No Cure for Curiosity

The Narratives and Rituals of Professional Sports

February 07, 2022 Shanny Luft Season 3 Episode 1
No Cure for Curiosity
The Narratives and Rituals of Professional Sports
Show Notes Transcript

With the Super Bowl a week away, and the Olympics playing out now, Shanny invited Robert Sirabian, professor of English at UWSP, and Art Remillard, professor of Religious Studies at St. Francis University in Pennsylvania, to talk about sports, community, narrative, heroes, transcendence, and politics.

Readings referenced in this podcast:


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Our intro music was written by UWSP music student Derek Carden and our logo is by artist and graphic designer Ryan Dreimiller.

Shanny Luft:

Welcome to no cure for curiosity, a podcast for curious people. I am Shanny Luft, associate professor of religious studies and Associate Dean of general education and honors at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. No cure for curiosity launched one year ago this month, and it's been my attempt to promote and model broader curiosity in the liberal arts. This upcoming season,. I'm going to explore my curiosity along with my brilliant colleagues in things like The Matrix, and the Supreme Court, Dungeons and Dragons, slang, and much more. But with the Olympics upon us and the Super Bowl on the way, I was getting curious about sports. So I invited a professor of English and a professor of religion in America who both write and teach about sports to join me. Art Remillard is professor of religious studies at St. Francis University in Pennsylvania, where he teaches courses on Christian history, ethics, interfaith literacy, and post apocalyptic literature. Art is currently finishing a book manuscript tentatively entitled Bodies in Motion: A Religious History of sports in America, and he's already planning his next book, a semi-autobiographical exploration of his lifelong relationship with distance running. And my second guest is Robert Sirabian, professor of English at UWSP, who teaches writing and literature courses. Robert's main teaching and research area is 19th century British literature. He teaches a sports and literature course as well as a composition course focused on the theme of sports. I started the conversation by asking Robert Sirabian about one of the biggest sports stories of the last few months. The first thing that came to mind is athletes and the Coronavirus vaccine, athletes that won't get it or will get it or are fighting about it. In the last couple days, the tennis player Novak Djokovic, one of the greatest tennis players, perhaps of all time, refused to get the vaccine and had to, I think forfeit a tournament. He was kicked out of Australia, because of his vaccination status. Kyrie Irving in the Brooklyn Nets. Aaron Rodgers, of course, tried to skirt around the issue of whether he was vaccinated. But it came out that in fact, he was not vaccinated. I was curious about what you make of these vaccine or anti vaccine stories in sports, does it connect to either sports and narrative or sports and religion in ways that either of you find interesting,

Robert Sirabian:

I think in part in sports with the tension between freedom and structure, the way that sports, you know, require that everybody follow rules, but one of the paradoxes of sports of games is that the rules have to by necessity limit freedom, and in order for competition to work. And so I think that's -- part of that is this, I think certain ath--, you know, certain individuals, certain athletes, trying to push even more generally just against the idea of rules that limit what they do. The same way that players try and bend rules for a competitive advantage during a game. You know, what can they get away with? How far can they push and not get called? I think that's a certainly a part of it. And at the same time, there's the notion, I think, of going along with the rules, going along with the vaccine requirements, as part of a team, as being part of a community. That -- you know, team sports, particularly like football, you know, are not about one individual. They're a team effort, a collaborative effort.

Shanny Luft:

Art, is there anything you want to add or any thoughts you have about?

Arthur Remillard:

When we're talking about narratives, we're talking about, how are we structuring our sense of good and evil. How are we sense -- structuring our sense of what success is and what failure is, right? But then, once we introduce the discussion of COVID, and vaccines, then we get a whole different layer of team allegiance. Am I Team Vaccinated, or am I Team Unvaccinated? The statement, I am vaccinated, or I'm not vaccinated, aligns you with a community who has an entire narrative around their identity. That then can connect all sorts of political topics and themes and put you from a football field in a football game out into this broader national debate that's, that's funneled and fueled by these competing truth claims -- I'm saying truth in quotes here.

