Chapter 3 – The Development of Popular and Sport Culture

3: The Development of Popular and Sport Culture

A look at the ugly side of popular and sport culture begs the question of how America got here. Popular culture tells student athletes to question everything they may believe and sport culture builds a completely different foundation than Christians find in scripture. Has it always been this way? How did American television go from Leave it to Beaver to Modern Family? Were artists like Johnny Cash or Elvis Presley similar to Katy Perry in their time? Has American culture always been this way undetected or is the relativism that is foundational for the younger generation something new? Has sports culture always built itself on a foundation of shifting sands? In Ecclesiastes, the wise man tells his readers, “That which has been is that which will be, and that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun.”[1] If this is true, these ideas must have come from somewhere and must be a recycling of old beliefs into new packages.

In order to untangle the complicated web of ideas Americans are now faced with, it is necessary to return to history. Nothing exists without roots, complicated though they may be, and a reconstruction of the past will be helpful to understanding the present and the future. Though some have used Henry Ford’s statement that “history is more or less bunk” [2] to discount the use of history in understanding the present and future, others like C.S. Lewis have explained that “…nearly all that we call human history—money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery—[is] the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.”[3] It is this history which concerns us most, this history that will explain how American culture has spiraled far away from a biblical foundation, this history that will show how sport culture evolved into a culture all its own, this history that will help to rediscover how we can return to a foundation with Christ as its cornerstone and the Bible as its revelation. Without this history, Americans are left in a trap of all things being equally true and their children, the student athletes of America, with a shaky foundation in sports culture rather than in Christ. It should be noted that the history of sport and the history of relativism in relation to Greek philosophy and the Renaissance and Reformation are immensely large topics, and it is far outside the scope of this work to provide a complete explanation of them. The following summary is merely the tip of the iceberg, a concise history of incredibly complex issues.

Sport History

Sport has existed in some form for thousands of years with even the oldest of civilizations showing evidence of sport among their people. Egyptian tombs show evidence of wrestling from as far back as the time of the pharaohs.[4] Although no one can place a date on when sport began, as the father of the Olympic Games, the Greeks are remembered as the first organizer of sport. The traditional date for the first Olympic Games is 776 BC.[5] From its beginning sport has had a connection to the religious. The tie between sport and religion runs deep, from the Greeks athletic feats to please the gods to modern day “Sportianity,” as some have coined the fusing of sports and Christianity. Most likely, this is because play and sport are part of a person’s soul. Clearly play and sport are physical in nature, but so is the act of reading the Bible, assuming a posture of prayer, or using the vocal cords to sing worship to God. Are these acts less spiritual because they have physical components? Could sport be used for the same purpose, an act of worshiping God through the God-given desire to play and compete? Surely it could be, but usually it is not. Christianity today wants sports with a dash of Jesus, not Jesus with a dash of sports.

Greek and Olympic Sport

The first organizers of sport recognized this spiritual connection. The Greeks religious anthropomorphism cast sport as an activity pleasing to the gods since anything pleasing to humans pleased the gods.[6] Sports events often took place in conjunction with religious events, though some scholars have explained that in spite of the correlation, the link between sports and religion is more of a function of convenience rather than direct connection.[7] Perhaps this is true, but the spiritual connection between sports and the soul cannot be denied. Historically, it was convenient to hold athletic contests during religious events because of the large numbers of people who would be present. In the ancient world where most towns were small, large games like the Olympic Games required a gathering of many towns to hold an event. Some think of this time in sport as pure, the genuine athletic spirit that was devoid of the evils that so mar modern day sport. Is it true that this spiritual activity started out as pure and morphed into what now defines sport? Simply because something has spiritual connections to the human soul does not mean it is pure. In fact, that connection actually emphasizes the fact that athletes and sport culture are corrupted. As Mark Householder phrases so eloquently, “Both [sporting individuals and sport culture] are broken due to the Fall; both are in need of the redemption found at the Cross.”[8]

