Monday, April 16, 2012

Review: The Holy Trinity of American Sports by C. Forney

      I dig books on language and explorations of how language influences our thinking in daily life. So when in the course of my daily toil I came across The Holy Trinity of American Sports: Civil Religion in Football, Baseball and Basketball by Craig A. Forney I was intrigued. When the first sentence read at random was "Extraordinary gifts of marriage call for gift of a stone in the shape of a baseball park" I was hooked. Unfortunately that hooked feeling didn't last long.
  Forney takes three institution of sport in America, football, basketball and baseball and examine the linguistic and societal connection to civil religion. He has some really good observations, especially along the lines of metaphor in sport and the language of civil religion. Forney notes references to LeBron James as "the One"..."apparently the savior of play on the hardwood." (p. 2) Also dimensions of religion such as ritual, sacred stories, doctrine, ethics (daily practice), social interactions and dimensions of experience. (p. 4-5) Each one of these dimensions, he rightly points out, has direct parallel and/or links to the world of any one of "Big Three". Forney does a good job pointing out each one of the sports' reliance or dependence on the spoken word. (p. 36-37) He recognizes the role that language and identification plays in each one of these sports, both for the players and the fans.
There are, however, several rather significant shortcomings to this book . The least subjective shortcoming is that the book reads like a poorly edited grouping of redundant conference papers. There are several sentences missing key words throughout the book. While the repetition of ideas is necessary to making or driving a point home, the repeated ideas in this book become tedious as they are often repeated verbatim in various sections throughout the book.
The most objectionable part of this book come when Forney begins to develop that these three sports represent. For ease of example, and brevity, I've chosen baseball. For example "Baseball illustrates the American mythology of unlimited freedom to come." (p. 71) "Baseball expresses the American expectation of immanent truth to come, ideal time of finding abundant understanding from within the commonplace." (p. 110) Finally, "Baseball expresses the American aspiration for a future of manifold benefit from divine forces." (p. 118) I would have less issue with these assertions if there were adequate support via observation or research. There is no research, as second/supporting opinion, and the observed support is less than convincing. For example, Forney makes mention of pitching "...seemingly aided by some invisible force." (p. 118) Also, "outfielders sprint and leap in full extension to rob the opportunity of an apparent base hit, enacting an almost miraculous turn of fate." (p. 119) The book has a large number of these types of statements, extending to basketball and football as well. I'm not sure if it's my failure to look at baseball more holistically or at a deeper level but in my watching and talking about baseball there was never/has not been a sense that anything outside of the the players was motivating their actions.
This type of analysis bothers me on three levels. One, it reads like the Freudian or literary pscyhoanalysis that literary criticism took which makes sweeping assumptions about the author based upon very loose readings of the text with very little to support these assertions other than authorial conjecture. These sentences quoted above, and others reflect this type of extremely loose reading of the text/sport.
Secondly, this analysis fails to take into account that sometime the game is just a game. Players do seemingly amazing things because it is their job which is to stop the ball or hit the home run enough times to win the game. This book fails to engage with the many millions of dollars that are paid to players in an effort to entice them to more championships and better results. 
Third, even thought it is possible to observe or read a particular set of ideas from a unique event, or in this case sport(s), does that mean it is a correct reading? I'm not convinced that Forney is able to fully engage his reading of sport with convincing arguments based upon his own observation. There is less argument for his view point and more of a categorical statement of act. To give the kind of credence to baseball, in the examples above, also fails to taken into example the rulebook which governs what type of play is deemed admissible or incorrect. I also question if these aspects of baseball are observable at this point, does this mean that this what the founders of the game had in mind?
     Forney makes excellent points in comparison of civil religion, language and sport at the beginning of this book. There are many cross-overs between how many fans approach sports and the manner in which civil religion is discussed.
The end result is that this book has a good premise but finishes rather poorly. Forney fails, in my opinion, to consistently demonstrate how sports draws upon the language and practice of civil religion. What could have been a good idea is lost to abstract assertions that lack the foundation of solid argument or research to convince the reader of their efficacy.