Shanny Luft:

I mean, I think sports in some sense is obviously reflecting where our political division is right now. But then is that actually greater than it has in the past? Have either of you thought about to what degree does sports reflect political divisions in the past? And to what degree is this something new? Because now everything that's divided by

politics:

what channel you watch, what movies you like, what, you know, t-shirts you wear.

Arthur Remillard:

You know, in the 19th century, prior to the Civil War, some of the biggest sporting events were horse races between horses from the north and horses from the south. Right? Regional rivalry was made on the turf. And then it continued after the war, but there was also international, you know, contests that were similar. So, you know, one of the great boxers of American history is Tom Molineaux. And, you know, the kind of legend is, is that he was born an enslaved person, fought his way out of enslavement, quite literally, you know, won a match, and then went over to England to find fame, and he fought Tom Cribb, and, and, and it was U.S., you know, versus, versus England, right? In these these boxing matches, not that long after the revolution. And so, you know, our sporting places have always been these kinds of proxies for local, national, and international rivalries.

Robert Sirabian:

Just to jump in, too, of course, this is a unique moment, right, because the Super Bowl is being played during the Olympics. And so, right, I mean, I mean, the fact that China is hosting the Olympics, and all, you know, the the idea of at least a diplomatic boycott by the U.S., but even, you know, historically, the, you know, the U.S. and the USSR and hockey, but, you know, I mean, even during the Cold War, right, the the Olympic -- there were always those political rivalries, even though the Olympics were, at least in theory, supposed to be apolitical, right? It's a chance where the world competes, on equal footing, not on a battlefield, but on a playing field. That's another interesting dimension, too.

Shanny Luft:

So, I've taught religion, pop culture, and sports always comes up to some degree. And the question that students always want to talk about is, are sports a religion? Art, I'm curious, in your teaching, or in your experience with students, is that issue of sports as religion has that come up?

Arthur Remillard:

Oh, it's the first thing anybody ever asks me? Right?

Shanny Luft:

Yeah.

Arthur Remillard:

The fir-, I mean, it's anytime I'm talking to anybody, and they say, Oh, what are you writing? I'm worrying about religion in sports, the first thing they're gonna say is something to the effect of like, I had this completely novel and unique idea the other day, that football is the new religion of America. And and right, like, Everybody kind of has this intuitive sense, and

Shanny Luft:

Yeah, I think that there's a couple of things driving it. First, there is the social trend of, you know, a waning influence of institutional religions in American life. Right? We've seen the numbers and, you know, the lacking allegiances to to institutional religions. And then you turn on your TV on a Sunday, and see 120,000 people watching a football game, you know. It's the juxtaposition, you know, one of my friends says, that, he wrote a book called The New Cathedrals as a way of talking about the building of these these incredible sporting complexes that we have all across across America, right? That these are our new cathedrals. But then there's also the fixation on the curious things that people do around sports that just don't make any sense, except for that context. And that has a kind of religious feel to it, right? So there is this kind of residue there that I think people just as I said, like they intuitively see and they intuitively want to interpret the activities that they're seeing in these sporting events through a religious lens. I really like your point about rules, even rules around fighting, right? I don't know, you probably know the old joke, I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out. Right? So, hockey is a is a sport in which fighting -- it's as close to part of the sport as like any sport other than like boxing. Right? My son played ice hockey for one year. And even at his age, he was like in elementary school, they did not have rules that said, you absolutely can't fight. It was more like, you shouldn't fight. And I thought, you know, in other sports, we just say you can't punch people. We don't say, you should do your best to avoid it. That really stood out to me as only in hockey are they, are they not drawing that clear of a line between what the game is and fighting? I don't know, Robert, you must have thought about this with your interest in hockey.

