Religion and Sport: Differences in the US and Germany

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Religion has long been mixed with American sports. If you watch enough post-game interviews, you will likely here an athlete bring up God in some way.

Is the mix between sport and religion a universal phenomenon? And if so, how do the media respond? Two researchers, Michael Butterworth, from Ohio University, and Karsten Senkbeil, from the University of Hildescheim in Germany, examined these very questions. They focused on the two most popular sports in their respective countries: American football and soccer.  

Germany and the US serve as good comparison, as citizens in both value their religious beliefs. Religious artifacts are symbols are mainstays in both societies. And, in both Germany and the US, Christianity is the dominant religion.

While the US and Germany might align in the broader perspectives of religion, the researchers observed stark differences in the mix between religion and sport.

In the US, religiosity is associated with high moral fiber. Athletes are encouraged to discuss their religious beliefs. When they do, they are thought to be better leaders on the field and good citizens off the field.

The same is not true in Germany, however. In this setting, religiosity is considered incidental to good character. Unlike in the US, German athletes are encouraged to keep their religious beliefs private. When they do make such professions, the media are skeptical and they cast athletic success as something achieved in spite of—not because of—their beliefs.

Findings from this analysis show that the mix between religion and sport is not necessarily similar across settings. Rather, cultural norms and expectations shape how people respond to public professions of faith—at least when such proclamations are done on the playing field.