Lessons from Cleveland's Religious Devotion to Its Teams

Lessons from Cleveland's Religious Devotion to Its Teams

As the Cleveland Cavalier organization raised their championship banner above Quickens Loan Arena to inaugurate this NBA season, every Clevelander—and any sports fan who simply appreciates the improbable—were reminded of the scene last June that birthed this event.

The drama that played out in my living room that night as Game Seven of the NBA Finals ended replicated itself in living rooms around the world, in any room hosting fans with Cleveland roots—a combination of bedlam, exhaustion, relief.

As my phone blew up with texts from friends and family, I genuinely felt relief for every Clevelander who carried the decades-long burden of loss with them in a way difficult to separate from self. With no disrespect to the plight of discouraged Golden State folks, decades of sports agony were avenged last June by the conclusion of that game, and one corner of the country desperately needed it to happen.

The Plight of the Cleveland Sports Fan

Whether you can empathize with the Cleveland sports fan’s journey or not, know this as a point of knowlege: constant frustration and failure from the teams that represent one’s city play upon the communal soul over time, an effect that pokes at you even if you don’t care that much about sports.

As someone who grew up in Northeast Ohio, I know that Clevelanders never wanted pity, they just wanted the boulder of failure permanently moved instead of having it roll back over them season after season. Game Seven finally got it off the community in one emotional night.

Silly as it seems, being nationally mocked as a city produces a burden on its citizens not unlike bullying in the schoolyard—it shakes confidence, produces a certain level of defensiveness, and a desire to fight back against the world.

We can tell the kid whose glasses just got knocked off to toughen up and get over it, but after years of broken lenses it’s hard to stand on equal legs amidst your peers.

Winning the championship doesn’t erase the past 52 years but it allows the city to hit reset, to no longer be “that city,” the one constantly mentioned as not having won a major championship since the Beatles arrived in America.

It allows the city to exhale and step across the line separating those who have won as an urban center from the handful who have not. So, good for Cleveland and for all of us around the world who consider ourselves an extension of that city.

But reflection on the emotion surrounding last night’s game calls attention to an alarming trend worth thinking about in detail.

Legitimate Concerns for Christians Paying Attention

Plenty has been written today arguing that sports operate “religiously” in the lives of those who pay attention to them.

It’s easy to draw parallels between sport and traditional religion that allow for such words as “savior,” “redemption,” and “witness” to be applied to a player like LeBron James. But today teams function religiously at a much more personal level than simple word play like this.

They actually fill a void previously filled by church attendance and the experience of being a church member. With the decline of institutional religion as an influential reality in communities across America, a key component of human development and one of the primary areas that Christian education used to fill—identity formation—has been taken over by sport culture.

ESPN Shapes Our Identity Formation More Than the Pulpit

People used to go to church. While at church they were taught how to think about themselves in relationship to God, others, and the created world.

But with the decline of church attendance for a majority of our culture and the decline of theological teaching regarding humanity within the churches that many attend, most of us as Americans turn to popular culture to measure our standing in the world, to understand key components of our “selves.”

Today people play and watch games far more than they go to church. So it makes sense that sports are shaping our identity far more than Christian theology. Sports aren’t just for play or for an entertainment diversion anymore—sports help us figure out who we are, both as players and as fans.

For example, for most people who follow sports, ESPN shapes thinking about gender identity far more than any Christian preacher or theological book we can name. The network shapes what success looks like for an individual, how we should treat one another, what we affirm as leadership, and many other aspects of being human.

Sports in general and the specific teams we align ourselves with not only communicate a vision of ourselves, but also a vision of how to journey through the world. Strange as it may seem, today organized sports teams leverage significant influence on individuals because organized Christianity does not.

Here are five identity issues that the church needs to reclaim from sports devotion, as seen through the window of Cleveland sports fandom:

Our need to derive core identity from Christ

Clevelanders see their professional sports teams as a projection of themselves and vice versa. The teams represent the land they live on, and the fans expect the players to live out values consistent with a Northeast Ohio ethic. They see the teams as themselves and themselves as a projection of the team. Sociologists would call Cleveland fans “highly identified”; that is, when talking with a Clevelander, it sounds as though his/her identity meshes significantly with the teams. This is partially why emotions run so high with wins and losses.
One of the most significant teachings in the church should be our need to trade in our worldly identities for an identity in Christ. There’s nothing wrong with deriving a strong sense of identity from racial background, from one’s gender perspective, from one’s place of origin, even from one’s teams, but following Christ demands that all these become secondary in how we view ourselves.

As Paul asserted in Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). When we surrender to the Cross, our worldly identity—which necessarily stays with us in this life—gets enveloped into a much larger and different identity in Christ.

Our need to re-tell the stories of Christian faith

Clevelanders pass on the history of their teams from generation to generation. They talk about players and teams they heard about from their parents but never actually watched play. They talk about games they attended in person, where they were when certain plays were made or endings took place.

In this way, each generation of kids gets indoctrinated into the significant players, the teams, the games, the series that will make up their collective memory and inherited tradition.

We have a biblical history that is increasingly disappearing—not just from general society, but even among those who claim Christianity for their heritage. We need to share and teach on the people and stories preserved in the Bible. We need to introduce our kids to significant Christians in our own lives, significant moments when God showed up, points of faith that brought us to the moment we currently inhabit.

Our need to embrace emotion and feeling

Cleveland fans are bonded by feeling together, what sociologists call “collective effervescence.” While watching a game together either in person or at a bar or in someone’s house, they (like all fans) experience huge swings of emotions and feeling together—high highs and low lows. These feelings combine with their rational interaction with the game to form an overall experience that bonds them together and leads them to want it again.

Some denominations emphasize reason over emotion. Some are so emotional there’s no room to think. What would it look like to combine thinking with feeling, to not let our background allow us to neglect one side or another of these equally important parts of being human? Experience rules in today’s social economy, and while we shouldn’t sell out to the demands of reality TV, there’s no reason to ignore a very important aspect of being human by denying the emotional side of life in the context of worship.

Our need to connect with suffering

Suffering galvanizes a people together in ways that success does not. Though any losing fan base would be happy to trade their emotional travails, suffering even over a sports team bonds a people together, strengthens their resolve, energizes their ability to persist in the face of hardship.

Christianity flourishes among people in their suffering. One of the great perversions of the faith in our age involves equating Christian discipleship with the expectation of worldly success. Instead, “do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” We don’t need to go looking for pain in life, but could it be that our desire to avoid suffering at all costs—both in our own and others’ lives—removes a critical strengthening component necessary to a vibrant faith.

Our need to be clear about the values and ethics that define us

Loyalty. Blue collar. No complaining. Do your job. These words and ideas make up the Cleveland psyche in a way that gets handed down through both words and actions by Clevelanders. It’s not that everyone lives these out perfectly or that they are shared with equal passion amongst everyone, but they certainly characterize the ethos of the area and are expected among those who come from it.

What are the words that characterize the Christian life? Discipleship. Service. Love. Peace that surpasses understanding. Self-control. The fruits of a life lived while connected to Christ the vine. Instead of focusing primarily on what we are against as a people of faith, what do we strive to live out? What words do we value and want to have characterize us as a people? These words need to be talked about, held up, celebrated. They cannot be assumed.

A Way Forward

For Clevelanders, a handful of powerful commitments galvanize people to the teams in a way that transcends their entertainment function alone. These commitments have their parallel within the Christian faith, and if we want our connection to Christ to trump alignment to anything in this world, we should be intentional about incorporating the Christian version of these into our lives and the lives of those we care about in Christ.