Many people have fallaciously believed that at the beginning of organized sport, athletes participated because they loved to compete and not because someone paid them to perform. They argue that today’s idea of professional athletes has taken sport away from its original purposes and ideals. In fact, as far back as the sixth century BC, there is undeniable evidence that athletes were paid large amounts for winning the Olympic and Isthmian Games. In fact, Athenian reformer Solon outlined that Athenian athletes who won the Olympic Games would be paid 500 drachmas, equal to about 500 days of work for the average skilled Athenian worker.[9] Anyone who is earning 500 times an average workers’ salary by winning an athletic event cannot possibly be considered an amateur athlete. Given the vast amounts of money that could be earned through athletic performance, it is hardly surprising that the Greeks struggled with corruptions within athletics. Stories about a boxer who bribed his opponents in order to win, a father who paid off another father so his son could gain victory, and a champion runner who was bribed to run for another city all sound like modern corruptions in sport.[10] In fact, each of these are a historical example of Greek corruptions.

The idea of amateurism in modern Olympic sport was developed around 1896 by Baron Pierre de Coubertin. Coubertin’s purpose in making amateurism an Olympic ideal was to encourage an atmosphere of class among the participants. To be an amateur was to be a gentleman. It is important to understand that this ideal of amateurism was not instituted to bring equality or fairness to sport. In reality, many of the participants who were able to compete in the Olympic games could only do so because they were from wealthy families.[11] For an athlete to keep an amateur status, he could not receive financial benefits from professional companies. It is clear that many people were not able to participate in the Olympics because they did not have the finances to do so. Amateurism was not instituted to create a level playing field but to elevate those who had the financial means to train and compete at a high level without needing the compensation for their time. Though most people do not think of this separatism when they think of amateur sports, the concept has deep roots in honoring the wealthy. The International Olympic Committee no longer abides by the amateurism charter from 1896, but many people see an ethical problem with allowing any professionals to compete in the Olympics. They often fail to realize that the return to amateurism would not be a return to sports origins but something else entirely, merely a different type of monster.

Roman Sport

As with so many other aspects of American life, much of modern sport reflects a heavy influence from the Roman perspective. While the Greeks viewed athletics as a celebration of the human body, the Romans viewed sport as a spectacle. The Romans were more interested in physical exercises than sports because of the emphasis on the Roman military.[12] The Romans adopted Greek athletic festivals and culture but with a very different purpose. Rome did an excellent job of absorption, adopting aspects of conquered cultures that she found beneficial. This occurred in the realm of Greek athletics; the Romans used athletics and Greek athletic culture primarily for its ability to entertain and amuse the populous. Gone were the days of competing in the nude to celebrate the human body and its graceful movements. Replacing this was a level of professionalism, specialization, bureaucratization, and secularism never before seen in sport.[13] These aspects of sport, though lost in some ways after the fall of Rome to barbarianism, show a level of continuity from the Roman view of sports to the modern view of sports.

In some ways, the chariot races of this era gave rise to spectator alliances similar to the ones seen in modern sport. Though the Greeks certainly exhibited passions not unlike modern sport spectators, chariot races, gladiatorial games, and other brutal Roman sports attracted a passionate and bloodthirsty crowd. The chariot races were exciting, colorful, and dangerous, the perfect spectator sport for the unruly Roman crowds. Baker describes, “…collisions frequently resulted in a frightful mangling of horses, chariots, and men. The massive crowd of spectators apparently loved it.”[14] The chariot racing teams were represented by colors, originally only the Reds and the Whites but then expanded to include the Blues, Greens, Golds and Purples. Eventually, the Blues and Greens became the only rivalry as the Golds and Purples disappeared and the Blues absorbed the Reds and the Greens absorbed the Whites.[15] As Schirato explains, “Spectatorial identification is clearly tied in with processes and notions about communal and collective identity, but what is most interesting about the Roman and Byzantine affiliations with racing team colours is the abstracted nature of that identification.”[16] In spite of this abstract identification, the passion of the spectators was intense. Victories could mean riots where buildings are burned, prisoners saved from execution, and large scale rebellion results. Ripples of this type of spectator intensity can no doubt be seen in incidents like the Malice at the Palace and other episodes of violence in modern sport. Even with the fall of Rome, the passion for the chariot races remained into the Middle Ages, carrying with it a level of expected violence and bureaucracy reflected in many modern sports.

