Passion Plays

How Religion Shaped Sports in North America

By Randall Balmer

192 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 30 halftones, 2 maps, notes, index

  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-7006-5
    Published: September 2022
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-7007-2
    Published: August 2022
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-6122-1
    Published: August 2022

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Randall Balmer was a late convert to sports talk radio, but he quickly became addicted, just like millions of other devoted American sports fans. As a historian of religion, the more he listened, Balmer couldn't help but wonder how the fervor he heard related to religious practice. Houses of worship once railed against Sabbath-busting sports events, but today most willingly accommodate Super Bowl Sunday. On the other hand, basketball's inventor, James Naismith, was an ardent follower of Muscular Christianity and believed the game would help develop religious character. But today those religious roots are largely forgotten.

Here one of our most insightful writers on American religion trains his focus on that other great passion—team sports—to reveal their surprising connections. From baseball to basketball and football to ice hockey, Balmer explores the origins and histories of big-time sports from the late nineteenth century to the present, with entertaining anecdotes and fresh insights into their ties to religious life. Referring to Notre Dame football, the Catholic Sun called its fandom "a kind of sacramental." Legions of sports fans reading Passion Plays will recognize exactly what that means.

About the Author

Randall Balmer is a prize-winning historian, leading public commentator on religion, and author of more than dozen books. He holds the John Phillips Chair in Religion at Dartmouth College.
For more information about Randall Balmer, visit the Author Page.


“This entertaining history examines the religious and cultural roots of baseball, basketball, football, and hockey . . . . The illuminating insights into how sports reflect the historical periods and communities in which they developed will change how fans see the games. This one is a winner.”—Publishers Weekly

"An engaging look at the historical conditions surrounding America’s secular, on-field religions."—Kirkus Reviews

"Compelling and absorbing...a lively introduction to the historical origins of the sports that we watch and play, while also inviting deeper reflection into the relationship between our religious practices, our sporting devotions, and the social worlds that we share with others...Balmer’s posture is one of wonder and curiosity as he revels in the potential implications of his findings. It’s that journeying spirit and the strength of Balmer’s clear and accessible writing that make this book shine."—Christianity Today

“[Passion Plays] does what no other sports book has ever done — that is, connect the rituals of modern sport and trace them back to American society’s religious roots. Whether you prefer a home run, touchdown, goal or basket, Balmer definitely scores with this book and you will too if you take the time to read it."—Religion Unplugged

"Recommended . . . . Well written and includes fascinating examples of the close connections between team sport and religion in shaping American values, beliefs, and manly behavior."—CHOICE

"Randall Balmer offers a rich, wide-ranging take on the relationship between religion and sports in a relatively slim volume. . . . effective and compelling. . . .engages with the various social, political, and economic factors that contribute to our understanding of sports culture and American culture at large."—Mihee Kim-Kort, Reading Religion