential throughout the cultural history of humanity, although somewhat hidden in the background of each historical scene.
He sees a close connection between play and renouncers of the existing social order, arguing that the “universal egalitarian ethic” of the axial age, critical as it was towards the powers that be, depended on these renouncers, pursuing “play” over “work” (Bellah 2011, 574-575). Play, in this regard, is part and parcel of most axial-age utopias, Bellah explains. One example he offers is that of Plato’s parable of the Cave:
“The Parable of the Cave has an element of play in that it involves a release from its starting point, life in the cave, which is a realm of coercion: its inhabitants are chained. When the protagonist is released from his chains and turns around, leaves the cave, and finds himself in the open air with the sun above, he is at first anxious. He is free and he doesn’t know what to do with his freedom – it has been a long time since he experienced the world of play, if he ever had – so he is even half inclined to return to the cave. But what he actually does is ascend to the vision of the form of the good, a joyous, overwhelming experience of being and meaning. Is that so far from play at its best?”
Bellah’s discussion of play offers some food for thought for those who want to compare religion with sports, moreover for those who want to imply that sports is a new religion. It raises the question of whether sports do not miss an essential element to become a secular religion, namely the element of play. Do sports offer a playful critique on existing social structures? If one looks at what the World Cup has done for the people in the Brazilian favelas, one might wonder whether sports have not become too serious to do so. Their seriousness can only offer some leisure for some people, not a new vision on a new earth for all. Reading Bellah, we could wonder, when watching athletes at work, whether we should not put play back into the game.