U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Sports and Civil Religion (Guest Post by Robert Greene)

(Editor’s Note: For the next few weeks, Robert J. Greene II, PhD Student in 20th Century American intellectual and political history at the University of South Carolina, who wrote a post for this blog back in June on the Civil Rights movement and memory, will be guest-blogging for us each Sunday. This is his post for this week. — Ben Alpers)

In the burgeoning field of American history and Civil Religion, a potential place of growth and greater exploration is the interaction of sport and the state. Already, scholars are beginning to address this idea. Works such as The Holy Trinity of American Sports by Craig Forney have begun to explore this concept.[1] What I’d like to do to in this short piece is examine the intersection of race, sports, and civil religion in the context of several well-remembered sporting moments in American history.

The 1930s provide several moments that are fertile ground for an examination of civil religion, sports, and race. The victory of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, during which Adolf Hitler referred to African American members of the U.S. Olympic Team as “America’s African Legion”, has come to be seen as a watershed moment in American sports history, and the history of American race relations. However, this interpretation, while inspiring and certainly contributing to the story of American actions, both real and symbolic, in fighting Nazism before World War II, may miss the complexity of racial dialogue before the Civil Rights era. An article in American Journalism from 2011, “Jesse Who? Race, the Southern Press, and the 1936 Olympic Games”, for example, shows that newspapers in the United States reported on the Owens victory in profoundly different ways.[2] While today many Americans take pride in the Owens victory, Southern newspapers in 1936 took a far different view of events. Despite Owens and other African Americans representing the United States, some Southern newspapers, driven by the racist attitudes of the day, downplayed or ignored Owens’ contributions to American glory in the athletic arena. Even photos of African American athletes are, according to Drake’s study and building off the work of Paul Martin Lester, difficult to find in Southern newspapers.[3] Deep South newspapers only gave slight coverage to the Owens victories, and included little to no photographic evidence of Owens even being on the team.

If we as intellectual historians continue to tackle ideas of civil religion, and then incorporate sport as a key method in “performing” (for lack of a better term) civil religion, then race cannot be ignored. The heroes of today, such as Owens, Joe Louis, and Jackie Robinson are seen in a far different light today than they were in the 1930s and 1940s. While that would appear to be fairly obvious for Robinson (whose troubles in dealing with racism while playing in the minors and, later, in the majors with the Brooklyn Dodgers are well documented)  figures such as Owens and Louis, ostensibly performing for their country, also encountered considerable racism in the coverage about them in the late 1930s. In many ways, race could be considered a crack in the foundation of American civil religion, and that damage to the façade of national unity is quite profound when seen in the context American sport.

A more obvious point when dealing with African Americans, sport, and civil religion would be the 1968 Olympics. While the famous Black Power salute performed by John Carlos and Tommie Smith is the most notable example, other events surround the ’68 Games for African American athletes that must bear an enhanced scrutiny as part of intellectual history and Black Power studies. For example, the attempt to rally African American athletes to boycott the games, initiated by scholar and activist Harry Edwards, is very important. While most Black athletes would go on to participate in the Games, people such as Lew Alcindor (better known today as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) would not participate. Writers such as Peniel Joseph have handled the Black Power ideal during this time period, and others such as Dave Zirin and William C. Rhoden, sports journalists, have taken on the ’68 protest, but it would be interesting to look at this within the context of American civil religion.[4] And, it’s also important to remember that other athletes, such as George Foreman, competed with pride for the United States. (Foreman, in fact, danced around the ring with a small American flag, a marked contrast to the better remembered Black Power salute).