Robert Sirabian:

Well, in hockey, that's again that when I was talking about the blend of aesthetics and violence, I mean fighting is part of the game. It's an integral part of the game. Checking, the hitting, because it's a way, right? And when you're playing a team that is a better skating team than you, let's say, it's a way that you can nullify that advantage. You can use the body, you can check, you can hit, fighting, you know, it used to be, too, like, people have argued when there was fighting in hockey it was self-enforcing. So in other words, if I'm a player, I'm not going to cheapshot someone, because I know if I do, they're going to -- one of their guys is going to come after me. And I'm going to pay the price for it. And you know, some people argue that with the -- adding more stringent rules against it, you've now, you know, because now it depends on a referee to call it, you get more, you know, slashing, high, you know, high-sticking, cross-checking, and those kinds of things, trying to manipulate the rules, because now it depends on the fact, you know, if the ref doesn't see it, or you don't get called, you know, you're not going to do it. But the rule -- yeah, I think your point, too, is interesting, because the rules of games are not necessarily logical in the normal way we think of it. They're designed to promote and enhance competition. And so somebody -- you get these seemingly odd rules, because they're a way that you promote competition and keep the game moving, keep the action moving, and not having just quick, easy results.

Shanny Luft:

Right. And the rules are sometimes not written down, but understood. There are sort of understood rules. And so like my example of kids playing freeze tag, the community has agreed upon these rules, even if they don't consciously articulate them. They can see when someone's gone too far, and what amount of, of rule bending they're allowed to do.

Robert Sirabian:

Yeah, it'll sometimes even depend, you know, teams players know, you know, because especially bate baseball or more basketball, hockey, when you have the same referees, because a number of games, you know, they'll start to learn, you know, what, rafts, you know, their sort of patterns for what types of you know, how often and what type, they're going to call penalties, and some are more stringent, and they'll know the rest of they're more stringent know, the ones that are, you know, more lenient, and they'll take advantage of that, too.

Shanny Luft:

It strikes me that the, that the vaccine issue might be related to that right that some players might perceive vaccines as bending the rules by not getting a vaccine, and other people see it as breaking the rules, right? That's kind of where the tension is, how much of this rule are you required to do? It's an example of where there's not an agreed upon set of standards for what you are required to do, or some people think they are hiring other people have a different perspective. Unlike in sports, where for the most part, I think there are the expectations of behavior are clearly understood whether they're written down or not, I think

Robert Sirabian:

I think it's back to Art's point, too, is that, you know, behavior that would never be -- that's just simply not allowable in daily life -- in sports, it's not -- you don't look at -- the morality ethics is not viewed through the same lens. And so you, again, a lot, some of that, too, is within the structure of competition. So it's looked at not as bad behavior, but it's looked at as the game when we say the game within the game, it's part of the getting that competitive edge. And so it's understood. And even as a player, you don't necessarily take it personally, because you're going to do it, too.

Arthur Remillard:

One of the things that I've noticed is in sports, where violence is in the forefront, and even sports where it isn't, but I'm just thinking prizefighting boxing, in particular MMA, maybe? Well, yeah, now MMA would be another one is that there is a push and pull. Between the understanding of this being a metaphor for life. These are these are physical and bloody, and you've got to put yourself out there and and there's something heroic to this, or is this just destructive? Is this destructive to mind, body and spirit? And is this distracting you from what really matters in life, so that, you know that that idea that the violence is really just preying on our ID, sensibilities and drawing us in and turning us into our worst selves, is the kind of flip side of that. And so there's this constant push and pull, morally, that I've seen, as I said, like prize fighting is the one place that I've looked into distance running, believe it or not, is a place where you see it, especially in the early 20th century, right that, that, you know, a young man dies training for a marathon and everybody's like, well, this is too much this is damage to the body. This is violence to the body that that's, that's unnecessary. There was a great book a couple years ago from Steve Allman called against football, and he went into that in detail. And it does bring up these moral questions.