Modern Sport

Some Christians believe that the world was created good, became bad, and is progressively getting better. Others believe that the world was created good, became bad, and is getting progressively worse. If Greek athletics were not more good, pure, and moral than modern sports, is it possible that sport culture is actually improving? A quick look around sport culture will indicate that this cannot be true either. Within every division of sport there are moral, ethical, and legal crimes committed regularly. In professional sport there are issues of doping and illegal drug use, player violence, fan-player violence, along with a plethora of issues related to athletes’ personal lives. Professional football, baseball, basketball, and hockey players are regularly charged with drunk driving, abusing their wives, girlfriends, and children, assault, illegal possession of a weapon, rape, and even murder. The local sports channel regularly has top stories about game fixing, spying on the opposing team’s practices, and various substance abuse situations. Names like Tonya Harding, Barry Bonds, and Tim Donaghy became famous for conspiring to harm a competitor, steroid use, and gambling rather than their sporting accomplishments. Unfortunately, professional athletes are not showing that athletics are becoming a better culture as time progresses.

In sports culture, as in any business or organization, leadership flows from the top down. Younger players look to older player to know what is expected of them and what the norms are for their sport. Crime within the collegiate ranks has increasingly become a regular headline story. In fact, CBS News and Sports Illustrated conducted criminal background checks on 2,837 football players, every player on the opening-day rosters for all 25 teams listed by Sports Illustrated at the top of their 2010 pre-season list.[17] Though not directly stated, this study was no doubt prompted by the rash of violent crimes committed in the late summer of 2010 by University of Pittsburgh football players. Two freshmen, a sophomore, and a senior were arrested for different instances of assault in unrelated incidents.[18] All four players were suspended for their actions.

The study found that 204 players were either arrested or cited by the police with a total of 277 incidents.[19] There were a variety of crimes on the list, from assault and battery to domestic violence to sex crimes to drug and alcohol crimes. About 40 percent of the crimes uncovered by the background checks were serious, a high percentage considering that most of the athletes were most likely 22 years old or younger. Although 200 athletes out of the 2,837 sampled is only about 7 percent, that small percent will often make the most noise and receive the most publicity. Crimes committed by athletes are quickly picked up by news outlets because of the popularity of sport in the United States. It must be noted that some of the players who have a history of arrests prior to college continue to commit crimes but others receive the opportunity to play college football as a gift and use it to gain an education and better themselves as people. Sadly, those players are not usually the ones covered in the nightly news. The fact remains that the world of athletics is no safe zone in terms of crime inside or outside of the game.

Greek Philosophy

Clearly unfairness within sport has existed since its beginning and there is no such thing as a “return to pure sport.” What is it about sport that entices corruption? Perhaps the problem is not with sport but with people who play sport. This will be further investigated in a later chapter but at present, we must realize that sport culture is no ally to Christianity. It was not at its inception and it continues not to be in current times. One interesting aspect about athletics and sport is that its birthplace is the same as the relativism that has become pervasive in postmodern society. Relativism and the idea of relative truth cannot be traced back to one source alone, especially because of the many types of relativists. However the Greeks had a profound effect on many areas of life including philosophy and athletics. Greek philosophers used athletics to teach philosophy because the two combined together to form the physical and the mental.[20] One of the founding fathers of relativism was Protagoras of Abdera, a Greek contemporary of Socrates in the fifth-century BC. Though others had made relativistic statements before his time, he is known as the first philosopher to speak about relativism definitively. He is most famous for his statement that “man… is the measure of all things, of the existence of things that are, and of the non-existence of things that are not….”[21] None of Protagoras’ work has survived, except fragments that were quoted in the works of others which did survive. The previous quotation is one such example, coming through Socratic dialogue recorded by Plato in Theaetetus. With the little context for this statement, one cannot know precisely what type of relativism is being defended; however it seems that Plato attributes to Protagoras the idea that truth “should be relativized to a framework or perspective,” a type of relativism known as alethic relativism.[22] Plato disputes this idea through the rest of the work, but one problem with relativism is that its goal is not to be proven.