The complicated history of African American athletes and civil religion bears scrutiny from an intellectual history standpoint. After all, athletes (especially during the time periods mentioned above) were highly influenced by ideas about patriotism and racial pride, perhaps to an extent not seen today. Both of these events also took place during dangerously combustible foreign policy crises, with the United States measuring itself against Nazi Germany in 1936, and against the Soviet Union during the Olympic Games from 1956 until 1988. Even now, murmurs of a potential Olympic rivalry between the United States and China add spice to coverage at the Summer Games, and talk of boycotting the 2014 Olympics due to Russia’s anti-gay legislation has stoked comparisons to 1980 (although 1936, and the aborted boycott attempt of the games in Berlin, may be a better comparison). Nonetheless, civil religion, athletes, and race, offers some fruitful options on studying the idea of American civil religion.[5]



[1] Forney, Craig. The Holy Trinity of American Sports: Civil Religion in Football, Baskeball, and Basketball. (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2007)

[2] Drake, Robert. “Jesse Who? Race, the Southern Press, and the 1936 Olympic Games” in American Journalism, Vol. 28, Issue 4, pg. 81-110.

[3] Drake, 87-88.

[4] Joseph, Peniel. Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America. See Also, Rhoden, William C. $40 Million Dollar Slaves: the Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete and Zirin, Dave, A People’s History of Sports in the United States: 250 Years of Politics, Protest, People, and Play.

[5] An excellent book that puts African American athletes in a Cold War context is Globetrotting: African American Athletes and the Cold War by Damion Thomas. On Joe Louis, a good primer is The Fight of the Century: Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and the Struggle for Racial Equality by Thomas R. Hietala. On Joe Louis as a World War II symbol of patriotism, Lauren Sklaroff’s Black Culture and the New Deal has an excellent analysis. Disclaimer: I was a Teaching Assistant for Dr. Sklaroff here at South Carolina in Spring 2013, but trust me on the book suggestion.

12 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Robert, this is a fabulous post. So glad to read it, and glad that you’ll be posting more here in the coming weeks.

    The problem of whether/how academics interpret sports is connected, I think, with the problems of how they do or don’t relate to sports as spectators/fans. It’s perfectly acceptable to be a baseball fan in the academy. It is less acceptable to be a football fan, though still tolerated. It is almost unheard of (in my experience) to be a boxing fan. That hasn’t stopped me, of course, though it does give me pause.

    I think the hierarchy of sports fandom in academe (baseball=widely accepted; basketball=perfectly fine, as long as we wax nostalgic about how it used to be back when the players were [supposedly] all student-athletes; football=marginally acceptable; boxing=almost anathema) is related to hierarchies of class. But it is also perhaps a result of critical awareness of how the sports we watch perform and pass down various sets of values / cultural norms / beliefs about race and gender, as well as class.

    However, nobody who has discovered my love of boxing has critiqued me for liking a sport that is so bound up with reinforcing racial hierarchies in American history (maybe because *all* of our sports have done that), or with asserting a certain vision of manhood / masculinity (again, because they all do that, in one way or another).

    The critique, if it comes at all, is usually, “How can you stand that kind of violence?” Because the confectionary violence of “Breaking Bad” and “Boardwalk Empire” and “Dexter” is such finer sustenance for the soul than the spectacle of two athletes going toe to toe in the square circle.

    I think the “Rocky” films offer an interesting riff on the connection between boxing and American civil religion (and race, and gender) during the waning years of the Cold War. Alas, I have lost count of how many Rocky films there are, or which of the sequels were good and which were awful. But I think they are interesting texts — as are “Million Dollar Baby,” “Hurricane,” etc.

    • LD–I could not agree more. Boxing is the best sport to study if you want to understand race and ethnicity in American history.

      I believe there are now five Rocky movies–Rocky, Rocky II, Rocky II, Rocky IV, and Rocky Balboa. Rocky is definitely the best though Rocky IV has always been a sentimental favorite of mine. Rocky V was the worst though Rocky Balboa was actually a decent movie.

  2. Robert–Nice post on sports and civil religion. I enjoyed reading it–especially as someone who is a long-time boxing fan and grew up admiring both Jesse Owens and Joe Louis. Louis was the textbook perfect boxing champion (he could do it all) and may have been the greatest heavyweight champion of all time. I know many people prefer Ali but I prefer Louis because he was a technically superior fighter. He was a master boxer/puncher who was also an excellent defensive fighter. His 25 title defenses over 12 years is still unmatched to this day.