Robert Sirabian:

Even in hockey, you know, I think in the, you know, even in, you know, there were moments, she's in the 70s and 80s, even where, you know, the violence was, it was really just, it become too extreme. I mean, it was, you know, at times gladiatorial combat, you know, in the guise of a game and you know, it was necessary to limit that, you know, at a certain point you can't just wreck it rationalize it all the way by saying it's part of the game it's right to the game. So I think that's important even our you know, your article on Steelers nation toward the end when you talk about you know, the state of the rap of Steelers being the dirtiest team, right? I mean, again, I mean, at what point you can't just you to look at that and say well, no, that's not okay. There are limits, you know, even within so on, quote, unquote bending the rules where it doesn't affect the integrity of the game. You know, I often In class ask why, you know, what students like? Why do we care about, let's say in baseball, about doping? If it's just a game, who cares? Right? So these players are doing it not. And I think I've always tried arguing that, you know, we expect, in all places, at least in sports, that sports get it, right. Right, they're supposed to be better, because they are, in essence, their own, they create their own structure, their, their, their own space. And if you can't, if you can't get it right, in sports, if you can at least have honesty, and fairness and equality in sports, then what's the hope for the there's no for the rest of society at all?

Shanny Luft:

The other issue you're bringing up? And I did not mean to keep pulling in the vaccine question. But the issue that connects to what you're both saying now, and that is the question about role models. So we have the sense that athletes are supposed to be role models, but like a lot of actors, they don't want to be wrong, necessarily. That's not in fact, why they chose this profession, or what why they do what they do, but we project onto them an expectation of behavior that is sometimes unrealistic, maybe often unrealistic, about how we expect people to behave.

Arthur Remillard:

This is an interesting topic to me, right? What constitutes a hero, what constitutes a flawed hero, what constitutes a fallen hero, a lot of the mythmaking that happens around hero making is driven by commerce is driven by our markets. So if we're talking about Michael Jordan, yeah, he is he is a phenomenal talent. Right one of the best basketball players to ever step on the court. Nike helped to build his mythology, that is an absolute right, who else did they help to build, they helped to build Tiger Woods, somebody who we would probably put into the fallen hero category, somebody who kind of had that, you know, lapse, he fell out of favor, he came back, right? He had that that story arc, and then Nike created another hero, Lance Armstrong, he has been cast out. And I think Robert mentioned this before, one of the things that Nike helped to do was to reinforce the narrative that he is just a fierce competitor that he at the end of the day is doing all kinds of good for cancer and cancer research. Specifically, you're talking about Lance Armstrong. Yeah. Lance Armstrong, right. And now he has become the archetypal, fallen hero. And if you ever read the book Wheelmen, about that whole doping regime that they had developed, it becomes clear that what Lance Armstrong you know, he's always like, hey, you know, it was an even playing field. We were all using the same No, no, they have the vast doping program. That's it that that was my takeaway from that book, and that he was so belligerent and so bullheaded, about maintaining that secret that he was ruining people's lives to keep it. Oh, yeah. But that book alone, right, deconstructs any kind of heroic persona that you might have still had coming into reading it.

Shanny Luft:

So I wanted to in the time we have remaining, I'm really interested in talking to you both about specifically football. I lived through a period of time in the 1980s, where football and the NFL and the Super Bowl became a bigger cultural phenomenon than they had been, something had changed. I think baseball would love it, if we continue to call it America's pastime, but it's clearly not. There's something that changed, I think, in the late 20th century, in terms of the sport that most Americans are interested in, why that would be what happened. How do we distinguish America's love of baseball, that kind of pistol game to this really, you know, a game that's more famously associated with kind of like a war metaphors.

Robert Sirabian:

I just take it back to the idea of narrative. I think the reason the Super Bowl is so popular is it's not just the game itself. It's the fact that the Super Bowl is the last part of the narrative. It's where we're going to get the climax, and then the denouement to the season. And even when you listen, you know, the way that you build up to the Super Bowl, it's going back to the preseason. And we we reminisce and remember, the whole all of the season, what teams went through the players and went through it, you know, and it's that combination of the story, how is it all gonna add? You know, and I think that this captivates us again, it goes back to, again how we love storytelling.

