‘Gospel’ connects sports figures with religious ones

Emily Arthur

Rarely do sports and religion get mentioned in the same sentence, let alone get tied together. But in “The Gospel According to ESPN: Saints, Saviors & Sinners,” a group of respected authors use an illustrated collection of essays to examine whether sports might be the nearest thing to a universal religion our society has.

The book, edited by Jay Lovinger, offers a look at some of the leading sports figures throughout time by comparing them to the gods, the prophets, the saints, the saviors and the sinners who form the core of most faiths.

Authors like George Plimpton, Robert Lipsyte, Peter Carlson, Ralph Wiley, Le Anne Schreiber and Hunter S. Thompson profile sports stars such as Vince Lombardi, Magic Johnson, Bobby Knight and Muhammad Ali. The writers discuss the athletes’ position in society and how we worship them.

Photographs, illustrations, cartoon strips and editorial cartoons, as well as well-thought-out sidebars “best and worst” listings, paint vivid pictures aiding in the readers’ fascination with the stories.

In the introduction, Thompson asks the question “Is sports a religion in America?” and promptly answers it with a “yes.”

He proceeds with the question “Is it an organized religion?” and follows with the answer, “No. It does not appear to be organized — but if it were, we would all be members of a very powerful church. We would be a political majority in the U.S.A.”

The entire book is designed to tell the stories of players, coaches and other sports figures fans grew up either loving or hating, but does so by comparing those same people to prophets, fallen angels, saints, saviors and gods.

For example, Schreiber profiles “Iowa’s Golden Boy,” Nile Kinnick, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1939. Kinnick played at the University of Iowa before enlisting in the Naval Air Corps Reserve.

He ended up being killed a short time later during a practice flight.

Schreiber takes readers through the life of Kinnick, from when he was just a small boy to when he was killed serving his country.

Kinnick’s life is also discussed on the level of what he meant to the University of Iowa, as well as the rest of the state, and the author compares the fullback to a saint. Sixteen pages are devoted to the boy “the nation honored, but Iowans worshipped.”

The athletes and coaches featured aren’t just featured for their athletic accomplishments, but for what they meant to their towns, cities, states and countries — and more importantly, what they meant to their fans.

The hardcover sells for $40 and is set to be released today by Hyperion Books.

Designed to follow the success of the New York Times bestseller “ESPN SportsCentury,” the book acts as SportsCentury’s biographical counterpart.

The 245 pages may be a bit long, but the text isn’t one a reader would pore over in one sitting. Rather, it’s one that would be better off placed on a coffee table to pick up and flip through as time allowed.

“The Gospel According to ESPN: Saints, Saviors & Sinners” is the perfect book for the devoted sports fan who wants more than just the scores and highlights.