The idea that relativism could be proven is quickly self-defeating because arguing for relativity means arguing that there is an absolute, that relativity is absolutely true. Because of this, “The best that a relativist could hope for – from within some reference frame – is to show that the absolutist program might be implausible, unlikely to succeed, issue hollow promises, or other such dissuasions.”[23] As a result, the relativistic argument has continued from the time of Socrates until today and will invariably continue until the end of time. Since its official introduction with Protagoras, relativism has gone through many philosophers who have refined, expounded, and defined more clearly its direction in postmodernity. In the late second and early third-centuries, skepticism which is defined as the “systematic doubt of all knowledge claims and justifications” also grew as a result of Greek thinking.[24] Skepticism during the time of the Greeks and Romans was often intertwined with relativism and though these have been clarified into separate philosophies, even today the thoughts of the average person blur these two ideas together.

Renaissance & Reformation

For several hundred years, thinking on relativism and skepticism was limited due to the rise and then dominance of the Church. But through the humanism that rose to prominence during the Renaissance, the West began to focus on man instead of God. This humanism brought mankind back into the center of the universe, the position Adam and Eve hoped to achieve in Genesis 3. It emphasized that men (women were not yet able to participate, though their time would come) were individuals, able to think independently and view things though their own eyes. The rebirth of classical literature, thoughts, and art brought with it several new avenues of thought. One of these was a renewed desire to read the Bible in its original language, a desire that led directly to Luther’s Reformation. The second was a revival of skepticism and relativism through the independence of human thought. By the late fifteenth and early sixteenth-century, the Church was ripe for such ideas.

Like every event, the Reformation did not spring from nowhere but rather had roots in many serious concerns about the Church. A complete explanation of the Reformation is outside the scope and purpose of this work, but a short survey is necessary in order to understand the roots of relativism within the Church. In the late fourteenth and early fifteen-century, men like John Wycliffe and John Hus, forerunners to Martin Luther and later John Calvin, raised concerns about the immorality of the clergy, the Church’s ownership of property, the glorification of the pope as head of the Church rather than Christ, and the view that the Church rather than the Bible was the sole authority for the Christian.[25] They saw the many ways the Church had strayed from biblical teaching and urged the Church to reform its practices in light of the Bible rather than tradition. In 1415 at the Council of Constance, about thirty years after his death by stroke, Wycliffe’s remains were exhumed, burned, and thrown into the river because of his heretical views. The council also ordered Hus to be burned at the stake for his refusal to recant. Though this Council and two others were held between 1409 and 1449, the Church failed to make significant reforms from within. In 1517 when Luther made his statement to the Catholic Church about the sale of indulgences through his 95 Theses, the Protestant movement officially began. Though Luther was not a humanist, it is undeniable that the renaissance of the time influenced his actions. He argued that “his only authority… would be neither the pope nor the church, but the Bible.”[26] Luther’s belief in sola scriptura, using the Bible as the only authority, was based in his understanding of the Bible as the inspired word of God, completely sufficient as such.

This summary is not intended to affirm or deny Luther’s statements or the Protestant Reformation, but rather to highlight the door that was opened to relativistic thought. Undoubtedly when Luther made his statement, the Church had left little option open to him because of the rampant corruption and desperate need for reform. However, Luther’s stand against the Church and on his interpretation of the Bible made it possible for many others to do the same, some with accurate interpretations and others with inaccurate interpretations. Notably, Luther was not the first to disagree with the established church leadership. The Great Schism of 1054 found two groups who disagreed so intensely that Christianity was divided into an Eastern and a Western branch. Out of these branches came the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church. Although both parties have sought reconciliation in the last millennia, the two churches have never reunited on a level that could be considered a real union. And of course, before and after the Great Schism, many individuals and groups have risen who objected to the Church’s interpretation of various scriptures and doctrines, the vast majority of whom were condemned as heretics. However, Luther and others during his time like John Calvin and Huldreich Zwingli did something that had never occurred in church history on this large of a scale; they asserted that their interpretation of the scriptures was equally valid to that of recognized church authority and encouraged their followers to interpret them individually as well. After Luther, many Christians have formed new Protestant denominations because of their interpretation of the Bible. For a visual representation of these denominations and dates of their inceptions, see Figure 1 below.[RZ1]

Figure 1. Family Tree of Denominations

Source: Rose Book of Bible Charts, Maps, and Time Lines (Torrance, CA: Rose, 2005), 179.