Shanny Luft:

There is something that seems to have happened in the last 40 years where certain sports and I think the Superbowl in football, it's probably the peak example of this. They generate so much attention and cultural focus and dollars in a way that didn't used to happen. What's changed? That's the Super Bowl and certain sports are are so much more prominent than they might have been in the past.

Robert Sirabian:

Baseball is just not I mean, baseball is a is a radio game. Ultimately, it's not really it's not well suited for TV. But fantasy football is just hugely popular. And then also video, right? I mean, you know, John Adams, as you know, John Madden, who just died the legendary culture from graders. But you know, it's so adaptable to video gaming, as well in ways that baseball just --

Arthur Remillard:

let me throw in gambling,

Robert Sirabian:

baseball as a thinking game, I don't know. Shanny, maybe that's part of it is that baseball, just if you're going to go and actually watch a game, you have to have patience. You have to enjoy the art of it, the pauses of it, the ability to reflect, to appreciate the subtleties, I think, in ways maybe that we've lost a certain amount of patience as hopefully,

Shanny Luft:

yeah.

Arthur Remillard:

Just to get kind of meta on a little bit is you remember, it was 1984 was the Apple commercial.

Shanny Luft:

Right?

Arthur Remillard:

Right. And it was the play on 1984. And you know, what Apple understood was, you're not selling a product, you're selling an idea.

Apple Commercial:

On January 24, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like 1984.

Arthur Remillard:

And it's like you're we're the countercultural, we're the ones who go against the stream, right. And they created an effective story that has created such allegiance from people that they will line up every time that new iPhone comes out. I think that football has done the same thing. They've created an effective story that makes people give their allegiance to it again, like people around here, they take a Terrible Towel to their grave. Right? You know, they are in their coffins with their terrible towels. That says something about allegiance

Shanny Luft:

Back up what are these towels? I don't know about these towels. Explain what that is

Arthur Remillard:

oh, the Terrible Towel. Sorry. So it's a so this goes back to the 1970s. In the 1970s. There was, you know this this one sports announcer as a kind of like a gimmick said, Hey, bring bring a yellow towel to the game because that's the color, right? And so the yellow towel became this thing that if you ever turned on a Steelers game, people were always twirling their terrible towels, their yellow towels. And so around here, it's a marker of identity. So if I go into the bar right down the street from me, and I went in with a Terrible Towel, and I blew my nose into it, call 911 because it's gonna end bad. That's a sacred object. You don't mess with those things. You know,

Shanny Luft:

we talked earlier about the idea of sports as transcendence, either of you, are you interested in sharing from your own sports viewership or your own sports background? Do you have a transcendent experience that you had? That comes to mind?

Arthur Remillard:

You know, I think that there have been these kind of moments in my life as it is a distance runner where just you find the groove. And it's motion without effort. And everything's just clicking. And the time just blurs past. And, you know, if I'm teaching about Christian understandings of grace, that's what I'm always thinking about. That's right, that you know, that that will, an effort can only get you so far, that every now and again, something else has to step in and fill in the gap. And those brief moments in my life that I can probably name to you on one hand and half a few fingers not quite up. Right. Is that would be another kind of place where I would

Shanny Luft:

Art when that's happening to you, do you know it's happening? Are you thinking I'm having a transcendent experience? Or is it only in retrospect that you've realized while I was in a different mental space?

Arthur Remillard:

Yeah, it's only in retrospect, because because it's one of these things like, it's flow states, right? As soon as you recognize it, it's done. I think there was a, I can't remember the specifics of but you're mentioning Michael Jordan, but there was some game where he was just hitting a ridiculous number of free pointers, like just just just everything was going in. And then finally, somebody said something to him, or he just was aware of it and made aware of it. And that was the end of it.

