Tapestry

Sports as religion: Saskatchewan's Rider Nation and their devotion to the game

Over the years, the Saskatchewan Roughriders have built one of the most loyal and devoted fan bases in the CFL. Speaking to Tapestry host Mary Hynes, Saskatoon professor Chris Hrynkow makes the case for why football fandom in the province could be considered a "civil religion."

Saskatoon professor Chris Hyrnkow says football fandom in Saskatchewan could be considered a civil religion.

Religion professor Chris Hrynkow makes the case that football fandom in Saskatchewan could be considered a civil religion (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch)
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Many sports fans take their love of the game very seriously. And for some, that translates into an almost religious devotion to the team they support. 

Take for instance, Saskatchewan Roughriders fans.

Over a century old, the football team has won four Grey Cup Championships and amassed innumerable fans from countries across the world.

One megafan Lance Hackewich, has an entire shrine dedicated to the Roughriders his Regina home. 

From helmets to signed cleats to a suite of novelty items that could easily rival any gift shop, he takes his devotion to the team very seriously. 

Another Riders superfan loved the team so much, he had their symbol tattooed onto his prosthetic eye.

In 2009, Rider Nation even caused a surge in demand for watermelons in Calgary, when they descended on the city for a Grey Cup game.

The fruity "helmets" are an essential part of Roughriders culture.

Saskatchewan Roughriders fans can usually be found wearing their traditional watermelon "helmets". (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Thornhill)

And this doesn't just happen in Saskatchewan. From Mexico to Australia, fans have been seen showcasing their Rider pride in stadiums across the world.

And according to Chris Hrynkow, professor of religion at Saint Thomas More College in Saskatoon, this kind of devoutness to sports fandom can be explained by what's known as "civil religion." 

Here, he is referring to the parts of our daily lives that can be likened to a religion, or the idea of bringing people together through shared beliefs, experiences and rituals.

And just like a religion with weekly services, sports fans have recurring opportunities to express their devotion throughout a season.

Hrynkow said there are a number of other ways that being a sports fan can become kind of a religion.

Devotion

After moving to Saskatchewan in 2011, Hrynkow said he was struck by the values that are often attached to being a 'Rider's fan.

"One of the greatest Saskatchewan historians, talks about how during the Depression, people had real faith in the land, even though it wasn't producing well. [They believed] that it would come back and it would still be bountiful and give them a harvest," Hrynkow explained.

He said Roughriders fans regard their team with a similar optimism.

Just like the farmers who believed in the land despite poor harvests, Riders fans maintain their faith during the years their team does badly, "and then [have] these sort of moments of deliverance of redemption when they do well," he said. 

A far cry from his early years living in Montreal, Hrynkow says he was struck by how much the Riders fans seem to draw positive energy when their team does well, but still stick with them when they do poorly.

After losing a Grey Cup game, a crowd of cheering Riders fans welcomed the team at Mosaic Stadium. ((Troy Fleece/Canadian Press))

Evangelizing

Hrynkow says sports fandom is also similar to religion in the way that sports fans try to bring people into the fold.

Saint Thomas More College, where Hrynkow works, recently sponsored a Syrian refugee who is Muslim. 

"When we were setting him up, [a lot of people] gave him Riders gear as sort of a way to welcome him to the province," he said.

"It's kind of like evangelizing in that way."

And, as he points out, even the Catholic community who sponsored him were more concerned about what CFL team he was going to support than where he'd be worshipping. 

"No one would say, you know, we really want you to become Catholic, but I think they really wanted him to become a Riders fan."

Stadium as holy site or temple

Hrynkow says some stadiums and sports arenas can become ad hoc holy sites.

"The classic example where I grew up in Montreal would be like the Montreal Forum, and that was a place of pilgrimage," he said. "[As] schoolchildren you're brought there, you're told the history."

For the Roughriders, that holy site is the Mosaic Stadium in Regina. The 33,000-seater is an open-air stadium that the Riders call home.

Pilgrimage

If the stadium is a holy site, then it follows that the trek to get there can become something of a pilgrimage.

"[It's] the idea of people making the effort to go to the place [just] to have that experience," he said.

And that assumption is right, especially when you consider the lengths that many sports fans will go to to make sure they get to see their favorite team in the flesh.

"Here in Saskatchewan, people come from all around the province, and even expatriates come from further afield to go to Regina to see the Riders play."

Rituals

Many athletes practice rituals that they hope will either motivate them or give them some kind of luck in the game.

"They feel if they don't practice those rituals properly before they enter the ice, or enter the arena, then their game might go poorly," Hrynkow said.

But it's not just athletes who have rituals, Hrynkow said. The fans do too. 

"[They] seem to believe also that certain actions that they do can affect the outcome of the actual sporting event, which is kind of interesting," he said.

Watermelon helmet anyone?