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  • Writer's pictureLindsey Max

Sports Can Be Religious Experience

Photo credit: Jacquelyn Martin/AP. Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup in 2018.

I grew up as a huge fan of the Washington Capitals NHL franchise, and after four decades of failure the team finally won its first-ever Stanley Cup championship two years ago, on Thursday June 7, 2018. 

On Saturday, the National Hockey League will resume its interrupted 2020 season, which has led me to reflect on that historic victory and how it was nothing short of a religious experience. Here’s why.

One of my favorite things that I learned while studying religion in college was that when you try to create a singular, all-inclusive definition of “religion,” it ends up having to be so broad that it can define a variety of other things that we don’t typically recognize as religious.

Often in religious studies, the comparison is made to sports fandoms. Similar to, say, a church, visitors go to a specific building, often wear particular clothes, engage in group chants or prayers, and strangers become united in a singular goal or cause. For an outsider who has never witnessed a sporting event, it is likely they might misinterpret the event as “religious.” 

Many scholars have tried to pinpoint the essence of religion. For sociologist Emile Durkheim, religion boils down to what he terms “collective effervescence.” The night the Capitals clinched the title, the citizens of Washington, D.C., exemplified this experience.

“Collective effervescence” describes what happens when a group of people come together and express a shared thought and participate in a shared action. This experience excites participants and serves to unify the group.

People may joke that what happened in D.C. that week was a religious experience, but they are not wrong. Never in my lifetime have I experienced something that so completely embodied the definition of collective effervescence as I did that night outside Capital One Arena.

The sense of community throughout the city had never been stronger. We prayed together. We chanted together. Strangers became family, and the players became our gods. For those of us who have followed this team for a lifetime, and faced many heartbreaks in the process, the night the Capitals won was nothing short of miraculous.

I do not write this to sound sacrilegious, but rather to broaden our understanding of what the concept of “religion” can include. After four years of religious studies at Emory University, I feel safe in asserting that during that two-month playoff run two years ago, and on the final night in particular, I underwent a true religious experience.


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