Robert Sirabian:

Yeah, I would just say, for me too, I guess, to just examine if they're transcendent, transcendent experiences, but as a Michigan Wolverine, like I can tell you when I watched them when they made it to College Football Championship playoff semifinal game, and they lost. I mean, I, Shanny, and I'm not kidding you. Like I was just like, emotionally just -- just like depressed, depressed, I don't know that that's too strong of a word afterwards. And just as actual, even physically manifested sort of letdown, and going to those football games with 100,000, at the time I went 100,000. Now under 7000 loss, you know, you're in there. And it is being like in a mass service, in a way, but it's the way you identify, you know, it's part of being at Michigan. And it was, you know, you were invested in, in that performing and I remember just the euphoria when they would win. And just the the sense that, you know, this team bill out there, and just the power and the speed and the art of it all, and that you were you could be part of that experience. It's hard to find other aspects in life that match that

Shanny Luft:

children being born may

Robert Sirabian:

being born, right.

Shanny Luft:

Yeah,

Robert Sirabian:

yeah. Right, you're probably gonna get angry emails. How can you say that? No, but children being born, marriage, I mean, you know, those kinds of things. On the other hand, I can tell you, being a Detroit sports fan losing almost becomes a trancendent experience.

Shanny Luft:

Right?

Robert Sirabian:

Because in an odd way you identify, you know, with that idea of always falling short of always being the underdog,

Shanny Luft:

right? Cubs fans had that, right. A great example of that,

Robert Sirabian:

yeah.

Shanny Luft:

Where part of the identity of the community of Cubs fans is that they lose. And when they win, it's it undermines something that they were sharing.

Robert Sirabian:

Exactly,

Shanny Luft:

there's so many interesting kind of religious parallels to having these kinds of communal experiences together positive or negative. But right, but the fact that we're all in it together, we all experienced together, that's what's key about those kinds of things. The other big story, I started off by talking about vaccines and how that's such a prominent story right now. And there's another example like that, specifically in football, which was in 2016. When Colin Kaepernick he and some of his teammates started kneeling during the national anthem, right? He was kneeling specifically to protest racism and police brutality. And that went on up until, like, 2020, there's a host of reasons why that's interesting to me. First, why are we playing the national anthem before sports at all? What does this have to do with patriotism? Why is that ritual important to people?

Arthur Remillard:

To your point? You know, how did this happen? That we have the national anthem, sporting events, that's started World War One ish, and really took out took off after World War Two. But Howard Bryant has a really good book called The Heritage that I just cannot recommend enough. And he really locates the the backlash coming from post 911. Because if you can remember, you know, after 911, where was the place that our eyes fixated? It was on the Yankees.

Shanny Luft:

Right? They were America's team,

Arthur Remillard:

right? And this was kind of like the place where people turned. And sports very much started to kind of take on much more of a role in these sort of patriotic expressions, military, a lot of military things start to happen. Military shows up and flying over it over Yes, you know, all kinds of advertisements, military, that sort of thing. And so all of these things, kind of all these streams get fused together, where sports in and patriotism and military and the wars and all of that stuff comes into meeting and then you boom, Colin Kaepernick starts kneeling, as you said, any other setting, you know, it was not that long before everybody was Tebowing, which is kneeling. Right.

Shanny Luft:

Right.

Arthur Remillard:

But where you do it and how you do it, and who's doing it, and for what reason, ends up becoming really important.

Shanny Luft:

Art Remillard, Robert Sirabian, it was a blast to talk to you both. I really enjoyed the conversation. Thank you so much. Part of what I love about this podcast is the way in which and part of what I'm trying to model is how the kinds of things we study academically can be connected to questions of entertainment, and the relationship with sports to community identity, ritual, narrative, heroes, destiny. I think all those themes are clearly relevant. And so thank you so much for the conversation it was a blast to talk with you.

Arthur Remillard:

Likewise.

Robert Sirabian:

Yeah, thank you very much, Shanny.

Gretel Stock:

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