    I wanted to recommend Will Haygood’s book Sweet Thunder which also ties nicely into the subjects of sports and race. It is a bio of boxing champion (and boxing’s pound for pound greatest fighter) Sugar Ray Robinson.

  3. LD–You are right on concerning the topic of boxing and masculinity. It used to be that the heavyweight champion was the symbol of masculinity (not anymore though). John Sullivan used to walk into bars in the late nineteenth century and boast that he could lick any man in the room. The idea of the heavyweight champion as a symbol of masculinity plays into the backlash against Jack Johnson as heavyweight champion in the early twentieth century. All of a sudden Americans wake up to find that the heavyweight champion was a black man at a time when many Americans believe African-Americans were an inferior race. Johnson’s relationships with white women also tie into the theme of masculinity. Johnson was probably the greatest defensive fighter to ever hold the heavyweight championship. I would have loved to see a Johnson-Dempsey matchup.

  4. The figure of Muhammad Ali ties in perfectly with the connection between sports culture, civil religion, race in the lat 60s. Thomas Hauser’s oral biography on Ali has many nuggets about Ali’s contradictions, which often mirrored the tensions of the times. She doesn’t touch on these matters, but, in On Boxing, Joyce Carol Oates–an actual fan of the sport–does a beautifully harrowing job at analyzing its conundrums. Here’s a wonderful quote from the book:

    “In the boxing ring, man is in extremis, performing an atavistic rite … for the mysterious solace of those who can participate only vicariously in such drama: the drama of life in the flesh. Boxing has become America’s tragic theater.”

    Btw, I am pretty much a hardcore boxing fan. This is often jarring to people, especially in the academic world and because I am queer. Thankfully my Puerto Ricans can understand the attraction to the sweet science-like in Mexico, boxing is huge in PR.

  5. I *love* this online community. After reading Jason’s comments above, and thinking more about this fabulous post, I thought, “What the heck — I’ll come all the way out of the closet as a hardcore boxing fan.” So at my own blog I (re) published a post on boxing that I had written back in my days of pseudonymous blogging. Then I come back and read Kahlil’s comment.

    This blog rocks!

  6. Sports fans for the most part require watching TV to follow sports.
    For the past five or so years I have watched a total of perhaps a few hours consisting mostly of the superbowl and election coverage.
    I bring this up not to brag, and I realize that the youth today may watch their TV online; but to make two specific points
    First, if certain sports are frowned upon in the academy because of elitism, does that extend to TV as a low form of popular culture?
    Second, following somebody like Geertz, do you find mass culture reflecting high culture or the mainstream culture? Somewhere in his main work, I think the Interpretation Of Cultures, Geertz likens gamblers on the street with the stockmarket. So, there are people, like George Wills, who wrote a book about how baseball reflects the American way. What would football or basketball or even boxing have to say about the American way, in addition to illuminating a subculture of American life? Or is it naive to draw such lessons?
    You have my thanks for this blog post and your website in general

  7. Wow. A LOT to digest here but these kinds of comments are just what I was hoping to spark! Give me a little time to respond to everything here.

  8. The great civic religion sport is, of course, pro wrestling. Comedy shows have recently re-discovered Hulk Hogan’s “I Am a Real American” hair-metal single from the 1980s as the ultimate example of Reagan-era patriotic kitsch. The great documentary on the Hart Foundation wrestling family has a lot of focus on their Canadian-ness, and Canadians’ investment in Bret Hart not being turned from hero to heel, as a quasi-civic religious project. http://www.amazon.com/Hitman-Hart-Wrestling-Anniversary-Collectors/dp/B001NG9GZ0

  9. Thought you all might be interested in this news: Gay Boxer Orlando Cruz to Marry. This is such an important story — I mean Orlando Cruz’s story in general, as well as this particular development — for so many reasons, as Kahlil has suggested above and in comments at my blog.

    The discourse of the boxing world seems to me unremittingly masculinist and heteronormative, but the response to Cruz has been — or has seemed — much more accepting than one might expect. How will commentators and fans — never mind opponents — react to the presence of Cruz’s spouse ringside? It will be a very interesting moment.

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