I know I should be writing about the political situation in Israel. It’s timely, tragic, and offers plenty of opportunity for expressions of despair, frustration, or wishful thinking. Depending on your mood, of course, and whether you have had something to eat in the past hour or so. Or drink.
But instead, my attention was captured by an article that appeared today in The Charlotte Observer. The author was writing about college basketball. For people not from the south, college basketball is so big here that it trumps any kind of international news, to whit three suicide bombings in Yemen, the violation of the Ukrainian cease fire and Australia beating Pakistan to reach the cricket World Cup semifinals.
The author compared the NCAA March Madness tournament to a religious rite – a rather specific one, in fact.
Those who say that college basketball is like a religion are to be forgiven for engaging in drastic understatement… No, college basketball is more like a cult. It consumes its followers. It demands all. It shapes your most intimate relationships.
Come, let me show you.
Thursday was the first of the high holy days here. With heads of the faithful bowed in solemn unison, the brackets were writ. Dietary sacraments were stored; sacred garments were donned.
This passage was brought to my attention by my twenty-three-year-old son, Erik, who is visiting us whilst on his own spring break from graduate school from the great city of Chicago, where people have no idea what college basketball is, and March Madness refers to driving in repeatedly melting and refrozen slush.
“Mom,” he said. “I am thinking about sending Mr. [name redacted] an email.”
He showed me the quote, quoted above.
“Oooh.” I said.
“This is a little difficult,” Erik began. “Our ’High Holy Days’ is associated with bowing, prayer, dietary sacraments and sacred garments. I’m pretty sure he is not talking about Shintoism.”
“Amen to that,” I put in.
“Either he is implying that we are a cult or that our religion is about as serious as college basketball.”
The idea of sports as religious ritual is hardly new. Scholars have worked on understanding the ritualized behaviors that come with games of all sorts, from chess to curling. There is sophisticated work done on this topic.
The problem here is not simply the lack of academic sophistication but the author’s misunderstanding of the connections between games and religions. He is not analyzing how the behaviors of sports fans can demonstrate religious characteristics. He is applying a specific ritual belonging to a particular religion, excising the ritual from its context, and co-opting it to make a cute point.
Journalists are certainly free to make statements – whether critical, positive, or somewhere in between about Judaism and Jewish practice. But there is no connection between High Holy Days and college sports. The former are about personal assessment, reevaluation of individual and communal purpose, the relationship of human beings to the divine. The latter are about physical and mental skills, competition and winning.
Nothing the author did was malicious, it was merely journalism too quickly satisfied with its metaphors.
Still, I must ask: What is the gesture behind taking the days of March Madness and dressing them up as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?
We live in a time when the future of whole peoples is affected by fuzzy assumptions about their beliefs. Can we afford to be quite so casual with each other’s religious traditions?
P.S. Go Tarheels!