Source: Rose Book of Bible Charts, Maps, and Time Lines (Torrance, CA: Rose, 2005), 179.

One thing that should be noted is that for the first 1024 years of the Church, it was undivided. Many heresies rose and were quenched during this time, but the Church as a whole stood united. The Great Schism occurred and it was another 500 years before another significant division took place. At that point, division became commonplace, with the above figure showing no less than 32 different denominations that exist today. Of course this is a very incomplete list, with the World Christian Encyclopedia counting over 33,800 denominations.[27] Clearly Luther’s statement in 1517 had significant reverberations through the Church, signaling to believers everywhere that individual interpretations are welcome.


[1] Eccl. 1:9.

[2] Henry Ford, Chicago Tribune (1916).

[3] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity: a revised and amplified edition, with a new introduction, of the three books, Broadcast talks, Christian behavior, and Beyond personality, ed. HarperCollins (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001), 49.

[4] Allen Guttmann, From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports (New York, Columbia University Press, 1978), 11.

[5] Harold A. Harris, Sports in Greece and Rome (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1972), 15.

[6] Harris, Sports in Greece and Rome, 16.

[7] Ibid., 16-17.

[8] Mark Householder, “Amen, and a Foul,” Christianity Today, February 2010, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/february/5.26.html (accessed March 4, 2011).

[9] Plutarch, The Rise and Fall of Athens, trans. Ian Scott-Kilvert (New York: Penguin, 1960), 65.

[10] James G. Thompson, “The Intrusion of Corruption into Athletics: An Age-Old Problem,” The Journal of General Education 38 no. 2 (1986): 148-150 (144-153), in JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27797065 (accessed March 7, 2011)

[11] Richard Grenier, “Olympic Myths,” National Review 48 no. 14 (July 29, 1996): 52-53, in Academic Search Premier, http://teach.belmont.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=9607167705&site=ehost-live (accessed March 7, 2011).

[12] Allen Guttmann, Sports Spectators (New York, Columbia University Press, 1986), 19.

[13] Tony Schirato, Understanding Sports Culture (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2007), 30-31.

[14] William J. Baker, Sports in the Western World, rev. ed. (Urbana, IL: Illinios University Press, 1988), 32.

[15] Harris, Sport in Greece and Rome, 194.

[16] Schirato, Understanding Sports Culture, 31.

[17] Armen Keteyian, “Out of Bounds,” CBS Evening News, March 2, 2011, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/03/02/eveningnews/main20038475.shtml (accessed March 7, 2011).

[18] Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian, “College Football and Crime,” SI.com, March 2, 2011, http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2011/writers/the_bonus/02/27/cfb.crime/index.html (accessed March 7, 2011).

[19] Ibid.

[20] Debra Hawhee, “Bodily Pedagogies: Rhetoric, Athletics, and the Sophists’ Three Rs,” College English 65 no. 2 (November, 2002), 142-162, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3250760.pdf (accessed March 7, 2011).

[21] Plato, Theaetetus, trans. Benjamin Jowett (Project Gutenberg, 2008), produced by Sue Asscher and David Widger, Kindle eBook from Project Gutenberg, locations 1596-99.

[22] Maria Baghramian, “A Brief History of Relativism,” in Relativism: A Contemporary Anthology, ed. Michael Krausz, 33. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

[23] Michael Krausz, “Mapping Relativisms,” in Relativism: A Contemporary Anthology, ed. Michael Krausz, 14. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

[24] Encyclopedia of Ethics, consulting ed. Susan Neiburg Terkel and ed. R. Shannon Duval (New York: Facts on File, 1999), s.v. “Skepticism.”

[25] Earle E. Cairns, Christianity through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church, 2nd rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982), 251-256.

[26] Ibid, 291.

[27] World Christian Encyclopedia: a comparative survey of churches and religions in the modern world, 2nd ed., ed. David B. Barrett, George T. Kurian, and Todd M. Johnson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001). NEED TO FIND SECTION


[RZ1]Make sure this says “next page” or “below” things change.

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